61 pages 2 hours read

David Attenborough

A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Part memoir and part call to action, renowned naturalist David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future invites readers to consider the state of the Earth today. Attenborough provides an account of his own life as a naturalist, his fears for the future, and his recommendations for how to make possible a better future for the planet and its inhabitants. He recounts evolving attitudes about humanity’s role within the planetary ecosystem, from the optimism of the 1950s—“nothing would limit our progress” (30)—to the grim pragmatism of the present.

A Life on Our Planet was also simultaneously released as a Netflix film in 2020. All quotations in this guide come from the Hachette Book Group, Inc. paperback edition, published 2022.

NOTE: In quotations, this edition retains the British spelling and punctuation of the original.

Summary

A Life on Our Planet is part memoir—a brief selection of boyhood memories, a series of professional anecdotes, and details about encounters with other famous figures within the naturalist community—and part vision statement wherein Attenborough confronts a growing ecological crisis. During his long tenure as a public figure, Attenborough has seen the planet change; he acknowledges the difficult choices humanity now faces. While always hopeful, Attenborough is also realistic about the threats facing Earth—climate change, diminishing wildlands, loss of biodiversity—and the need to act swiftly and decisively.

Part 1 contains Attenborough’s personal recollections about his youth growing up in England and his storied career, first and foremost with the BBC. Attenborough recalls significant events, from collecting fossils as a child to witnessing the first picture of Earth from space, that occur throughout the decades. While these memories are personal, they are employed to illustrate the changes—often, the destruction—wrought by human-generated activity across the planet. This is evidenced by the heading at the beginning of each chapter, detailing a set of statistics: the world population, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and the area of wilderness then remaining.

Part 2 projects the predictable—though not inevitable—results for the future of the planet and humankind alike should the statistics Attenborough cites in Part 1 continue apace. Earth will eventually reach a tipping point from which it may not recover. In the near future, humanity will witness an historic loss of biodiversity, while long-term indicators suggest an oncoming sixth mass extinction (the fifth ended the dinosaurs). Natural disasters such as floods and droughts, along with super-charged weather events, will follow as global temperatures continue to rise. This would engender the worst humanitarian crisis the world has ever seen, with millions of people displaced because of disaster and/or extreme heat. The global food supply will also be threatened, leaving more millions to starve in both hemispheres and setting the stage for viral pandemics.

Part 3 outlines Attenborough’s ideas—honed by years of travel and research, backed by the latest scientific evidence and current ecological views—about how humans can confront these challenges and re-envision a more sustainable future. Each chapter in this part tackles a different problem: “Moving Beyond Growth” encourages nation-states to consider measuring success by means other than monetary wealth, while “Switching to Clean Energy” envisions a future without fossil fuels. Attenborough also addresses the need to rewild the seas and the land, which would, in turn, halt the loss of biodiversity and create areas that can capture and store carbon. He also argues that humanity must face some simple, if controversial, facts: eating meat is harmful to the planet on a significant scale, and managing human populations is necessary if the Earth is to continue to support life at all. In the end, all of this would help humanity in “Achieving More Balanced Lives,” as his chapter title has it: “A revolution in sustainability, a drive to rewild the world and initiatives to stabilise our population would realign us as a species in harmony with the natural world about us,” he writes (203).

It is telling that Part 2, which details the worst-case scenario for the planet in the wake of climate change, is the shortest. Attenborough spends much more time recalling the bucolic days of his youth and career in Part 1, and an equal amount of space on his healing prescriptions for the future of the planet in Part 3. In this book, as in his innumerable television appearances, he portrays his characteristic persona: a charismatic optimist, one still fascinated with all of Earth’s natural bounty, confident that its splendor can yet be salvaged. 

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