David Attenborough Observes A Natural World In Crisis
If you were to make a list of celebrities of the natural world, Sir David Attenborough would most likely make the cut. You probably know him from television series such as Life on Earth, The Secret Life of Plants, Living Planet, and so many more.
Now, at age 94, he’s written a new book, A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and Vision for the Future, and filmed an accompanying Netflix documentary. The book and film talk about the changes to the natural world in the time he’s been alive—from overfishing, to deforestation, to climate change—and urge us to adopt a more sustainable future.
David Attenborough and BBC producer and science writer Jonnie Hughes join Ira to talk about the challenges the world is facing today, and steps we can take toward sustainability. Read an excerpt of Attenborough’s new book.
Sir David Attenborough is a naturalist and broadcaster, and is co-author of A Life On Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision For The Future (Grand Central Publishing, 2020). He’s based in Bristol, UK.
Jonnie Hughes is a science writer and producer and co-author of A Life On Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision For The Future (Grand Central Publishing, 2020). He’s based in London, UK.
IRA FLATOW: When you make a list of celebrities of the natural world, Sir David Attenborough would most likely make the cut. You know him from series such as Life on Earth and Living Planet, and so many more. He was named among the 100 Greatest Britons, and now, at age 94, a new book, A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and Vision for the Future, published by Grand Central Publishing.
And as an extra added bonus, there’s an accompanying Netflix documentary. Sir David joins me, along with science writer and director Jonnie Hughes, co-author of the book, co-director of the documentary. Welcome, both of you, to Science Friday.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Thank you very much.
JONNIE HUGHES: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: So David, you’ve been observing the natural world for 94 years now and chronicling its changes. Give us an idea of what are some of the most important changes that you have seen.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Well, of course if you really want to look at planetary change, you have to generalize. It’s very dangerous just to look at one particular place and say, there you are, that’s the result of global warming, whatever. But there was one moment I was absolutely sure that what I was seeing was global warming. And that was a dead coral reef, bleached white because of the rising temperatures.
And it was a reef which I happen to know, I’d been swimming on in previous years. So I knew how glorious it was. And then you go over the side of the boat and look around, and there’s nothing but white coral and no fish or very few fish. That was death in the ocean.
And that was the first time that I could really honestly say that I knew global warming had come. Of course intellectually, one had been perfectly well-aware of the other things because you look at graphs and you looked at statistics and you look at maps, and you know. But that was it, in a very vivid and uncompromising way.
IRA FLATOW: I know we’re talking about the climate crisis, and that is certainly an indication of it. But you say that the climate is only part of a crisis that we’re facing.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Well, of course it started—awareness of it started, as far as I was concerned, back in the ’60s and ’70s, I suppose, when one was becoming aware of the loss of species, that the numbers of animals in Africa had been diminishing since the 19th century, and now some of them were disappearing altogether, or at least from where one was watching, they weren’t there anymore. I suppose that was the first time that you began to start thinking about the fact that humanity had already exterminated dodos and things of that kind, which you thought was a historical accident. And then suddenly, we began to realize that species loss was only one small aspect of it. And then you suddenly began to learn statistics about the warming of the oceans and the warming of the climate and carbon dioxide and so on.
And suddenly, you realized this was not– or at least suddenly, the public at large realized this wasn’t just naturalists getting concerned because they never saw an animal of which they happened to be particularly fond. It wasn’t a quirky thing. It wasn’t a specialist thing. It was a global thing. And that’s a profound realization.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I’ll bet it was. Jonnie Hughes, in the book, you talk about the classic demonstration of bacteria in a Petri dish growing slowly until they’ve worked out the challenges of how to best exploit the resources there, and then rapidly expanding. Has humanity solved its challenges too well, do you think?
JONNIE HUGHES: Well, certainly, some of them. And yeah, I think it is apt. It might be a little bit too clean a parallel. But we’ve certainly overcome a lot of the challenges we’ve faced in terms of our existence, and how.
We’ve managed to massively increase and improve our ability to produce food for ourselves and keep ourselves safe and operate in different environments. And it’s led to a point where, well, just like the bacteria, in fact, in the Petri dish in the lab, we become unrestricted, and are able to not only multiply, but also consume more, each of us individually. And that’s been the trend. And I guess what we’ve seen in the latter half of the 20th century, the graphs, as David referred to, it doesn’t matter what you look at, whether you look at extent of deforestation or food production yields or amount of fishing or consumption of fossil fuels, the graph shoots up. It goes, well, exponential in most cases.
And that’s very similar to the growth of bacteria when they crack how to live on a particular food source. And of course that carries on until they get to the edge of the Petri dish. And I guess what we’re seeing now with the collapse of planetary systems is that the planet is our Petri dish, and we’ve got to the edge of it.
IRA FLATOW: We have to take a break. We’ll be back with more of Sir David Attenborough and Jonnie Hughes in a moment. Stay with us.
This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking with Sir David Attenborough and science writer Jonnie Hughes about their new book and Netflix documentary, A Life on Our Planet. So David, in the book, you intersperse some moments from your own career as a broadcaster, like the story of your encounter with the gorillas Dian Fossey was studying. Tell us about that, please.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: That was for a series called Life on Earth, which you referred to. And I wanted to make the point about the opposable thumb, and the fact that the opposable forefinger and thumb, which gave you a grip, which you had to do if you were a primate climbing around in trees and trying to pluck fruit and leaves, how that could equally well be used for holding tools. And once you could hold tools, well, you could hold a pen, and so on. So that was the hinge moment when the pathway to humanity was clear.
And I thought, well, we must think of an ape that we could do that. And I thought we’d do it with chimpanzees, actually. But the producer of concern said, no we could do it with—chimps are all very well, but gorillas are, very few people have seen them in film filmed in the wild. And I had this extraordinary American scientist who had habituated some.
And I said, she’ll never allow us to come there. No, you wouldn’t want, if you were a scientist, you wouldn’t want anyone. But he wrote, and she welcomed us. And so we were able to do what we wanted to do because she had habituated them, though she was very ill at the time, and couldn’t come with us.
And I crawled into position whereby I got a gorilla behind me or some distance behind me. And they were doing what I wanted them to do, with the opposable thumb. And we were doing fine. And I had just positioned myself to speak.
And suddenly, I had a hand come on the top of my head, and a big, heavy hand. And then a huge black finger came along, opened my mouth, pushed into my finger, and pushed my lower jaw down, and looked inside my mouth. And this was an immense female gorilla. And all thoughts of the opposable thumbs disappeared rather quickly.
And I actually, I mean, I was in paradise, really. It was delirium. It was an extraordinary privilege, though, because and not for one microsecond was I concerned about safety. Because she was clearly, clearly amiable, gentle, and merely interested to see me. And I lay back and she investigated my face and one thing and another.
And then I felt a weight on my feet. And there were her little babies, two of them. And they started undoing my shoes. And I couldn’t talk about the opposable thumb then either. And eventually, they crawled away.
And how long it was, I really don’t know. But I would think it was, oh, 5, 10 minutes. But it was in paradise. And I was so emotionally exhausted as a consequence of it, I simply couldn’t go on doing anything else. And I crawled back to the crew.
And they had actually laid off filming because they didn’t know how much film they’d got on the machine at the time, on the camera. And so they’d only got about, I don’t know, couple of minutes of what was, I think, about at least 10. But it was a moment of profound importance in my life privately, but it was also, of course, a huge sensation when it was shown on television. It’s commonplace now, but it wasn’t then.
IRA FLATOW: You have been to so many places and seen so many things. Are there ones that stand out to you like this one, another one, more than all the rest?
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: That’s the one, really. That is the one. But there are lots of others.
I mean, you go to the Galapagos. Well, thousands of people go to Galapagos. But each of us, I think, who go there find it absolutely breathtaking, that you can sit alongside birds that are not in the least frightened of you, sitting with nesting birds. And it’s heaven for a filmmaker because they just sit there, let you film. But also, swimming with marine iguanas is an extraordinary sensation, and with seals, or sea lions, rather, with those Galapagos tameness, is also an unforgettable experience.
IRA FLATOW: I was interested in the beginning of your film, where you open up in a desolate school in Chernobyl. That must have been really scary.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Yes and no.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah?
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Yes and no. Because it wasn’t deserted. There were a lot of green things there. There weren’t a lot of birds, I have to say, and nor was there a lot of insects, at least I didn’t hear them.
But the really evocative things was walking through the buildings and, in the school for example, seeing kids’ notebooks on the floor just where they had left them. They came in and they said, everybody leave, within hours. And so the place is, all sorts of things lying around. There’s a playground there with a roundabout and—
IRA FLATOW: Right. Right.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: —just rusting away and blowing in the wind. And it’s very creepy from that point of view.
IRA FLATOW: You end your film on a very cautiously hopeful note. You show us your vision of how we’ve lost a diversity of species on the planet. You talk about how we are headed, in global warming, to perhaps catastrophic end. Yet you end on a very cautiously hopeful note. Why is that?
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Well, because I think it’s the case. Both Jonnie and I think that it really the case that we can get out of this. We’re not going to get out of it back to the status of the 1920s or anything, but we can escape disaster if we act. And that’s why COP, which is coming up at the end of the next year here in Britain, is so important. It’s almost our last chance, it seems to me, that we’re going to be able to get back into some kind of stability and prevent the disasters which we show clearly in the film and the book.
IRA FLATOW: Jonnie, do you agree with that? I know as a writer and producer, you must have had some idea about where you were going to end the book and the film.
JONNIE HUGHES: Yeah, I do agree. I think the possibility is there. And just as we were talking about earlier, human beings, we can solve problems when we’re faced with them. That’s the thing we do do. We can change the world.
That’s what got us into this mess, is we have this power and ability to change the entire planet. So we can turn all of that capability to get us out of this problem, as well. We uniquely, perhaps, have this ability to reassess our surroundings and forecast the future.
And I guess that’s what David and I were trying to do in the book and in the film, is to give what science now predicts is going to be the future if we don’t change. And it’s terrifying enough, for sure, to stimulate a different kind of reaction in us. And I think the signs are there, that we’re seeing that, that that awareness is now rippling out.
And we’re, all of a sudden, understanding the scale of what’s going on. And we have the solutions. So we just need to put them in place.
IRA FLATOW: Sir David, so much of humanity gauges its success by growth. I recall a phrase from the ’60s that I’ve always brought with me. And it went something like, growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of a cancer cell. Is it time we look to different measures of success? And can we be successful in looking for that measure?
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: We have to. The other old joke is, of course, that we live in finite circumstances or the world is finite. Anyone thinks you can have infinite growth in finite circumstances is either mad or an economist. And that’s true.
And we have to have a different form to our economics. We cannot go on expanding indefinitely. We cannot go on consuming finite resources of the Earth.
The space on the face of the Earth is finite. You can’t go on increasing your numbers and consuming the rest of the world. And as you say, growth has been at the bedrock of economic theory and political practice for a long, long time. That’s now got to change.
IRA FLATOW: You are very hopeful, as I said before, and as you pointed out at the end of your film. And you actually show concrete ways that we might change our habits. You show how we might be able to grow food indoors in different places over the world. And are those things actually adaptable to other countries, do you think?
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Well, we must all react in different ways, mustn’t we? It is absolutely clear that we can’t all eat red meat in the way that we have been doing in the West for a very long time. We cannot go on doing that. There isn’t the space.
I’m hopeless at remembering statistics, and Jonnie is much better than I am. Do you know, Jonnie, can you think offhand—
JONNIE HUGHES: Yeah, sure. There’s lots of different studies out there, but they’re really big, reliable studies, the UN, the IPBES. And The Lancet did one, as well.
So there are statistics, such as we currently use an area the size of both North America and South America, globally, to raise livestock. That’s literally fields with cows in them, for example, but also the feed that we have to grow to overwinter them. It’s a huge amount of space. And statistics show that if we all turned plant-based or vegetarian, we would need something like 40% of the land that we need currently to raise the food that we eat. So it’s a significant reduction in space.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: And the interesting thing is that certainly in Britain, I think the number of people who have either reduced or stopped eating red meat has been growing and growing and growing. I certainly haven’t eaten red meat for a long time. I eat fish, and I’ve eaten fowl. And actually at a point, I think you can justify eating, on ecological grounds, you could justify eating pork. But beef, I’ve not eaten it for a long time.
And I didn’t do it with a cold, intellectual thought, and said, right, I’m going to do it from the 1st of January or whatever. I just find that I’m not eating—my diet has changed. And I think an awful lot of people are finding that. An awful lot of people in the world, of course, away from the Western countries, don’t eat meat at all or at least very small amount of meat. So it’s a Western habit to eat as much meat as we do, red meat as we do.
IRA FLATOW: Do you see this giving up of red meat as something that is highly doable by people, and might be the single biggest thing that they themselves can do?
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: It is one of the things that can, I mean, there are lots of small things we can do. People ask me. I say, yeah, what you can do is stop waste. Stop wasting things.
Stop wasting gas. Stop wasting electricity. Stop wasting paper.
Stop wasting plastic and dumping it in the sea. And stop wasting food. And if we all were actually more economical in what we did and didn’t go in for excessive waste or even the display of excessive waste, which has been a characteristic of Western civilization for some time, we would be better off, and we’d be living within our means. At the moment, we are not living within our means as far as the world is concerned.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday, from WNYC Studios. Jonnie, what do you think?
JONNIE HUGHES: Yeah. I just think that all of us in the West, we can think about where our money goes with more care and concern. So we’re all banking with a bank. And many of us have pensions. And if you look at the way finance works, pension funds have an enormous share of the capital on Earth.
Therefore, if we choose banks and pension funds and insurance funds, et cetera, and investments, that have an ethical side to them so that they will claim not to invest in—so fossil fuel extraction or not to invest in businesses where there’s deforestation attached or overfishing attached, that makes a huge difference. And we’re seeing that already, that the customers of today are being more discerning about where their money sits. And it will have a very quick effect on the market and the landscape of finance. And that has a very speedy effect on the real world, as well.
IRA FLATOW: At age 94, do you have any thoughts of retirement? Or do you think that the global crisis is so bad that you need to continue to talk about it?
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: I can’t pretend that I’m that kind of driven person. It seems to me that if you get to whatever age you are and you can still put two words together and still walk about and still, I hope, put two thoughts together, then you should do so. Because life is so much more interesting when you do that rather than just sitting back and saying, well, that’s the end, I never enjoyed work anyway.
I have had a marvelous, fantastic, extraordinary, lucky life, and doing wonderful things, and been able to see amazing things. And to be able to write about them and think about them and experience them is a huge privilege. So why would I stop in order just to sit in the corner and twiddle my thumbs?
IRA FLATOW: Jonnie Hughes, you have worked with Sir David. What do you like most about him?
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: [AUDIO OUT] Jonnie, my freedom with chocolate.
JONNIE HUGHES: Well, I would say that, I mean, he’s been a hero of mine since I was a kid. So it’s difficult to answer that question. But in terms of working with him, I think the energy that David has for work and for getting something to the highest standards are incredible. And David will be very happy to continue working during a working day when we’re filming or writing way beyond the time I’ve become exhausted. So that’s a hugely admirable ability, I think.
IRA FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us. We have, unfortunately, run out of time. It was a great discussion.
I’d like to thank my guests this hour, naturalist, explorer, and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, and science writer and director Jonnie Hughes, co-author of the book A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future, published by Grand Central Publishing, and co-director of the documentary of the same name now streaming on Netflix. I highly recommend this film. It’s really terrific. I want to thank both of you for taking the time to stay up late and join us today.
DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Thank you.
JONNIE HUGHES: Many thanks.