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Attenborough’s temperature check and sobering vision for planet Earth

Book review: A Life on Our Planet

A Hawaiian monk seal caught in fishing tackle off Kure Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The seal was freed and released. Picture: Michael Pitts/Naturepl.com - all pictures scanned from title A Life On Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future

By Garth Johnstone

When I started reading David Attenborough’s A Life On Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future, I got set to be seriously disappointed.

I had ordered the title for review because I was keen to hear what this visionary, with at least six decades immersed in the world of animals, birds, critters, sea creatures, humans and more in the wild had to teach me about life on Earth and the planet itself.

But the first few chapters were, to be honest, a bit flat and devoid of soul, if you like. I wasn’t looking for dramatic revelations, but wanted to (in light of the title) be educated, tested and “schooled” on the key issues and, most important, solutions and the way forward for mankind.

Moving through gears

But given my huge respect for Attenborough and what he has done, his character, experience and wisdom, I persevered, and boy am I glad I did.

This book does (in my opinion) take a while to warm up, moving through gears before suddenly hitting on a golden seam of interest, which got me to sit up and take notice, even making notes to follow up on the points raised by the great man.

Earlier chapters read more like a summary of Attenborough’s career which, while interesting, was not going to hold my attention for hundreds of pages.

Dian Fossey with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. She drew the world’s attention to the plight of the gentle giants, also enabling the filming of the animals for Life on Earth. Picture: The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International

He goes through his early career and accidental transition from behind to in front of the camera; his first interaction with mountain gorillas and the affect this encounter had on him; the BBC broadcast of the Apollo 8 mission and those famous photographs of the Earth; an unforgettable interaction with indigenous people in New Guinea; the filming of the Blue Planet series and much more. All the while Attenborough was forming and refining his holistic view that would emphasise the importance of rewilding and fighting to protect and re-introduce biodiversity in as many of the world’s ecosystems as possible.

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At about page 100 the pace really picks up with the section, “What Lies Ahead”, a sobering and alarming account laying out what will happen by certain milestones, such as 2030, 2050 and 2080, if humankind does not reform. Attenborough turns his attention to regenerative farming and other farming innovations, including in fish farming, plus intelligent, green approaches to sourcing energy.

David Attenborough in the studio during filming of A Zoo Quest to Paraguay. Attenborough introduces a six-banded armadillo to the camera. Picture: BBC

He looks at entire systems, biodiversity and how the re-introduction of key species into environments can drastically restore optimal functionality in a relatively short space of time (eg the Yellowstone wolves). His writing on “the Great Acceleration” and the “Planetary Boundaries Model”, and how human progress and affluence set off an almost unstoppable process that threatens our planet, is gripping and alarming.

During the filming of ‘Frozen Planet 1’. Picture: BBC

It’s also interesting that Attenborough’s approach – despite having witnessed so much of what man has done wrong, in, for example, hacking down swathes of forests and replacing them with crops such as soya and rubber plantations, or packing off timber for sale in lucrative markets – remains optimistic, to a point.

His warnings are stark, yet he acknowledges the great problem solvers people have been for thousands of years, and our huge incentive to get things right now, or else. He accompanies these observations with examples of positive change and nations which are setting the standard.

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But the bottom line is clear … time is running out. We have got to, in the next few decades, turn the ship around, before we reach the critical point of no return.

A Life on our Planet is a big book, a sobering but warm argument, from a big man, perhaps the most famous face in the world today. I hope as many people as possible get to read it.

Publishers: Random House/Penguin
ISBN: 9781529108279

Attenborough speaking at the launch of the WWF’s 2016 Living Planet Report. Picture: Stonehouse Photographic/WWF_UK

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Get in those greens!