The voice of some of the most stunning nature documentaries ever made is pessimistic about the future of wildlife on earth.
David Attenborough is the most famous nature storyteller on television. The 92-year-old producer, narrator, and documentarian essentially invented the genre of television nature documentaries in his decades-long career at the BBC.
Programs like Life on Earth, Blue Planet, and Planet Earth have brought the wild world into the homes of urban dwellers for decades.
These series focused on the wonderful grandness and diversity of life on earth, conjuring up images of a world that is seemingly untouched by humans.
But these also, at times, skirted around the ecological crises threatening life on the planet — which are caused by humans.
Now, Attenborough is coming into a slightly different role: advocate for fleeting biodiversity and ecosystems.
His latest venture is narrating the Netflix documentary Our Planet, which injects wildlife conservation advocacy into every episode much more deliberately than previous series.
The producers hope to reach a billion people with the series and its accompanying website, with the goal of educating people about the natural world.
And they’ve sent Attenborough on a press tour that includes advocating on behalf of disappearing wildlife and ecosystems at institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
“I find it hard to exaggerate the peril,” Attenborough said Thursday at the IMF, according to the Guardian. “This is the new extinction and we are half way through it.
We are in terrible, terrible trouble and the longer we wait to do something about it the worse it is going to get.”
When I reviewed the program earlier this week, I noted my frustration with how much it felt like the series that have come before it.
Our Planet still focuses on achingly beautiful scenes of life that look undisturbed by human impact. Wildebeests still converge in herds as far as the eye can see. The ocean still hosts feeding frenzies for a huge diversity of life.
The series then peppers in some scenes of loss — like a heartbreaking scene showing walruses plummeting to their deaths — and narration about the perils facing the natural world.
I wanted to ask Attenborough about this tension between the familiar, comfortable scenes and the more sobering ones. I also wanted to know about the most beautiful thing he’s seen recently, and whether he’s fearful for the future of life on the planet.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Some may look at this series and critique the fact that there are a lot of scenes we’ve seen before in similar programs — migrations of wildebeests, caribou. Do we need to see more of that, or do we need to see more of the painful things, like corals being bleached to death?
No. I would think you have to see what the complexity of the ecosystem is. And nobody minds seeing wildebeests or other great sights. I can see them as long as I live. But we’ve got to show that; then you show what the dangers are.
As a documentarian, is there a challenge in telling stories about wildlife loss? We see the numbers — many species across the globe are declining in startling numbers. But the numbers alone aren’t always good at illustrating the problem.
In natural history programs, if you just show what animals do, the conflict animals have, the problems that animals have, the way they interact, how birds fly, how they court, what insects are doing to the trees.
All these are interesting stories, and people are potentially really interested in them, no question about that.
The temptation is just to show them that. And that’s essential too. Because unless you understand the natural world, you don’t understand how the interconnections are so complex that you can damage it without knowing what you’re doing.
Understanding the complexity of the natural world is one of the crucial things.
In watching the series, I was most affected watching the scene of walruses watching the forests on the island of Borneo shrink before our eyes.
[The most upsetting scene of the series shows a gathering of walruses that have been forced onto a tiny stretch of dry land due to the shrinking sea ice in the Arctic, forcing some to climb a high cliff and fall to their apparent deaths.]
Do you think it’s important to find these visuals that communicate loss? Should we show more destruction on television?
Of course. I think that if you said, “You should have shown more earlier,” I think that’s a fair criticism. But we don’t shrink [from it] now.
Actually, I’ve never made a major series in which we didn’t, in the last program, say, “Well, now we’ve shown you all these wonders, but there are these problems.” Every one I’ve ever made for the past 40 years has said that.
So it’s not new. But the requirement that we should be absolutely explicit about it, and speak it with as much vigor as we can, is new. I worked for the BBC, which has to be independent and not pushed by any one faction.
But the moment comes when the scientific facts are overwhelming, and it did, for example, in my lifetime on the questions of smoking and cancer.
And there were loud voices all the time saying, “The BBC must not say that there’s a link between cancer [and smoking].” And the BBC eventually got enough scientific evidence for them to be absolutely sure that they would, and they did. And the same thing is happening here.
Was working on this program with Netflix then liberating for you?
It was very nice to be able to feel that we could be … I could be absolutely explicit about what I think.
Are you pessimistic about the future?
Things are going to get worse. The question is how much worse, and how quickly is it going to get worse. The speed is accelerating. Whatever we do now, it’s going to get worse. And unless we act within the next 10 years, I mean, we are in real trouble.
When you’re narrating this series, do you have a particular audience member in mind?
No. I think the criteria used are: One, don’t say too many words. Two, use words that are comprehensible. Don’t use unnecessary words. But don’t skimp the facts. That’s all I’m trying to do.
What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve seen recently?
In the wild?
In the wild, in your life. Something that fills you with wonder.
Well, I love birds of paradise. I’ve seen displaying birds of paradise, and they are unbelievably beautiful, and unbelievably exciting and glamorous, and wonderful. But in a way, that’s just picking cherries.
Not just in this series, but across your work, what do you hope the impact of these documentaries has been?
The United Nations tells us — the figures are clear — over half of the human population at this point is urbanized. That’s to say that out of touch to some degree with the natural world. Some people don’t see a really wild animal from one day to the next, unless it’s a rat or a pigeon, which are both domesticated.
But if you lose that touch, you don’t understand the consequences of what you do.
Is there some beauty in rats and pigeons too?
Sure. But in fact, they are … our creations. … I mean, rats are very ingenious animals. But it is our concentration of food and the cities we live in that have given them a marvelous source of food, so that they can multiply in the way they do.
By Brian Sesncik