David Attenborough Delivers an Eloquent and Urgent Warning in Netflix’s ‘Life on Our Planet’
David Attenborough is a name readily associated with the grandeur of the natural world. A naturalist exploring every inch of the planet for decades, Attenborough has gained even more, immense fame thanks to the rise of digital camera technology that has made his series like “Planet Earth” and “Blue Planet” visually astounding experiences. His latest Netflix documentary, “David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,” takes on a new, urgent tone. It is both a biography and dire warning. Attenborough, at an impressively lucid 94, addresses his audience directly, looking back at his work chronicling the Earth, and lamenting how much it has changed due to our destructive path across its frontiers.
Far shorter than his usual, multi-episode opuses, Attenborough is having a conversation with us that feels like a companion to his 2019 Netflix series, “Our Planet.” In that symphonic and sobering journey, he presented a natural world vastly eroding under the effects of climate change. Now in “A Life on Our Planet,” Attenborough makes a more personal connection as an eyewitness. He goes back in time to his boyhood in the 1930s, learning about fossils and the five mass extinctions scientists have charted in the Earth’s billion-year history. As Attenborough tells it, his generation came of age just as our current geologic period, the Holocene, began to enter a dangerous phase humanity was simply unaware of. The rapidity of industrial evolution, humankind’s insatiable drive to plunder the forests and seas, coupled with overpopulation, slowly began to impact nature in a way where the dire consequences are now rushing at us. Attenborough began his life as a broadcaster naturalist in the 1950s, still as a young man sent to document regions of the world audiences had never before seen on screen. But whether in the Arctic or African continent, it took time for it to dawn on the explorer that species and ecosystems were dissipating.
One of the most impactful points that “A Life on Our Planet” makes is the pace at which global warming and everything it entails are speeding up. A timeline throughout the documentary keeps pace with shifting realities. When Attenborough was a boy in 1937, the world population was 2.3 billion with 66% remaining wilderness. In 2020 the population is 7.8 billion with 46% wilderness remaining. How did we get here? It’s both simple and overwhelming. With a sharp and clear narration, Attenborough covers how the moment humans invented farming we were well on our way to conquering the globe. Fast forward to our own time and we have become insatiable consumers of everything. An explosion of major fishing corporations in the 1950s quickly shrunk fish populations, whales have famously faced decimation due to oil and meat production, and vast tracts of wildlife has been cut down to make way for constrained farmland (this accounts for now half of all the planet’s arable land). By reflecting on this with biographical anecdotes, such as being there for the dawn of travel journalism done via airplane, Attenborough also drives home just how fast it’s all happening. In the grand scheme the 1950s are not so far back in time. Yet whenever Attenborough returns to the planet’s glacial zones, there is less and less ice. Consider a fact presented about big birds in the world, half are now chickens raised specifically for our dining.
Directors Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, help Attenborough deliver this potent message with the same visual majesty of his previous productions. He wants us to see how tragic the situation is becoming by emphasizing in lush detail the very beauty of the natural world. We rarely tire of the wildlife poetics Attenborough has mastered so well, from clouds of swarming fish underwater to a lone polar bear swimming through an endless ocean. The editing compliments these shots with scenes from our own human jungles from all over the world, as we traverse streets and skyscrapers, stomping out nature on our own quest to dominate all. The opening and closing moments of “A Life on Our Planet” drive the point home hauntingly with shots of the abandoned buildings and residences of Chernobyl, site of the infamous 1986 nuclear disaster. What humans built now lay empty and stripped, while plant life retakes the area and animals roam freely.
Attenborough tries to remain an optimist. Even after contemplating a future timeline based on the data, concluding that by 2100 humankind faces the world’s sixth mass extinction, Attenborough offers a few basic hints at how we can prevent catastrophe. It all comes down to how we live on this rock, with its ecosystems and with each other. Renewable energy, sustainable farming, more education and healthcare to lower birth rates, and other key ideas seem best. Already there are emerging, small examples in countries like the Netherlands or Japan, where sustainable farming and social opportunity has increased better farming practices and lower birth rates. Attenborough doesn’t make any overt political statements, so he never ventures into pondering how the world’s ruling classes will be made to switch to new structures for how our species lives. Although a section on Moroccan solar energy farms is quite hopeful. But Attenborough is not a political thinker, he is a man of science and evidence, so all he can do is show what is happening and warn us it needs to change soon.
“A Life on Our Planet” may seem like the same topic David Attenborough has been discussing for years. But if there was ever an issue to become obsessive about for humankind, Global Warming is this issue. This documentary’s gorgeous imagery, juxtaposed with scenes of desolation and extinction, should make us look around and wonder why we must continue destroying such an incdredible planet. Hopefully, in the future, people will see this kind of documentary as proof that we did become aware of it in time, that we were indeed able to prove we were smarter than the dinosaurs. But whether or not we put our overwhelming awareness into swift action is another discussion to be had about our times.
“David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet” begins streaming Oct. 4 on Netflix.