Environment

David Attenborough: The pandemic shows humanity we're all in this together

The broadcasting great tells The Big Issue about his new film, A Life On Our Planet, and what 94 years has taught him about our collective home

Programme Name: Extinction: The Facts - TX: n/a - Episode: Extinction: The Facts - Generics (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Sir David Attenborough - (C) BBC - Photographer: Sam Barker

“Covid-19 has caused, and will continue to cause, immense suffering,” says David Attenborough. “If there is hope that can come out of it then that may arise from the whole world having experienced a shared threat and found a sense that we are all in it together.”

He was the last person I shook hands with. In early March, I went to interview the broadcasting great and naturalist about his new Netflix film, A Life On Our Planet, which was due to be released later that month.

In what is described as “a witness statement”, Attenborough details the dramatic changes to the natural world during his 94-year lifetime. Little did we know the extent to which the world would change in the next few days and weeks. 

Problems are short-term and long-term. 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.

That day, Italy had declared a national lockdown but the same happening in the UK was still impossible to imagine. Across the country toilet paper and hand gel were being stockpiled, but attitudes towards social distancing were yet to shift – though Attenborough did joke about dunking his hand in neat alcohol after greeting me. 

Six months on, we all live differently and are still learning to adapt. Attenborough believes the pandemic has been a game-changer. 

“The time for pure national interests has passed,” he says. “If we are to tackle climate change, enable sustainable development and restore biodiversity, then internationalism has to be our approach. In doing so, we must bring about a greater equality between what nations take from the world and what they give back. The wealthier nations have taken a lot and the time has now come to give.” 

The pandemic showed that global action can be taken swiftly (although perhaps not swiftly enough) to tackle a major crisis. But, as A Life On Our Planet demonstrates, despite the climate emergency representing a far greater threat to humanity than Covid, that’s just not how government – or individual – thinking works. Or not yet. 

“Because it’s not happening tomorrow,” he says. “Problems are short-term and long-term. 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.” 

A Life On Our Planet travels back in time to the 1920s. When Attenborough was born, he was one of two billion people in the world. Today the global population is more than seven-and-a-half billion. As the number of humans has increased, biodiversity has been devastated.

With governments and communities struggling to get on top of the virus – just ask anyone trying to book a Covid test –we don’t have a great record tackling the biggest of issues. So how can we be more optimistic about addressing climate change? 

“The answer to that question is what Jonnie [Hughes, the director] and I have been doing, that’s why I’m doing it. 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.” 

Earlier this month his programme Extinction: The Facts shared a stark warning about the wildlife we are on the verge of losing. But the message still doesn’t seem to be getting through to some parts of the population.

“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.”

But what about the children born today? The world could be unrecognisable to that which Attenborough greeted 94 years ago. Life will be more “totalitarian,” he says, with migration and drought becoming the major issues, even more than they are already for some. Solving these issues will take collaboration.

“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.

“I can’t, I can’t – how ever 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.”

Read the full interview with David Attenborough in this week’s copy of The Big Issue. David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet will premiere in cinemas on October 4 featuring a conversation with Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin. It will be released on Netflix this autumn. 

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