A Review and a Synopsis – David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet

Homeschooling at its very best for young and old. A fascinating history lesson on our extraordinary rise to world supremacy, the science of the symbiosis between Earth’s various occupants and a splattering of maths making it easy to quantify the urgency of the issues we have created.

All told so eloquently by someone we trust.

Now I have read this book, I feel equipped with the detail and the language of Climate Change – why it is so called, what caused it and when, plus how to counter it. It does not preach, it educates with alarming statistics. I unintentionally read David Attenborough’s quotes hearing his gentle voice and this seemed to give the message that I was reading more gravitas. It is certainly a page turner and the formation of the story of how it all began, how remarkably clever it all is and then how it all began to go so horribly wrong, is gripping. However, the final third of the book, where the solutions were being mapped out and political decision making crept in, was a slower read for me.

My new learned word: Holocene – the part of the earth’s history that we think of as our time. It has been one of the most stable time of the Earth’s history of around 4 billion years. Temperate climates and a reasonably stable co-existence between all things nature. So far, there has been five mass extinctions, the last one around 66 million years ago when the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteorite hurtling into a swamp of sulphate gypsum sending up a dust cloud which obliterated the sunlight, stopped growth, increased acidity, sent carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere and generally wreaked immense havoc on the planet’s inhabitants.

Fast forward 66 million years and homo sapiens have excelled at hunting and gathering. As we learned, we taught our offspring directly rather than waiting multi-generations for evolution to do it – a feat only shared by chimpanzees, macaques and bottle-nose dolphins, apparently. This accelerated our civilisation and we continued to learn how to use the land to our benefit. We grew surplus stock to store or trade; we tamed animals and taught them not to be on continuous high alert as we would ward off predators on their behalf; we controlled the waters to irrigate land. Some 22,000 years later, our brains and appearance have little changed (no, really!) but even back then, we were bending the will of the surrounding land and its inhabitants to suit our purpose. Definitely survival of the fittest. David Attenborough’s potted trek through early mankind as we know it was perfectly simple yet suitably detailed.

David Attenborough charts his entry into Natural History broadcasting with Zoo Quest in the early 1950s. He travelled to Sierra Leone in West Africa to film animals in the wild as this was an unknown concept for most of BBC’s audience who had only seen photographs. He accompanied the animals back to London Zoo before they were brought into the BBC studio to be discussed and displayed to the viewers in close up. This made me rather uncomfortable, to be honest, although of course this was innovative broadcasting and a fantastic learning method of its time. Regardless, it felt like poaching and kidnapping to me.

Roll on 1968 and the book tells the tale of how Apollo 8 travels around the moon and the team took the very first picture of the entire Earth, visible to the naked eye. It showed just how small and isolated our world really was in the scheme of things, and just how vulnerable we are. Bill Anders, who took that photo, stated that they “came all this way to discover the moon and the most important thing that we’ve discovered is the earth”.

In 1978, Life on Earth is born and so was empathy with the natural world – mountain gorillas were in jeopardy, whale hunting was seen as a crime for the first time and there was a dawning of realisation amongst the general public and the onset of the conservationists. 1989 sees the rise in palm oil trees yet by this time over half of the Earth’s rainforests had already been cleared. Much of Europe’s wild has been given over to cultivated land so morally what is the difference?

I always knew rainforests had the greatest biodiversity but never quite appreciated that the coral reefs were their wet counterparts. By the end of the 20th Century, we had removed over 90% of all large (fully grown) fish from the oceans. 70% of all small birds are now domesticated although this does include chickens and we eat 50 billion of these each year. 96% of all mammals are either us or our livestock food (we account for a third of this). The other 4% are wild animals such as mice, whales, elephants etc. Yes, just 4%. Incidentally, we reserve over half of all habitable land for ourselves and our food.

A bit of science: Burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) releases Carbon Dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. This, along with methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and water vapour are the greenhouse gasses. Collectively, they form a blanket trapping the sun’s energy near the earth surface, warming it. Big changes to the carbon the the atmosphere has featured in all the Earth’s last five mass extinctions. Rising temperature and CO2 in the water makes the oceans acidic thus dissolving creatures such as coral and phytoplankton. 96% of all marine life was obliterated at the last extinction and it took one million years to poison the ocean. This time, it is taking 200 years. The waters have borne the initial brunt. The permafrost (continually frozen land like parts of Alaska, Greenland) has trapped methane at levels twice as much as there is CO2 in the atmosphere. If the permafrost thaws, the methane will be released.

The book talks about the Great Acceleration (the surge in growth due to human activity such as GDP, energy usage, building, communications – great advancements and rewards) then charts the Great Decline which includes climate change and the loss of biodiversity (the variety of life in the world) believed to have started in the 1950s. David Attenborough did not shy away from acknowledging the benefits the Great Acceleration gave him in terms of his career choice such as transport and communication.

There is mention of the current pandemic and hints at the possibility of further pandemics. It states that such threats hide in mammals and birds so if deforestation and the expansion of farmland continues, the illegal wildlife trade could fuel this. However, I found this rather speculative in amongst a swathe of scientific facts.

WAVES: Water power in 18th Century was driving mill machinery and increasing productivity. Fossil fuels and steam power in the 19th Century lead to the industrial revolution and transport efficiencies. Electrification brought telecommunication in the early 20th Century and lastly the space and digital age arrived in the 1950s. The next wave will hopefully be the Sustainability Revolution.

The 22nd Century: my children may still be alive, although aged. There may be a mass exodus from the eroding coastal towns, away from increasing hot climates where agriculture is impossible, to settle in cooler climes making them over-populated and conflict rife. In 2019, the great Jacinda Ardern dropped GDP as New Zealand’s primary measure of economic success, replacing it with PROFIT + PEOPLE + PLANET. I love this and will research it a little more now I am aware of it.

Food and Diet: this is the only part of the book where I felt I was being personally asked to change my ways. The focus is on every government making unanimous decisions on global rules and regulations. Everyone knows that we should reuse and recycle as much as possible and to drop plastics, especially single use plastics, from our lives. However, what I decide to eat is up to me – and the book aims to influence this. The red meat industry fares pretty badly. Cattle and sheep each take up so much space to live as does their food to grow. British beef may be born and bred British but their foodstuffs may be shipped from half way across the globe. They ruminate (yes, each time they fart, they eliminate methane gas which is around 28 x more powerful than CO2 at warming the earth). Everything says cut back on beef and lamb.

The book discussed alternatives such as alt-protein (such as tofu) and clean meat (a culture of animal cells to eat rather than the animal – think of eating a roast dinner from a petri dish). I eat a lot of chicken, potatoes, veg and dairy. Most people will end up being a little more veggie/vegan in time as it is no longer reserved for teenagers who are “going through a phase”. It is here. Could I do it? Perhaps. David Attenborough’s description of how to live on less/no meat, taking up less space, the scientific model where we all share fairly in the planet’s bounty, made me start singing “I’d like to build the world a home, and furnish it with love. Grow apple trees and honey bees and snow white turtle doves.” And drink Coke. A bit “Utopia in the food aisles” for me.

The Earth needs to regress a little, go back to the wild for the equilibrium to be re-achieved. It seems we are going in the right direction. Silvopasture is where producers/farmers move away from quantity of meat, favouring quality. Cattle are grazed in amongst trees which counter some of the emissions (methane) and they fertilise the soil in return. This replicates the natural state and produces premium, low-volume meat. Plant palm oil plants on “brown belt” land. It is happening across the planet, albeit slowly.

Carrying Capacity is the maximum population size of a species that can be sustained in a specific environment given food, habitat, water etc. The balance of nature. What is our capacity? There is an overshoot day, the date where we have taken a year’s worth of resources from the Earth. In 1987 it was 23rd October. By 2019, this had reduced to 29th July.

They talk about Peak Human, Peak Child. This is where the population growth reaches its pinnacle and then plateaus or drops a little. It is forecast, based on continuing trends, that humans will peak in early 22nd Century at 11 billion people; more than 3 billion people than there are today. However, if achievable measures are put in place, this can be brought forward to 2060 with less than 9 million people. The most profound measure for me to read in this entire book was that if women are empowered, given an education and allowed to make their own decisions across all cultures rather than being dictated to by men, they will have fewer children. This will control the burgeoning population and curb the continuing destruction of the planet due to over-population. It is a demographic transition from high birth and death rates, poor education and low tech to low birth and death rates, high education and high tech. Peak Child, the point at which the number of children aged 15 and under stops growing, is predicted by the UN to be around the middle of this century.

Spine shiver moment: Geologists devised in 2016 a new era to supersede the Holocene; the Anthropocene – the time of the humans where rocks (which are now being formed) will include less species, more plastics and plutonium. It could be a uniquely brief period in geological history and one that ends in the ultimate disappearance of human beings.

My thoughts: Human Beings are intelligent enough to orchestrate their own extinction; or their own survival. My choice. Our choice. Make the right choice.

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