He’s been a voice in the wilderness — literally — for six decades.
So it should have been a surprise to no one, detractors and supporters alike, that when David Attenborough faced the room at last weekend’s Edinburgh International Television Festival, he would strike a discordant note.
There is reason for hope, Attenborough told a room more used to hearing how humankind has already passed the the turning point of global destruction.
Planet Earth has never faced so many crises, everything from pollution and overpopulation to wholesale global climate change and the imminent threat of a new mass extinction — which will be planet’s sixth, if the scientists are to be believed.
So it was a shock for many environmentalists to hear the man who has chronicled the lives of Earth’s most remarkable creatures for the better part of a century to sound a note of optimism.
Nearly 20 years ago, primatologist Jane Goodall wrote the book Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, an autobiographical odyssey that covered much of the same emotional terrain. Goodall argued in Reason for Hope that young people are more attuned to the natural world than their forebears, and will fight hard to preserve what remains of the natural world.
Attenborough’s argument is much the same — the future of planet Earth lies with its young people, who have the most to lose from a ruined environment — but given how much the planet’s ecosystems have suffered in just the past two decades, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Attenborough is knowingly putting a positive spin on an otherwise hopeless situation. No one wants top fight a battle that’s already lost, after all, and environmental news in 2017is a seemingly relentless parade of horror stories.
Attenborough, 91, told the Edinburgh Festival that he’s detected a “worldwide shift” — his words — in attitudes toward conservation, with voters and leaders in previously skeptical nations seeing the light of day.
The current state of politics in the U.S. is a temporary aberration, he insisted, and flies in the face of what’s happening across Europe, Asia, and Latin and South America. Attenborough likened the emerging consensus in favour of protecting what’s left of the natural world, to the awakening of anti-communist sentiment in eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
That consensus, he argued, was reflected in last year’s Paris deal on greenhouse gases. As of now, 195 countries have signed the Paris accord; 160 of those countries have taken the extra step of ratifying the agreement.
The U.S. has signalled its intention to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, but anything the U.S. does or does not do is outweighed by signatories like China, India, Brazil, Russia, Canada, Germany and other members of the G20, as well as countless emerging nations around the world.
Attenborough returns to TV screens this fall with Blue Planet II, which those who’ve seen it say will do forBlue Planet, the acclaimed program Attenborough made in 2001, what Planet Earth II did for the originalPlanet Earth.
Programs such as Planet Earth, The Blue Planet, Frozen Planet and Life on Earth have played a crucial role in raising public awareness, Attenborough told the room, without a hint of self-aggrandizement.
Optimism doesn’t mean the world’s environmental problems are solved, Attenborough noted. Changing attitudes is a good start, though.
Attenborough’s detractors note that words come easily, and that the world’s largest polluters — the U.S., China, India and Russia — have done little in terms of concrete action to reduce greenhouse gases and our over-reliance on fossil fuel, not to mention the growing stress on the world’s remaining rivers, forests, lakes and oceans. Some ecologists argue that by 2050 — within 35 years — the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans will outweigh the weight of fish. Human beings produce some 500 billion plastic bags and half a trillion plastic bottles each year, some argue, most of which will end up in a landfill and take 400 years to biodegrade.
Coupled with steadily rising population growth — which Attenborough himself has campaigned against — the future looks bleak.
That’s why this may be as good a place as any to end with Attenborough’s own words. (A video link to the full interview follows below.)
There are indeed signs of hope, Attenborough insisted, much as Jane Goodall argued 20 years ago.
As for whether the turning point has already been crossed, that is something only time itself can judge.
“I spend a lot of time wringing my hands and saying how dreadful it is, that this forest has been obliterated and that sea has been polluted, and whatever,” Attenborough told his audience in Edinburgh. “But there are signs of hope. It’s almost like the way suddenly — to me at any rate — the knocking-over of the Berlin Wall was a surprise. I had no idea that there was this (political) build-up and that suddenly it was going to be the end of an era, politically.
“I have a sense that worldwide — certainly in Europe and certainly China, which we would never have thought before — people are concerned about this. And perhaps, if I may say this, there are people in America, parté Mr. Trump, who don’t accept that human beings can do no wrong and you can simply exterminate the wilderness. There are people who care about the wilderness, in the United States.
“There has been a worldwide shift, I think, amongst people in general about the concern that there should be for the natural world. I am encouraged more than I have been for quite some time.”
Attenborough has no doubt about the effect natural-history programming such as Planet Earth and Blue Planet have had on popular opinion — not just on BBC in the UK, but globally, around the entire world.
“We have to be careful that not every program that we put out is grinding an axe. We have to also remember that there is joy and delight and beauty and pleasure and excitement in the natural world. This is our bread-and-butter. That’s what it’s about.
“If there was no need to talk about conservation, the happier I would be. We could just relish (the natural world) and enjoy it. But that isn’t the case. If we are responsible, we have to take on this responsibility.”