David Attenborough’s new film, A Life On Our Planet, presents the restoration of biodiversity as key to combating climate change.
The true tragedy of our time is still unfolding across the globe, barely noticeable from day to day. I’m talking about the loss of our planet’s wild places, it’s biodiversity. – David Attenborough
A Life On Our Planet
A Life On Our Planet documents some of the environmental destruction that has occurred within Attenborough’s lifetime. It argues that humans are paving the way for a 6th mass extinction event citing climate change as the major contributor.
Attenborough tells us that a marked change in atmospheric carbon “was a feature of all five mass extinctions. In previous events, it had taken volcanic activity up to 1 million years to dredge up enough carbon…to trigger a catastrophe. By burning millions of years worth of living organisms all at once, as coal and oil, we’ve managed to do so in less than 200.”
At the rate we are going, millions of people will be forced to leave their homes because of the climate crisis. It’s a sad truth, but the film leaves us with hope that restoring biodiversity could be a way out.
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’ve created. We must rewild the world. – David Attenborough
Solutions to the Ecological Crisis:
After going over the current crisis, the second half of the film presents five things we can do to change our path: slow population growth, phase out fossil fuels, stop overfishing, reduce farm land, and halt deforestation.
Slow Population Growth
Perhaps the most controversial position of the film, Attenborough suggests that population growth needs to be slowed. The idea that human population is a driving force of environmental destruction is contentious. Many worry that it leads to racist, anti-poor, and anti-human policies.1,2
Attenborough suggests that “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” will make population “peak sooner and at a lower level.” He continues, “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.”
Phase Out Fossil Fuels
Second, the film argues that we cannot continue to burn fossil fuels if we are to combat climate change: “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 we are saving for.”
A transition to renewable sources of power like sunlight, wind, water, and geothermal energies is needed.
Attenborough explains how the ocean is an important “ally in our battle to reduce carbon in the atmosphere” as well as an important source of food. A Life On Our Planet advocates for ocean no-fish zones.
Where protected fish zones have been implemented, fish populations “became so healthy that they spilled over to the areas open for fishing. As a result, the no-fish zones have increased the catch of the local fisherman, while, at the same time, allowing the reefs to recover.”
Reduce Land Used for Farming by Changing Our Diet
Fourth, the film tackles the issue of meat production which requires immense amounts of land and water. By reducing the amount of meat we consume, we can reduce our environmental impact.
“Large carnivores are rare in nature because it takes a lot of prey to support them…Whenever we choose a piece of meat, we too are unwittingly demanding a huge expansive space. The planet can’t support billions of large meat eaters, there just isn’t the space.”
Immediately Halt Deforestation
Lastly, Attenborough argues that we must put an immediate end to deforestation. Forests lock away carbon and provide habitat for countless species.
“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.”
The solutions presented in A Life On Our Planet would, no doubt, set us on the path to ecological recovery. What the film lacks is any political analysis including the current barriers to a green transition and the geopolitcal considerations of rewilding.
We are left with questions like how will these changes be implemented, what considerations are needed, and who are the major opponents to a green recovery?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I can set out some of the concerns and considerations. This is not an exhaustive list, but presents some issues as they relate to Canada.
Economic Growth on a Finite Planet
The movie argues we are “bound by and reliant upon the finite natural world around us.” How then do we reorganize an economy that is structured around the principle of continued economic growth on a planet with finite resources?
Whenever there’s talk about transitioning to a green economy or phasing out environmentally destructive practices, we come up against those who argue it’s economically destructive. This might be from corporate interests or from people who fear losing their jobs.
A green transition must include free job re-training for workers, guaranteed income in the transition period, and green jobs.
Disproportionate Environmental Impacts
A Life On Our Planet presents the issue of environmental restoration as a collective responsibility. This is true, but it ignores the reality that some individuals, nations, and businesses disproportionately contribute to environmental destruction.
For instance, Canada has a small population, but we are one of the world’s leading contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Furthermore, the leading contributor within Canada is the oil and gas industry. Meanwhile, First Nations, who have been disproportionately affected by environmental pollution, have been arrested for opposing oil and gas development on their territories.
So, the blame does not rest equally with everyone. While individual actions are important, more so is legislating environmental protections, transitioning to a green economy, and holding polluters accountable.
“Rewilding” On Colonized Land?
Environmental conservation has a dark history in Canada. First Nations have been forcibly evicted from their territories to create conservation areas and parks. Rewilding cannot be a means to continue systematic dispossession and eviction.
So, when we talk about “rewilding,” we must address issues of colonialism. Whose land is being rewilded? How will it affect people’s lives? How can people have access to traditional medicines, foods, and culture?
Of course, we must minimize our impact on the planet and allow biodiversity to return. But, many First Nations live, practice, and teach this without having to be separated from the land.
Perhaps, the solution to the environmental crisis in Canada is not rewilding, but is rooted in Indigenous tradition, knowledge, and practice.
Before the pandemic hit, we saw major demonstrations across the world that were led by youth demanding climate justice. Our youth have had enough with political complacency where the environment is concerned. Because despite the science, governments are not willing to go against powerful economic interests and act in a way that protects the planet and, consequently, the future of our youth.
A Life On Our Planet is a thoughtful and provocative film. It presents us with attainable solutions to our environmental crisis. If you haven’t yet watched it, I highly recommend it.
Raising political considerations is not meant as a critique of the film. Instead, it highlights some of the obstacles and considerations if we are to implement these solutions. Furthermore, it suggests that Indigenous led conservation might be an alternative way forward.
All the quotes in this article are taken from A Life On Our Planet.
1 Helen Kopnina and Haydn Washington. 2016. “Discussing Why Population Growth is Still Ignored or Denied.” Chinese Journal of Population and Resources and Environment. URL.
2 Graham Lawton. 2019. “We Need to Talk About How Population Growth is Harming the Planet.” New Scientist. URL.