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Climate Change Got You Down? David Attenborough's Film Finds a Way Forward



Climate change used to feel like this unstoppable, vague, and ever closer end of the world. I knew that it had to do with our burning of fossil fuels and that it could maybe be stopped, but that it would take quite a bit of work and might be too far gone. This dismal view left me pretty worried and hopeless about climate change, but furthering my knowledge on the issue has helped me to feel more hopeful and worry less. This worry and decent but limited knowledge is not isolated to me. When I sent out a survey earlier this week to North Scott students and staff, the majority of respondents indicated that, on a scale of one to four, one being not informed and four being very well informed, that they were at an informed level of three and the next largest group at two. In addition, 72.5% indicated that climate change worried them. Some more information and hope for the future certainly couldn’t hurt. 


This is where I think Sir David Attenborough's film David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet can help. In his film, Attenborough tracks the effects that humans have had on the environment over the course of his lifetime. When I first watched this film, I was amazed and pleasantly surprised. I had decided to watch a documentary one night instead of wasting away on YouTube. 

After the film, I felt ready to plant a forest and emulate Dutch farming methods in America— even if neither of those were particularly realistic for my situation. 

The film begins with Sir David Attenborough reflecting on humanity's impact on Chernobyl and describing why biodiversity is important. He describes how Chernobyl’s reactor meltdown—the result of poor planning and human error— turned the area uninhabitable. He details how each part of an ecosystem relies on each other. We too rely on this system. He then describes how poor planning and human error are reducing the wild areas of our planet and thus decreasing biodiversity. This intro perfectly introduces the main premise of the film: we have left an immense negative impact on the biodiversity of our planet in the course of only a lifetime, and if we continue as we are, then we will make our greatest mistake and make the world uninhabitable for humans. 


Attenborough then describes his experiences with the natural world as a boy. He used to explore a wooded area near where he lived and would find small little fossils—ammonites, creatures from millions of years ago. Attenborough describes how in life’s four billion year story that 5 mass extinctions took place, and each time, life had to rebuild. Until our time, the Holocene, the most stable time where the Earth’s temperature has not varied by more than one degree Celsius. He attributes this stability to the rich biodiversity of our time that balances carbon dioxide levels, keeps the ground fertilized, nurtures baby fish, keeps the air moist, and keeps the Earth cool enough to reflect some sunlight. 


Attenborough then describes the start of his career. At this time, nature was an endless, mystical world for Attenborough to explore. A world that seemed like it could be explored forever where no end would ever be found. Things were put into perspective, however, when he watched the Apollo mission and was able to see the entire world in the picture, finite and vulnerable. 


Later on, while filming for Life On Earth, Attenborough began to notice how some animals were becoming harder to find. He realized that the process of extinction he saw in the ammonites was happening in his time. 


After Life On Earth aired, Attenborough worked to help stop the hunting of whales. While doing so, Attenborough witnessed how as people’s awareness of the issue grew that their actions toward and caring for the natural world grew. 


Attenborough then describes the damaging actions we’ve done to our planet. Attenborough notes the loss of nearly 50% of Borneo's forests and the removal of biodiverse rainforests to plant fields of oil trees. He then notes the dying of many coral reefs, the burning of immense amounts of fossil fuels, the melting of the polar ice caps, and the takeover of fertile lands for farming.


He describes how animal populations have halved and how humans have taken over the planet and controlled the environment for our purposes at the expense of biodiversity. 


Attenborough then goes through changes to the environment that he could expect to see if he was born in 2020. In the 2030s, the Amazon would be cut down until it turned into a savannah, the arctic would become ice-free in the summer and the speed of global warming would increase. In the 2040s, frozen fossils thaw and release methane further accelerating climate change. In the 2050s, coral reefs around the world die and fish populations crash. In the 2080s, global food production reaches a crisis as soil becomes exhausted from overuse, pollinating insects disappear, and the weather becomes more unpredictable. In the 2100s, the world becomes four degrees warmer and large parts of the world are uninhabitable. Millions are left homeless and a sixth mass extinction event is well underway. In the course of a lifetime, the stability of the Holocene will be over. 


All of this is awful, but Attenborough provides a simple solution—restore our planet’s biodiversity. He provides a few ways to do this. One is to control the growth of populations by increasing the standard of living across our world. Populations stabilize in areas where the standard of living develops as people choose to have fewer children. He suggests a move to solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, and wind power—sustainable and renewable energy sources—and divesting in fossil fuels. He also suggests implementing no fishing zones to allow fish to repopulate and to give fishers more catch-—a win win. Another suggestion is to swap our diets towards a more plant focused diet that is more sustainable and emulating highly land-efficient sustainable farms in the Netherlands. Both of these would drastically reduce the land we use for farming and give more space for wild areas. He also suggests farming indoors and in the water where there is no land at all. Finally, he suggests that we halt deforestation and subsidize the restoration of forests. 


Overall, he suggests a return to sustainability and focus towards working with nature rather than against it. 


I recommend that anyone with enough free time and an interest in climate change or nature watch this film. This film is chock-full of useful information about how our actions have impacted the natural world. Even better, the film provides some wonderful clarity for what actions are hurting our environment and gives some nice potential solutions and hope for a better future. I also recommend this film for anyone who’s interested in the legendary Sir David Attenborough. This film is a wonderful biography of the man’s life and career. I really can’t recommend this film enough. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet truly is a masterpiece. 

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