As part of the latest Quintessentially magazine, The Time Issue, Sir David Attenborough talks all about our wonderful world.
Even now, a proud 90 years young, Attenborough retains those infectious qualities we've come to love as a nation; indeed, as a planet. And it's precisely the spotlighting of Earth's minutest details that has garnered him this affection, striding boldly into environments few of us will ever see for ourselves, and revealing the secrets of nature we'd never otherwise have known. Over those nine decades, too, Attenborough has seen the world change, for better or worse. Few people are as qualified to comment on such matters, and it's no surprise to find him in the mood to speak plainly, which is exactly what we get on a gloriously sunny afternoon at ZSL London Zoo.
"Science," the veteran broadcaster begins, "is proceeding at an extraordinary pace. When I started making programmes, or certainly when I was at university, nobody believed continents drifted around the surface of the Earth," he says. "Now that's not only accepted, but the absolute basis for understanding volcanoes, tsunamis… you can't make sense of the world now without knowing that sort of thing. That's happened in my lifetime.
"Look also at the discovery of DNA – we didn't know about DNA when I was an undergraduate, and now these discoveries are going on all the time."
While acknowledging that this relatively rapid pace of knowledge growth is exciting, the elephant in the room – sustainability – just won't go away. "Governments need to do more to address population growth," Attenborough says solemnly. "The pace of this is of detrimental to our planet, and it's undoubtedly our biggest concern. No matter what we do now, no matter what measures are put in place, there are going to be a billion more of us within the next decade. We're staring into the abyss because the planet cannot sustain such gargantuan growth."
The bottom line, Attenborough explains, is the planet is finite: "We are heading for disaster. There seems to be this belief that we can't do much about it." He shrugs. "In the last century, the population has never collectively got together and said, 'This is what we will do for this issue.' It must be possible."
Indeed, although as a broadcaster it's been his remit to passively observe and report, Attenborough's many years 'in the field' allow him a rare and privileged perspective. "In my opinion, all countries should develop a population policy," he suggests. "A total of 70 countries currently have this in one form or another. The defining common denominator is to make family planning and other reproductive health services freely available to everyone, empowering and encouraging their use, although without any kind of coercion."
Yet it isn't just humanity at risk; as conservation programmes also struggle to keep up with a rapidly changing environment, Earth's very ecosystem is in danger.
"The Great Barrier Reef will be the first place that falls," Attenborough predicts with gruesome confidence. "It is the most incredible place on Earth, but mass bleaching is having an effect there and we need to isolate the whole area for its self-preservation to kick back in. In the greater scheme of things in localised areas, look at crops being unable to handle the pressure put on them; it's simply a waiting game. And although, as a nation, we acknowledge a switch towards organic produce, this type of food production actually makes the challenge greater because, in production terms, ethical produce is inefficient compared with genetically modified strands."
These issues, logic dictates, are very much intertwined. "We know climate is already influencing crops, but the effect of overpopulation will be far greater," he continues. "The ripples will extend far and wide. It's a system we simply won't be able to sustain and widespread famine will become the norm, spreading from the Third World. It's an issue that must be addressed – although I don't doubt it will be."
More positively, we should not forget the raft of heartwarming ecological successes of recent years, he says – but for drastic improvement there needs to be a focus on the planet, not the economy (although funding for conservation projects is vital, he notes). There's a feeling, however, that although the human race seems to be fighting a losing battle in some areas, the parallel growth in the technology sector – arguably ahead of the natural curve – opens up a well of potential solutions.
"The technical age is an incredible blessing," Attenborough agrees. "Because of our intelligence, our ever-increasing skills and sophisticated technologies, we have medicines that prevent our children from dying of disease; we have developed ways of growing increasing amounts of food. It's now just a case of great minds playing catch-up in order to repair the damage that has already been done.
"Those minds can take education and learning forward because, let's face it, we've never had a better chance to do something really special and really prolific. When I was a boy, a passion for the natural world wasn't the norm. Nowadays it's fashionable to care about the flora and fauna, and we never had that. Indeed, all we had were a few reference books and a magnifying glass. Now there's a whole world of multimedia that can connect a child to the furthest species. So if we cannot produce passion and educated people with all this at our disposal, we never will. That's the thing about humans – the passion we have for learning."
There's no denying the impact of Attenborough's own educational output, although he's at pains to point out that it's very much a team effort. Planet Earth is just one in a long line of flagship BBC documentaries and series – such as Life on Earth, The Blue Planet, The Life of Mammals, Africa – all spectacular in delivery and epic in scope. Their meticulous presenter may be too humble to see himself at their heart, but for all the splendour of nature the fact remains that he shows it to us. Where the original Planet Earth in 2006 was groundbreaking in its high-definition presentation, Planet Earth II – broadcast late last year – benefited from greater technological leaps. With each new iteration, the level of detail is enhanced. Next on the agenda is Blue Planet II.
The popularity of such show-and-tells – Planet Earth is, deservedly, globally successful – comes down to one simple fact. "We can all identify with nature," Attenborough smiles. "Television is the one thing which can bring us closer than we realise and although it cannot replicate actually being there, it can make you appreciate and understand how the world we live in is in reality. It's an incredible medium.
"People have called Planet Earth 'ground-breaking'. With Planet Earth II, we tried to delve further into the hidden aspects of animal life. The main difference is that while Planet Earth gave a view – quite literally – from above, its sequel embarks on immersing the viewer within the animal community, as a sort of voyeur. It is time-consuming and took incredible determination and patience to get exactly what we needed, but they are not just pockets of information and moving images dotted around – they are a plethora of stories attempting to piece together the many tales of nature that occur every single day, hour and minute… and are indeed happening right now."
There's a vein of humour running through these programmes too, given the often-amusing unpredictability of animals. Attenborough fondly recalls having his shoes removed by baby gorillas, surprising a sloth, and becoming the unwitting love rival of a charged-up capercaillie in the Scottish Highlands… and it's precisely these interactions with his subjects that continue to fascinate us.
Yet in an age where we take such things for granted, it's easy to forget the immense effort programmes like this involve. The BBC has stated it hopes to make Planet Earth III before Attenborough reaches his century. But beyond that, the programme's legacy will surely be an even greater understanding of the world around us, continuing beyond the steady hand of the man who made it all possible – although there's a consensus that Attenborough is irreplaceable.
The man himself won't be drawn on that just yet, but concludes with a positive message: "Through Planet Earth III and IV, we'll discover even more that our destiny remains in our own hands. People are more aware than ever before.
"We're all in this together."
Written by Chris Smith
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