Sir David Attenborough in Chernobyl

David Attenborough’s Call to Action in A Life on Our Planet is Compelling, but Flawed

If you haven’t yet seen David Attenborough’s new Netflix documentary A Life on Our Planet, you should. As a self-described “witness statement” on the state of our world from one of the most widely traveled and respected naturalists of our time, it’s sobering viewing. And its message deeply aligns with our mission in the College of Global Futures.

And yet for all its warnings of a planet in crisis, I found Attenborough’s perspective somewhat limited while watching the documentary, compelling as it is.

Like many Brits of my generation, I have a soft spot for David Attenborough.  I grew up in the 1970’s transfixed by his captivating enthusiasm for the natural world, and the unique glimpses he gave us into the hidden lives of the plants and animals around us. One of my more enduring memories of that time is rushing home from church on a Sunday evening where my father was the local pastor, to watch the latest episode of the TV series The World About Us.

And then of course, there was the genre-defining documentary series that transformed Attenborough’s career, Life On Earth.

Looking back, it’s shocking to realize that Attenborough was in his early 50’s when Life on Earth first aired in 1979 — not far off my age now. The series marked the beginning of a new phase in his long career, and paved the way for forty more years of ground-breaking television that transformed how we saw and understood the natural world, and that inspired a generation and beyond to think differently about the planet we live on.

A Life On Our Planet is, in many ways, a culmination of this personal journey that began for David Attenborough with Life On Earth. Except, in place of the awe and wonder that permeates that initial series, it’s threaded through with a deep sadness as Attenborough reveals the decimation of the natural world that he’s seen unfolding before his eyes over the past half a century.

This is, as Attenborough describes it, a personal witness statement on the state of the planet. It’s his first-hand observations of how the world has changed in his lifetime, and the gut-wrenching projections of where we’re heading if these trends continue.

Here, Attenborough paints a bleak picture, and one that’s been validated time and time again by scientists around the globe as they’ve warned against our profligate disregard for the planet we inhabit and rely on.

Yet Attenborough ends on a positive note. This, he tells us, is a catastrophe that can be avoided. And the pathway forward is not hard: Have fewer children, increase our wild spaces, use the land we do occupy more efficiently, transition to renewable energy sources, and eat less meat.

In this way, he argues, we have the possibility of re-stabilizing the planet–not necessarily for Planet Earth’s sake, because life will find a way regardless, but for our sake as a species, as we strive to thrive in an environment that we’re precipitously close to destroying.

These are not new ideas of course, but they are presented clearly and compellingly in the documentary. And here, Attenborough’s experience and authority make him worth listening to. Yet, for all their relevance, I worry that these fixes for a more sustainable future are, on their own, little more than naive dreams.

The problem is, people are complex. More than this, our social interactions, expectations and aspirations are messy, and near-impossible to control with any degree of predictability or moral certitude And because of this, simple solutions to global problems rarely if ever succeed in the harsh light of social, economic and political reality.

To make things harder still, when we try and force seemingly simple solutions onto people, we quickly end up in ethically uncertain territory as we sacrifice what’s important to others in our rush to protect what’s important to ourselves. And as we do, we risk slipping into an “immoral logic” where morally questionable actions in the present are justified on the basis of imagined–but far from certain–futures.

Attenborough stays well away from such an immoral logic. But each of his proposed approaches to building a sustainable future risks running into social and ethical quandaries if humanity’s  complexity isn’t factored in.

Population reduction for instance, has a long and sordid history of good intentions leading to deeply immoral ideas and actions. Reducing the amount of managed land (or ocean) around the earth rapidly runs into political and ideological barriers that cannot be discounted by simply saying that its opponents are ignorant, misguided, or simply bad people. Beyond certain limits, telling people what they can and cannot eat is a social minefield. And while innovative solutions to challenges like energy transitions and land use are desperately needed, these rely on the very same socioeconomic ecosystems that often lead to problematic behaviors in the first place.

In other words, much as we might want to, we cannot separate planet from people as we strive to build a sustainable future. Whether we like it or not, humanity, with all of our foibles, eccentricities, dreams, desires, vices and capabilities, is at the heart of our pathway toward a better tomorrow. We may dream of simple fixes, transformative technologies, and sustainable solutions. But unless the outsized role of people is factored in–together with what is important to us individually and en mass–these will fail.

Of course, to build a vibrant, sustainable and just future–remembering that sustainability is not necessarily synonymous with vibrancy and justice–we need new technologies and innovative approaches to future-building. But these must be developed within a broader understanding of the social, ethical, economic and political landscape around us if they’re to succeed. And this is fiendishly difficult to get a handle on.

The good news is that there is growing expertise around the understanding and knowledge that’s necessary to do this.

As we develop this expertise, we’re learning how to approach future-building in ways that transcend notions of simple fixes that conveniently ignore human complexities. But for these to flourish, we need to move beyond naive and misguided ideas of how we can fix the future, if only people would do as they are told.

Despite this, David Attenborough’s  A Life On Our Planet is well worth watching as a personal and heartfelt witness statement from someone who’s seen the harm that our human profligacy and short-sightedness is causing. And its emphasis on simple solutions aside, who knows, maybe it’ll inspire more people to grapple with the complex challenges of building a better future before it’s too late.

Because whichever way you look at it, the one thing we can’t afford to do is to stand by and do nothing.