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David’s life on earth – Attenborough and global conservation

Dan Wood

Dan Wood

David Attenborough - Full Credit to The Telegraph

We are proud to share the story of one of our personal heroes and an important figure in the discussion around global warming – Attenborough and Global conservation. A naturalist and television personality for over 6 decades. We’ll start by telling you the story of Attenborough before global conservation. Then we’ll talk about how he arrived on the big screen, his works. And we’ll conclude with his reasoning for discussing climate change when he did.

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The Attenborough effect – David’s life on Earth (Short Version) 

We’ll be celebrating the life of Attenborough. An award-winning TV career, hosting Life on Earth, Planet Earth, Blue Planet and over 100 TV series. Then how David shifted his attention to speaking out about climate change, following The Carbon Brief event in 2004. For 15 years, Attenborough has been speaking out about the climate crisis, in the Independent saying ‘I was sceptical about climate change. I was cautious about crying wolf. I am always cautious about crying wolf. I think conservationists have to be careful in saying things are catastrophic when, in fact, they are less than catastrophic. . . . But I’m no longer sceptical. Now I do not have any doubt at all. I think climate change is the major challenge facing the world.’ 

In September 2020, Attenborough released his witness statement ‘David Attenborough: A life on our planet’. The WWF refers to it as ‘Honest, revealing and urgent. David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet is a powerful first-hand account of humanity’s impact on nature and a message of hope for future generations.’ In the same year, he also narrated the film ‘Extinction: The Facts’, where he candidly covered what is regularly being referred to as the 6th mass extinction. The documentary dispensing the following facts:

  • 1 million plant and animals now face extinction out of 8 million 
  • Since 1970, vertebrate animals (birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles) have declined by 60% 
  • Species evolve or die out, a bit like businesses do in the free market. Except the rate of ‘die out’ is now 100 times faster than normal, and accelerating.
  • If the rate continues too long, it will affect our ability to secure food, water and air. Insects and fauna lost will prevent pollination needed to grow two-thirds of the food we currently farm.
  • We have a window of around 10 years where we can halt the rate 

Governments, non-profits and societies around the world are coming together, and through organisations like the UN, finding ways to dramatically alter their carbon footprints and tackle the problem head-on. Via amazing programs like the United Nations Sustainability Goals, many of which lend to goal 13 of the program, climate action. 

“Saving our planet is within reach, we have worked out all the problems, we are working on all the solutions, most of them we can do now, and, over time, all of them help the economy. We have a plan, we know what to do. There is a path to sustainability.”

The Attenborough effect – David’s life on Earth (Longer version)

Naturalist and television personality, David Attenborough is the undisputed father of the modern nature documentary. Born on May 8th 1926 in London, David by his mid-twenties was well on his way to achieving what is now nearly 7 decades of work involved in the natural world. An English broadcaster, writer and naturalist, most noted for his innovative educational television programs. Especially the 8-part Life series delivered by the BBC in association with The Open University. David had a strong interest in natural history, having graduated from Cambridge University and completed training with the BBC. In 1952, he then acted on those interests within a  couple of years of being with the organisation. 

As a television producer, he worked with Jack Lester, then a reptile curator, to originate the television series, Zoo Quest. The series found both Jack Lester and Alfred Woods collecting animals for London Zoo. The first series found the team travelling to Sierra Leone, the next in Borneo.  Audiences for the first time ever were able to see wild animals in their natural environments. Lester fell ill during the first series, so Attenborough stepped in as a presenter.  Which he continued unofficially for the next decade of the series, following the death of Jack Lester in 1956. When recently thinking back on these early series Attenborough said: They were good days and I wouldn’t change them . . . Looking back I don’t think you would let two kids in their 20s just go off like that.” 

Attenborough - Adventures of a young naturalist - Zoo Quest

Into management, then back out, Attenborough before global conservation 

And thank god that they did! Following the success of the series, Attenborough found himself promoted as the controller of BBC Two. In 1965, he commissioned the first-ever ‘colour broadcasts’. He also commissioned the critically acclaimed series Civilisation’ and ‘The Ascent of Man series’. Both of which put history and science on screen in ways never seen before. In 1969, and now the BBC Director of Programmes, he then innovated and reinvented television – In the world of Comedy. He commissioned Monty Python’s Flying Circus. 

But, here is where it gets interesting. In 1973, David jacked in the management duties to return to film-making. He then travelled to South-East Asia to film ‘Eastwards with Attenborough’. He then spent the next 6 years developing the natural history documentary we all know and love today. Taking inspiration from series like Civilisation and The ascent of Man, he travelled around the globe.  Delivering his definitive take on the wonders of the natural world. In 1979, that resulted in the televisual feast, ‘Life on Earth’.

Attenborough life on earth - Full credit to Netflix

How one man changed the world –  Attenborough and global conservation

Over the next 40 years, Attenborough would deliver numerous incredible TV series, receiving numerous awards for his documentaries. First, he won the UNESCO’s Kalingo Prize, which means he was recognized by the United Nations for popularizing natural history to the public. He secured a further 13 awards including a fellowship to the Royal Society, an honorary doctorate from Oxford University and a knighthood. In the last decade, he became the WWF-UK ambassador, and was given a second knighthood. Of course, he also got a lot of love from his peeps at the BBC, celebrating ‘Attenborough at 90’.  So what TV series earned David such high regard and so many awards and flashy titles? 

Life on Earth 1979

In the first episode, he began in the South American rainforest and ended up on the Great Barrier Reef. The most memorable sequence saw Attenborough sitting with a band of gorillas. He was able to convey the similarities that humans and gorillas share as he calmly addressed the camera. Many of the animals he captured during the program had never been filmed before. It went on to provide the template for all other Attenborough series including Living Planet, Trials of Life and Life of Birds.

Excerpt from the video (Taken from BBC Studios, ‘The Story behind Life on Earth’) 

David decided to go with his heart and the result was a quantum leap in wildlife programming. 

David Attenborough: “There are some four million different kinds of animals and plants in the world. Four million different solutions to the problems of staying alive. This is the story of how a few of them came to be as they are.”  

What it did for the first time was it integrated in a satisfactory way a very big story with David’s Knack of presentation which bound the whole thing together into unity in the series. David told the story of evolution from the first fossilized signs of life to the most complex living creatures. 

“Here at least we can get some idea of what things may have been like when their distant relatives, the trial of Lights, swarmed in the seas of long ago.”  

Life on Earth was a continuous story from program one right to the end of program 13. People were saying you know halfway through the series. ‘You know we don’t want to stop watching this. Now we want to know what happens next’. And that’s an amazing ability and something that’s quite, I think quite special. 

The highlight of the series was perhaps one of the most memorable moments on British television, David’s encounter with mountain gorillas in Rwanda 

“And this is how they spend most of their time lounging on the ground sometimes. They even allow others to join in. There are more meaning and mutual understanding and exchanging with plants, with a gorilla than any other animal. I know what sounds similar. Their sight, their sense of smell, so similar to ours, that we see the world the way they do.” 

Over 100 series in one lifetime 

Following that debut, David then produced another 7 series as part of the ‘Life Collection.’ David got involved in an array of other shows with BBC Earth, before developing the Planet series. It includes famous mini-series such as Planet Earth and Blue Planet (two of each) and most recently ‘One Planet: Seven Worlds’. 

Attenborough and global conservation – The time came to speak up in 2004

All of them tell the story of the natural world and go some way to explaining how animals respond to their environments. However, aware of the times with global conservation a focus are being made with recent titles to ‘show the new challenges faced in the 21st Century by the animals and plants with which we share on our increasingly fragile planet.’ 

In many of the recent documentaries, Attenborough rarely failed to reference climate change at least once. The Carbon Brief pinning it down to about 2004 when Attenborough made the switch to outwardly discussing climate change. It was in that year that he was finally convinced. Convinced that his millions of viewers around the world deserved to be informed about the facts and consequences of the fast-warming climate. David then wrote the following story for The Independent stating that ‘Climate change is the major challenge facing the world.’

David Attenborough interviewing at the Carbon Biref in 2004 - Full credit to Carbon brief

Transcript from the article published with The Independent

“I was sceptical about climate change. I was cautious about crying wolf. I am always cautious about crying wolf. I think conservationists have to be careful in saying things are catastrophic when, in fact, they are less than catastrophic.

I have seen my job at the BBC as a presenter to produce programmes about natural history. Just as the Natural History Museum would be interested in showing a range of birds of paradise. That’s the sort of thing I’ve been doing. And in almost every big series I’ve made, the most recent one being Planet Earth, I’ve ended up by talking about the future, and possible dangers. But, with climate change, I was sceptical. That is true.

Also, I’m not a chemist or a climatologist or a meteorologist. It isn’t for me to suddenly stand up and say I have decided the climate is changing. That’s not my expertise. The television gives you an unfair and unjustified prominence. But just because your face is on the telly doesn’t mean you’re an expert on meteorology.

“I think that climate change is the major challenge facing the world” 

But I’m no longer sceptical. Now I do not have any doubt at all. I think climate change is the major challenge facing the world. I have waited until the proof was conclusive that it was humanity changing the climate. The thing that really convinced me was the graphs connecting the increase of carbon dioxide in the environment and the rise in temperature, with the growth of human population and industrialisation. The coincidence of the curves made it perfectly clear we have left the period of natural climatic oscillation behind and have begun on a steep curve. In terms of temperature rise, beyond anything in terms of increases that we have seen over many thousands of years.”

A conclusion on climate change formed by experience 

Attenborough was later than other public figures to speak out about climate change, focusing mainly on animal conservation and environmentalism that protects habitat. Recent times have found David discussing the wider global conservation issue, but he has had criticism. Parts of the scientific community feel that not enough of the documentaries and the scripts underpinning them spoke about or encouraged people to deal with conservation. And that charities engaged in conservation weren’t feeling noticeable uplifts in donations or interest when Planet Earth II was released, as reported by The Guardian. 

Both Attenborough and the BBC have also faced criticism for ‘side-stepping environmental issues’, portraying the natural world as a pristine wilderness in their shows. The criticism even crossed over to recent series, which highlighted climate change, habitat loss and species extinctions. Some felt it ‘shied away from depicting the true scale of these problems, according to some viewers’, reported by The Conversation. 

‘Alarmism is a turn-off for audiences’ – Viewers are responding to nature documentaries

In the same story, natural history TV producers, including Attenborough, spoke about how alarmism is a turn-off for audiences. Putting aside the stats, positive action is coming from viewers around the world. Many of the same critics found that online activity around conservation issues and general interest was far higher around the times of Planet Earth II and others being published. And that outside of the program’s direct promotion of conservation, the programs have inspired and developed two generations of conservation and environmentally minded people. People likely go on to indirectly do the work needed to alter climate change. 

david attenborough interview with the bbc - Full credit to the BBC

In a recent interview with the BBC, Sir David reflected on those generations

Sir David became the fastest person to have one million followers on Instagram. It came recently after he joined the platform to reach out to younger people, many of whom support his message of protecting the natural world.

“That’s a great hope,” he says, “it’s their world and it’s their tomorrow. I won’t be there, they will be. Of course, it’s very important that young people should be concerned about this and they are in increasing numbers. I feel privileged that they should listen to what an old bloke like me is talking about.”

Our Tribal opinion 

A number of people engaged in conservation could perhaps find fault with Attenborough and the BBC. Both might have used the platform to promote and encourage more participation and sooner. Perhaps far more could have been done to deal with climate change sooner. But, perhaps so could have many others from governments, non-profits and the everyday citizen. We are where we are.

At One Tribe, Attenborough remains one of our heroes and inspirations. For his experience of the natural world. For his service to activism in the last 15 years. And for his shared experience so many of us, of all ages, share when we think of his documentaries and global conservation in the same breath. And we love how open and honest he was when coming to terms with the need for climate change action at the Carbon Brief. Contributing loudly and factually in recent times about the need for action on climate change, and for global conservation. 

Image of David Attenborough in interview with the BBC

Transcript from the article published with The Independent continued . . . 

“People say, everything will be alright in the end. But it’s not the case. We may be facing major disasters on a global scale.

I have seen the ice melting. I have been to parts of Patagonia and heard people say: “That’s where the glacier was 10 years ago – and that’s where it is today.” The most dramatic evidence I have seen was New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina. Was that climate-change-induced, out of the ordinary? Certainly so. Everyone who does any cooking knows that if you want to increase a chemical reaction, you put it on the stove and heat it up. If you increase the temperature of the oceans, above which there are swirling currents of air, you will increase the energy in the air currents. It’s not a mystery.

“The planet, it’s changing more extremely and swiftly than at any time in the past several million years.”

So it’s true to say these programmes about climate change are different. in that previously I have made programmes about natural history, and now you could say I have an engaged stance. The first is about the fact that there is climate change and that it is human-induced. I’m well aware that people say it’s all a fuss about nothing, and even if it is getting warmer, it’s nothing to do with us. So I’m glad that the BBC wanted some clear statement of the evidence as to why these two things are the case . . . But it’s only in the past decade that I have come to think about the question. Of whether or not what I, or anybody else, has been doing, could have contributed to the change in the climate of the planet that is undoubtedly taking place? 

When I was a boy in the 1930s, the carbon dioxide level was still below 300 parts per million. This year, it reached 382, the highest figure for hundreds of thousands of years. . . The planet, it’s changing more extremely and swiftly than at any time in the past several million years. And one of the things I don’t want to do is to look at my grandchildren and hear them say: “Grandfather, you knew it was happening – and you did nothing.”

Climate Action – Attenborough’s witness statement 

In September 2020, Attenborough released his witness statement ‘David Attenborough: A life on our planet’. The WWF refers to it as ‘Honest, revealing and urgent.  David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet is a powerful first-hand account of humanity’s impact on nature and a message of hope for future generations.’ The team’s executive producer for the film went on to say:  

“For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide. But there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections. This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action. As world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time.”    

One of the many statements made 

Giving David his dues, it is one of many outspoken stories made on the issue these 15 years. In the same year, he also narrated the film ‘Extinction: The Facts’, where he candidly covered what is regularly being referred to as the 6th mass extinction. Where previous extinctions involved atmospheric issues, super volcanoes and asteroids, this one is linked to human activity. And it linked the Covid crisis experienced by our race globally in 2020 to a breakdown in the environment. With as many as 5 similar diseases expected each year henceforth, any of which could generate a pandemic event. Additionally, the documentary dispensed the following facts: 

  • 1 million plant and animals now face extinction out of 8 million 
  • Since 1970, vertebrate animals (birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles) have declined by 60% 
  • Species evolve or die out, a bit like businesses do in the free market. Except the rate of ‘die out’ is now 100 times faster than normal, and accelerating.
  • If the rate continues too long, it will affect our ability to secure food, water and air. Insects and fauna lost will prevent pollination needed to grow two-thirds of the food we currently farm.
  • We have a window of around 10 years where we can halt the rate 
There is a hope for our planet - David Attenborough - Full credit to Huffington Post

We can face the facts and respond swiftly 

Don’t lose heart at the facts. They are bloody alarming and very unnerving, but to quote G.K Chesterton “ It isn’t that they cannot find the solution. It is that they cannot see the problem”. Well, if there was one amazingly positive takeaway out of the documentary it was that there is enough developed land to give us all the food and resources we need globally. And that green tech offers a solution out of economic hardship.

Many parts of the world are finally recognising the problem. The uptake and the willingness by many to now act on and participate in global conservation is huge. Governments, nonprofits and societies around the world are coming together. Through organisations like the UN, finding ways to dramatically alter their carbon footprints and tackle the problem head-on. Via amazing programs like the United Nations Sustainability Goals, many of which lend to goal 13 of the program, climate action. 

A final word from David: 

“Saving our planet is within reach. We have worked out all the problems. We are working on all the solutions. Most of them we can do now. And, over time, all of them help the economy. We have a plan. We know what to do. There is a path to sustainability.” 

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