David Attenborough: “In crisis the natural world is a solace”

Sir David Attenborough talks to The Big Issue about finding comfort in nature, global response to the coronavirus pandemic and his unfailing hope for the future

The coronavirus pandemic has prompted governments and people around the world to take unprecedented action. But for years now, we’ve ignored the much greater threat of the climate emergency, which sooner rather than later will wipe us all out, irrespective of how much social distancing we do.

“Because it’s not happening tomorrow,” David Attenborough states matter-of-factly. “If there was a risk of you getting coronavirus tomorrow – which there is – and someone next door had got it, you would find you were in quarantine quite quickly. But somebody next door to you who was doing something that could cause a terrible thing in five years’ time? People will say, ‘Well, that’s five years’ time, meanwhile I’ve got to deal with coronavirus, or something’.”

Do the large-scale attempts to stem the spread of the virus prove that in extreme circumstances political muscle can be flexed and mass behavioural change from the rest of us is possible?

“Problems are short-term and long-term,” Attenborough replies. “The short-term we deal with and the long-term ‘we’ll do tomorrow’. But tomorrow never comes. And then suddenly we discover it’s too late.”

For a 93-year-old, Sir David Attenborough demonstrates a cavalier attitude towards handshakes when he greets The Big Issue in a central London hotel. Apart from the clamminess, I assure him, my hands are otherwise clean. “I’m going to put this in neat alcohol for five minutes,” he jokes, holding out his arm as if trying to self-isolate it.

We meet in early March, which seems already another age. Later the same day Italy would announce a full lockdown of the country. The Earth-shifting consequences of the coronavirus pandemic were as yet unclear, or at least too massive to comprehend. At this uncertain time, who better to talk to than Sir David Attenborough, whose every word sounds like eternal wisdom.

That famous, rich, whispery voice makes whatever he says sound like he’s imparting a great secret of the world – and most of the time that’s exactly what he’s doing. Over a 65+ year career celebrating the wonders of the natural world, Attenborough has been a spokesperson for the planet, himself becoming probably its single most precious natural resource.

Independent of how you spend your life and what you think is important in your life, the plain fact is that every mouthful of food you eat comes from the natural world

Attenborough came of age in the 1950s – at the same time as commercial air travel and new TV technology, making him a pioneer of natural history programmes. His Life on Earth series beginning in the 1970s brought 650 species in 39 countries to 500 million viewers. In recent years, monumental documentaries like Blue PlanetFrozen Planet and Planet Earth have shifted the axis on how we view the world. Attenborough was one of the first to experience first-hand the rich diversity and magnificence of wildlife but over the decades he has realised that he also may be one of the last.

His next documentary, A Life On Our Planet (launch date, like everything, postponed until who knows when) is “a witness statement”, examining the changes that have happened in the span of one lifetime. In the 1920s, the world’s population was less than two billion, today it’s over seven and a half billion. As humanity has unrelentingly multiplied, biodiversity has been devastated.

The film maintains that the planet we lived on could have been a Garden of Eden – that it could be again if we reverse the damage we’ve done. Using that analogy, what was the serpent?

“Mammon!” Attenborough exclaims.

In the moment I wonder if ‘Mammon’ might be a rare kind of snake I haven’t heard of but Attenborough notices my puzzled expression then does what he’s best at doing – explaining ideas in a way his audience can understand.

“Well, I suppose individual selfishness,” he clarifies. “Greed. Arrogance about our independence in the natural world and the extent to which we depend upon it.” He could go on listing human faults but concludes with a sigh, “That’ll do”.

The solution to our survival is simple, Attenborough believes. If we rewild the world, the stable balance of biodiversity will ensure our survival. But for people living increasingly insular lives, how can we remind them of their place in the circle of life?

“Independent of how you spend your life and what you think is important in your life, the plain fact is that every mouthful of food you eat comes from the natural world; there’s no food that nourishes you that doesn’t come from the natural world. Every lungful of air that you take is refined by the natural world; oxygen breathed out by plants. If you can’t breathe and you can’t eat, you don’t exist.”

He shifts to the therapeutic potential of nature. “In times of crisis the natural world is a source of both joy and solace. I mean, that’s high-flown talk but people in cause of sorrow know that the natural world produces the comfort that can come from nothing else. And we are part of the natural world. If we damage the natural world, we damage ourselves.”

According to director Jonnie Hughes, A Life On Our Planet deviates from many of Attenborough’s previous films.

“We are understanding how to tell this story, aren’t we? There’s new information coming and there’s new ways of looking at it,” says Hughes.

“A lot of natural history filmmaking has been about the timeless natural world. So [Attenborough’s] description of evolutionary history and the behaviour that we film – it’s almost like those lions have always been going after those wildebeest and it’s timeless.”

Hughes was also behind Attenborough’s Our Planet series on Netflix, which featured devastating scenes of walrus falling from cliffs to their deaths because a lack of sea ice had led to overcrowding on land.

Hughes continues: “Those walrus are falling off cliffs now, they weren’t five years ago. We’re disengaging from that timelessness, which means that we’re talking about change, big changes, happening. This story is the big issue right now.”

Speaking of big issues, when society has such a poor track record solving big issues like the refugee crisis, poverty or homelessness, how can we be optimistic about addressing climate change?

“The answer to that question is what Jonnie and I have been doing, that’s why I’m doing it,” Attenborough says. “You put forward partisan points of view with all the energy that you can find to give them. I’ve been feeling these things for a long time but I’ve never put it into as vigorous and clear-sighted an argument.”

Kids these days are knowledgeable, aware of what’s happening and are concerned. They are vocal

With the enthusiasm of someone a quarter his age, Attenborough has become a figurehead of the climate movement, energised in the last few months by Greta Thunberg and a fresh generation of young campaigners. While Attenborough has documented wildlife over decades, it’s humans that have evolved more than any other animal.

“We haven’t changed physically, of course, but we’ve changed our mental attitudes,” he explains. “Kids these days are knowledgeable, aware of what’s happening and are concerned. They are vocal. I haven’t known a generation of children that could be placed alongside these today.”

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Attenborough’s programmes also spread the message but at the same time, people who tune in are likely to be already aware of the climate emergency. How do you preach beyond the converted?

“There was a situation when the only people who watched natural history programmes were people who were converted in the sense that they understood things about natural history, but that is no longer the case. Simply statistically, the audience who see these programmes are all conditions of humanity – all ages, all income groups. And it should be that everyone is concerned because it’s where we live. It affects every moment of our lives. How could you not be concerned?”

Well, why aren’t some people?

“To start with, they didn’t know what the problem was. When I was a boy, municipal governments on the coast of England were pouring raw sewage into the sea, on the grounds that the sea was so big that it would wash it all away. They never even considered the possibility that there’s another side of the ocean, it was washing up on somebody else’s doorstep. That’s how ignorant we were. The world has changed since then. You know, there are three times as many people in this world as when I started making programmes, let alone when I was born. Three times as many people in the world,” he emphasises.

For a child born today, in a world never more chaotic, what do you think their life will be like when they’re 93?

“Well, I don’t know,” he pauses. “It depends how optimistic you are about the struggle we are all occupied with. If we lose, then the world will look a fairly boring place. It’ll be a poorer place and I think the political structures will be a different. Life will be more totalitarian. Migrations of human beings will be a serious problem. The deserts will spread in Africa and a lot of people will be displaced. So there will be fairly serious consequences. I hope that won’t happen and nations will get together, make sure it doesn’t happen.”

How optimistic are you today that we’ll manage to avoid the most serious consequences?

“I couldn’t live…” he begins, then stops. “If I was seriously – seriously – convinced that there was no hope of actually dealing with the problems, I don’t know what I’d do.” In an even softer whisper he repeats, “I don’t know what I’d do.”

Lifting his ice blue eyes, he continues. “I can’t, I can’t – however realistic it is – I couldn’t accept that. I would have to do what we’re doing now, which is to persuade people as far as you possibly can that they should do something, which implies that it’s therefore possible to improve things. And I think it is.”

Attenborough has come to simple conclusions about what needs to be done now. Short-term thinking has to end, raising the standard of living for all people in all countries is a must. At the end of the film he outlines what we can do, explaining why a fall in population would be beneficial, why we need to eat a lot less meat, and why it’s wrong for banks and pension schemes to invest in fossil fuels. But he stops short of insisting that YOU have to have fewer children, YOU have to eat less meat and for certain banks or other businesses to be boycotted.

“If you believe human beings have basic rights as a human being, one of them is free action. Those are inalienable rights – or should be. You can only hope that you persuade people so they recognise where these things come from,” he says, still harbouring optimism that we can get our act together.

Is one reason to be cheerful that no matter how badly humans mess up this planet, our whole species is just a relative blink in time and in a few hundred thousand years the Earth will have reset? Life, as a wise man once said, finds a way. Millions of years from now our fossils will be analysed by another dominant lifeform and they’ll wonder why we’re not around any more.

“Are you assuming we’re not there?” he asks.

Yes.

“You may be right but I do have grandchildren and I think they should have a fair crack at the whip.”

In the 1950s, Attenborough did national service in the navy based at Rosyth in Fife and compares the massive wholesale changes that have started to happen to steering a large ship.

“You spin the wheel and nothing happens at all for at least five minutes, if not 10 minutes. You think, ‘But I’m going into the cliff!’ It takes a long time to turn around.

“We’re in an unprecedented situation,” he emphasises. “We know quite a lot about the history of the world. We go back 500 million years and there is no species with anything like the power homo sapiens have over the natural world. There is nothing remotely like the situation we’re in at the moment. There’s no moral to be taken from what happened in the past. We’ve got a completely blank sheet of paper in front of us.”

David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet has been produced by Silverback Films and WWF. The film will be available to watch in cinemas and globally via Netflix later this year. For more information and to register for updates, see attenborough.film #AttenboroughFilm

This article originally appeared in The Big Issue magazine #1403. To get your copy, head to The Big Issue Shop or purchase on our app, available on Apple Store and Google Play. You can also subscribe here to get magazines delivered to your door each week.


Image: BBC