My friend Coll (also a freelance editor and writer), and I both loved Sir David Attenborough’s documentary, A Life on Our Planet, that we watched in November and we both bought the book. I asked Coll to review the documentary and here is her in depth, excellent review. Thanx, Coll!
Review of the Netflix film A Life on Our Planet
featuring natural historian Sir David Attenborough
By Hazel (Coll) Hunley in the wilds of South Central Pennsylvania © Hazel Hunley
Writing a review of the film A Life on Our Planet featuring British natural historian and visionary Sir David Attenborough, age 94, has been most difficult. Though a writer for most of my life, I have been at a loss for words adequate enough to honor this man and his ceaseless work of exploring, filming, and experiencing firsthand every corner of the globe and its exquisite life forms—and his urgent call for reversing the course of global warming and climate change. Reviewing A Life on Our Planet for The New York Times October 4th, 2020, on its release on Netflix, Natalia Winkelman called it a “majestic documentary.” And, indeed, it is. She aptly entitled her review, “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet” Review: Ruin and Regrowth.”
Drawing on an extraordinary lifetime of immersion in Nature and his worldwide travel, Sir David calls A Life on Our Planet “My Witness Statement and A Vision for the Future.” In 1 hour and 23 minutes of stunning video, Sir David encapsulates much of what he has seen around the world in its multiple life forms over seven decades—now seriously threatened—and offers his vision of how we can reverse our present course rather than continue like proverbial lemmings to the sea.
Grimly, he begins narrating the film amidst the ruins of the Soviet city of Pripyat, which instantly became unlivable with the explosion of a reactor at the nearby nuclear plant of Chernobyl in 1986. He is seen strolling reflectively through the desolate rooms of a vacant school, artwork papers on the floor fluttering in the breeze and children’s desks and books abandoned when all 50,000 inhabitants had to evacuate the city forever. An explosion, he says, caused by “bad planning and human error.” But he states that Chernobyl might not be the only environmental disaster of epic proportions, since “the spiraling decline of our planet’s diversity” has us on a similar course. Such potential is also the result of bad planning and human error, he says. And so, we have the choice to continue on this course, or, if we act now, we “can put it right.” Thus, in this film and companion book of the same title, co-authored by director-producer Johnnie Hughes, Sir David offers us an alternative that could prevent such an outcome—if we act now!
In A Life on Our Planet, Attenborough takes us through multiple stages of human activity and their effects on the earth, witnessed on his visits to the wild places of the planet, having traveled to every part of the globe as a filmmaker and producer for the BBC. He returns to the same abandoned limestone quarry he explored as a youngster in his native England, turning over a 180-million-year-old ammonite in his hands. Tells of his passion to explore, have adventures, collect fossils, and learn about the wilds, adding, “I am still learning as much now as when I was a boy.”
Throughout this documentary, Sir David charts planetary change according to the increasing population, carbon in the atmosphere, and remaining wilderness, from 1954 (when I was 13 years old!) to 2020. In this time frame, the human population has more than doubled, carbon increased from 310 to 415 parts per million, and wilderness diminished from 66 to 35% of the globe. You begin to get the broad picture of the disastrous course we are on.
The significant change that occurred during our present Halocene Period (“our Garden of Eden” as he calls it) was the shift from being hunter-gathers to being farmers. When we came out of the wilderness, so to speak, our relationship with the natural world began to change. This had many implications, he asserts.
How Sir David became a witness to so much of the natural world’s changes—even visiting a tribe still living as hunter-gatherers deep in the jungles of New Guinea in 1971—was made possible by the advent of air travel in the 1950s. So we see lots of footage of his travels to wild places and peoples in those decades to record this natural history. How much more of a witness could one man be to the gradual environmental changes that began to accelerate over the half century of his making of more than 100 documentaries for the BBC? All this travel included engaging with wild creatures, once being fondled by gorillas as he lay next to them in their grassy habitat in central Africa, a moment he later described as “being in Paradise.” And so, we see not only numerous wild places and the scope of his experience and understanding of the natural world in all its variety and complexity in A Life on Our Planet, but more importantly, feel the passion and love Sir David has for it all. Hence, his extraordinary effort to help reverse humankind’s environmental degradation—in a phrase, to save the earth—and us!
An awe-inspiring moment in this film comes when Sir David shows us the view of our “isolated planet” from space . . . what he calls “a blue marble,” famously photographed by the Apollo 8 astronauts in December 1968, which he believes shifted humanity’s perception of the earth: “We saw that our home was not limitless.” At this juncture in the film, he paused in silence for a few moments, looking downcast and forlorn. But then, after projecting the worst of what could happen to our planet and people in the next decades, he outlines his “vision for the future”—of how to “rewild the world” in concrete ways. He presents real, hopeful possibilities—some already being employed, as in the Netherlands’ extraordinary method of food production—to bring us back from the brink of our own potential extinction. Most importantly, in order to avert a complete collapse of the living world, he says we must restore biodiversity. “We must rewild the world.”
Similarly, in a section of his book, “A Vision for the Future: How to Rewild the World,” Sir David offers a blueprint for reversing humankind’s despoilation of its own nest, urging us all “to move from being apart from nature—to being a part of nature once again (my emphasis).” I have long believed this to be a key to our survival—in effect, to reverse the so-damaging Biblical decree that man should subdue the earth and have dominion over all of its creatures.
Though he is not a lone voice crying out in a diminishing wilderness, Sir David is currently one of the most prominent, and since the release of this film and book, has been featured on numerous media. I first saw him passionately discussing his “witness statement” last October 6th with correspondent William Brangham” on The PBS News Hour—expressing his urgency for humankind to reverse its environmentally ruinous course, but uncertain about its potential to do so (https://www.kcts9.org/show/newshour/clip/a-life-on-our-planet-1602017065).
(If this link doesn’t work, just go to Google and type in the title for several links. es)
Then on NPR’s “Science Friday” December 4th, when host Ira Flatow asked him the most important changes he’s seen, Sir David alluded to what he saw on a deep-sea dive in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia: “One moment I was absolutely sure that what I was seeing was proof of global warming, a dead coral reef bleached white—nothing but white—no fish or very few fish . . . that was death in the ocean!” It was the first time he said he knew for certain that the ocean was warming. In fact, he had told Brangham that seeing the dead coral had been the tipping point in his realization of how bad things had become environmentally.
In an interview on NPR’s “Here and Now” on January 4th Sir David cited the upcoming meeting of the UN Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC) November 1st – 12th 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland, as perhaps “our last chance to get it right.” On the same program, he said that he stood up and cheered when he heard then President Elect Joe Biden say he would rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement right after his inauguration (which he did!). Happily, Sir David cited his newly released series A Perfect Planet on Discovery Plus as being “more than about climate change, but a celebration of the planet.” But he scoffed when one commentator asked if he wouldn’t rather be retired at his advanced age.
In the closing minutes of A Life on Our Planet, Sir David challenges us all “to make amends”—inspiring us with evidence of Nature’s innate power to make a comeback after such a “natural” disaster as the Chernobyl accident. Among the ways we can do so personally, he asserts, is to follow a plant-based diet—which Menupause promotes.
Though I have been a dedicated environmentalist since the first Earth Day in 1970, having bonded with nature as a youngster well before that, in what remains of my life I intend to rededicate myself to meeting Sir David Attenborough’s challenge to “rewild the world.” But will I still be going as strong as he is at 94? Conceivably, if at age 79 I renew and sustain my passionate love of Nature to match his—and eat a plant-based diet!
Here is a scanned photo of the book cover on this same topic and same title as the documentary.
P.S. I hope to follow up later with a review of the book closer to Earth Day in April as a reminder of Attenborough’s passion ad persistence in saving the planet. ellensue