For over a decade I have been writing occasional articles for LA Progressive (LAP) relating to our environment, especially regarding climate change. Although I have tried to applaud those works, like Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical, which attempt to illuminate a better path forward, most of the last decade’s climate news has been depressing.
But recently I discovered especially hopeful words. They come in the last part of Netflix’s A Life on Our Planet (2020), in which the British natural historian David Attenborough narrates (and beautifully depicts) his life-long concern--he was born in 1926--with Planet Earth.
Before we get to the last part of the film, however, he shows us how Earth has deteriorated since his boyhood. (Some of the narration and photography will be familiar to viewers of his previous eight-part Our Planet series, about which I previously commented.) Accompanying his story, the film periodically flashes statistics at us. For example,
WORLD POPULATION: 2.3 BILLION
CARBON IN ATMOSPHERE: 280 PARTS PER MILLION
REMAINING WILDERNESS: 66%
WORLD POPULATION: 7.8 BILLION
CARBON IN ATMOSPHERE: 415 PARTS PER MILLION
REMAINING WILDERNESS: 35% (All quotes are from the filmscript.)
The bad news ends almost an hour into the program after Attenborough tells us what science predicts for the decades ahead.
2030s: “The Amazon Rainforest, cut down until it can no longer produce enough moisture, degrades into a dry savannah, bringing catastrophic species loss. . . . The Arctic becomes ice-free in the summer. Without the white ice cap, less of the sun’s energy is reflected back out to space. And the speed of global warming increases.”
2040s: “Throughout the north, frozen soils thaw, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide, accelerating the rate of climate change dramatically.”
2050s: “As the ocean continues to heat and becomes more acidic, coral reefs around the world die. Fish populations crash.”
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2080s: “Global food production enters a crisis as soils become exhausted by overuse. Pollinating insects disappear . . . and the weather is more and more unpredictable.”
2100s: “Our planet becomes four degrees Celsius warmer. Large parts of the earth are uninhabitable. Millions of people rendered homeless. A sixth mass extinction event… is well underway.”
It’s quite straightforward. It’s been staring us in the face all along. To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity. The very thing that we’ve removed.
Then, however, after all this gloom and doom, Attenborough pivots and asks, “So, what do we do?”
And he answers: “It’s quite straightforward. It’s been staring us in the face all along. To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity. The very thing that we’ve removed. It’s the only way out of this crisis we have created. We must rewild the world. . . . [It] is simpler than you might think. And the changes we have to make will only benefit ourselves and the generations that follow. A century from now, our planet could be a wild place again. And I’m going to tell you how.”
And tell us he does. The main problems we have to solve are overpopulation, restoring our oceans and lands, and climate change. Here is what he says.
- Overpopulation. “On current projections, there will be 11 billion people on Earth by 2100. But it’s possible to slow, even to stop population growth well before it reaches that point.” He points to Japan as an example of how that has been done, and concludes, “As healthcare and education improved, people’s expectations and opportunities grew, and the birth rate fell. . . . By working hard to raise people out of poverty, giving all access to healthcare, and enabling girls in particular to stay in school as long as possible, we can make it [population growth] peak sooner and at a lower level. . . . The trick is to raise the standard of living around the world without increasing our impact on that world. That may sound impossible, but there are ways in which we can do this.”
- Restoring our oceans and lands. “The living world can’t operate without a healthy ocean and neither can we.” Attenborough spells out how important oceans are as a food source and relates what the Pacific Island of Palau has done to create a healthier marine habitat--mainly create “no fish” zones. “Imagine,” he states, “if we committed to a similar approach across the world. Estimates suggest that ‘no fish’ zones over a third of our coastal seas would be sufficient to provide us with all the fish we will ever need.” In international waters, he relates, “the UN is attempting to create the biggest ‘no fish’ zone of all.”
Regarding farmland, he says, “we must radically reduce the area we use to farm, so that we can make space for returning wilderness. And the quickest and most effective way to do that is for us to change our diet.” (More than six years ago on this LAP site, I indicated why vegetarianism was important and quoted a 1998 report indicating that if the land needed for the direct care and grazing of animals was added to that required to produce food for them it would account for 70 percent of all farm land.) Attenborough tells us, “If we all had a largely plant-based diet, we would need only half the land we use at the moment.” He cites the example of the densely-populated Netherlands. “Dutch farmers have become expert at getting the most out of every hectare. Increasingly, they’re doing so sustainably. Raising yields tenfold in two generations while at the same time using less water, fewer pesticides, less fertilizer and emitting less carbon. Despite its size, the Netherlands is now the world’s second largest exporter of food.”
Regarding forests, Attenborough believes that “we must immediately halt deforestation everywhere,” and they “are a fundamental component of our planet’s recovery . . . [and] centers of biodiversity.”
- Climate Change. The way we use our oceans, farmlands, and forests also has important implications for climate change, especially for reducing carbon emissions, one of the chief causes of global warming. As Attenborough tells us, “The ocean is a critical ally in our battle to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. The more diverse it is, the better it does that job.” Also, forests “are the best technology nature has for locking away carbon.” He cites Costa Rica as an example of what can be done. “A century ago, more than three quarters of Costa Rica was covered with forest. By the 1980s, uncontrolled logging had reduced this to just one quarter. The government decided to act, offering grants to land owners to replant native trees. In just 25 years, the forest has returned to cover half of Costa Rica once again. Just imagine if we achieve this on a global scale. The return of the trees would absorb as much as two thirds of the carbon emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by our activities to date.”
Regarding energy, Attenborough says, “The living world is essentially solar-powered. The earth’s plants capture three trillion kilowatt-hours of solar energy each day. . . . That’s almost 20 times the energy we need . . . just from sunlight.” He points to Morocco as an example of what we can do: Around 2000, it “relied on imported oil and gas for almost all of its energy. Today, it generates 40% of its needs at home from a network of renewable power plants, including the world’s largest solar farm. Sitting on the edge of the Sahara, and cabled directly into southern Europe, Morocco could be an exporter of solar energy by 2050.” “Imagine,” he states, “if we phase out fossil fuels and run our world on the eternal energies of nature too. Sunlight, wind, water and geothermal. . . . Within 20 years, renewables are predicted to be the world’s main source of power. But we can make them the only source. It’s crazy that our banks and our pensions are investing in fossil fuel . . . when these are the very things that are jeopardizing the future that we are saving for. A renewable future will be full of benefits. Energy everywhere will be more affordable. Our cities will be cleaner and quieter. And renewable energy will never run out.”
Attenborough ends his documentary by encouraging us to believe that “we now have the opportunity to . . . restore the rich, healthy, and wonderful world” that he knew as a boy. “All we need is the will to do so.” (And I believe with a Biden administration instead of the regressive Trump one, the world is likely to display more such will.) Finally, the wise old natural historian reminds us that we humans have evolved to the extent we have because we are smarter than other creatures. “But to continue, we require more than intelligence. We require wisdom.”