Rob Iles

03 Nov 2020

Unless you’ve been living under a rock – which sounds quite comforting in this pandemic-stricken age – you’ll be all too aware of climate change and the worrying rate at which our planet is deteriorating.

Living situation permitting, you may also have had an opportunity to watch Sir David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet – streaming now on Netflix – which delves into the heart of said deterioration, and its root causes (unspoiler alert: it’s human beings).


For decades, Attenborough has been our portal into the natural world. A purveyor of eye-opening nature documentaries since the beginning of, well, nature documentaries. Speaking from personal experience, Sir David was one of a choice few – along with Noel Edmonds and Mr Blobby – who had the pulling power to bring my family together as we gathered to explore the depths of The Blue Planet.

More recently, his soothing voice has provided solace from the looming fear of Monday, with documentaries such as Africa and Planet Earth II supplying some welcome escapism in the form of battling giraffes – reminiscent of a pre-pandemic commute – and epic chase sequences. I for one am still haunted by this unforgettable scene of baby iguanas being chased by killer snakes (AND I KNOW YOU ARE TOO).

But A Life on Our Planet is a different kind of nature show – it’s a warning. Attenborough himself calls this his witness statement. The intent of which is clear: as the documentary opens in Chernobyl, the setting of the single largest act of human negligence, which serves as the perfect metaphor to the threat we pose to our planet.

From there, it cuts between Attenborough’s narration – grave, emotional, sincere – and archive footage, as he takes viewers on a whistle-stop tour of his life. Beginning with his maiden voyages to faraway lands in the 1950s. Before revisiting his most seminal works, such as Life on Earth (1979), The Living Planet (1984), Planet Earth (2006) and Africa (2013). Sounds amazing, right? Well, amazing it is.

But far from a best moments montage, this chronological journey has a not-so-ulterior motive. Framed by an ominous on-screen ticker, which marks the passing of the years between said seminal works, with each jump forward in time acknowledging the changing world population, carbon in atmosphere and remaining wilderness.

Unsurprisingly, the results are bleak. At the time the on-screen ticker first appears, dated as 1937, the world population is 2.3 billion, carbon in the atmosphere is at 280 parts per million and the remaining wilderness is 66%.

Fast-forward 83 years to 2020 and remarkably David Attenborough’s 94th year on this planet and the rate of change is staggering – terrifying, even. In one man’s lifetime, the world’s population has more than tripled, wilderness has shrunk to an alarming 35% and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has pushed the planet to breaking point.

You can read these statistics and begin to fathom our impact upon the earth. But watching for yourself is essential to feel the deterioration first-hand. Perhaps most haunting is the image of a bewildered orangutan in a solitary tree, stood in the heart of what was once a rainforest, since replaced – like half of the world’s fertile land – by rows of monotonous agriculture.

Just in case startling statistics and bewildered orangutans weren’t enough to drive this already powerful documentary home, Sir David then takes us through his predictions for the next 80 years. Echoing dystopian fictions like Mad Max and The Drowned World, which suddenly don’t feel so imagined, as he, with the aid of science, predicts that our planet will be four degrees warmer by 2100.

Ultimately, this will render large parts of the earth uninhabitable. And as the so-called sixth mass extinction gets well underway, the insecurity and instability of the Holocene Epoch – or the age of man – spells the end of our Garden of Eden.

It all makes for quite depressing viewing – it’s no Noel’s House Party. But there is hope.


Okay, Attenborough doesn’t solely cite technology as our way out of this mess. Some of the other means will be familiar – eat less meat, look to renewable energy, put pressure on banks to stop funding fossil fuels. Such is his sincerity, backed up by that silky voice, I’m considering cutting down my carnivorous diet for at least one day of the week.

Other means are less discussed, such as calls to improve opportunities for people in developing countries. By keeping children – especially girls – in education and improving access to healthcare, the hope is that it will slow the rate at which the world’s population is growing, currently predicted to reach 11 billion people by 2100.

Or the widening of marine reserves, which has seen great success in the Pacific archipelago of Palau, where when fishing stocks were rapidly depleting, the government restricted fishing practices and banned fishing entirely in some areas.

Before long, protected fish populations became so healthy that they spilled into areas where fishing was allowed. If no-fish zones were implemented in over a third of the world’s oceans, scientists predict that we would have all the fish (and food) we need. Brill-iant.

But then it’s all on technology, spearheaded by abovementioned renewables, where our attention is brought to the case study of Morocco. At the turn of the century, the country relied on imported fossil fuels for almost all of its energy.

Today, following the completion of the world’s largest concentrated solar farm at the gateway to the Sahara Desert, Morocco generates 40% of its energy needs from sustainable sources and has ambitious plans in place to be an exporter of renewable energy by 2050.

Closer to home, Attenborough also alludes to the technological prowess of the Netherlands. As one of the world’s most densely populated nations, Dutch farmers had no choice but to try and use land much more efficiently.

Today, this tiny country is the world’s second largest exporter of food – second only to the US – thanks to its innovative approach to farming, enabled by technology, which has seen yields raised, while water used, pesticides, fertilisers and the emission of carbon have all fallen.

When it’s not busy writing articles and helping care for dementia patients, artificial intelligence is also a powerful tool in the fight against climate change.

From smart home appliances that turn off when they’re not in use, to refrigerators that send you an email if the door is ajar. Slowly but surely, these innovations are making their way into more and more homes, saving more and more energy in the process.

But this is just the beginning. Microsoft’s AI for Earth is one effort underway to harness the potential of artificial intelligence for the good of the planet, with hundreds of research grants being awarded to teams seeking to boost our biodiversity, climate, water and agriculture.

On almost every corner of the globe, AI is already making an impact. Be it analysing icy surfaces to measure changes over time, helping plant new forests to maximise carbon sequestration, or devising biodegradable plastic replacements to reduce the eight million tonnes of plastics that make their way into our oceans – every year.

Overall, however, perhaps the most positive force for our planet is awareness – again, aided by technology. In A Life On Our Planet, Attenborough mentions how “there’s nothing to stop us, unless we stop ourselves”.

To stop ourselves, we must be aware of exactly what it is we’re trying to save.

In 1968, this awareness took the form of the Apollo 8 mission and its live broadcast of never-before-seen views of the earth onto television screens around the world. It highlighted the solitude of our planet and changed the human mindset that our home was not limitless.

A decade later, Attenborough’s recordings of mournful whale song, enabled by technology, gave a voice to these endangered animals and shifted public opinion towards whaling, which ultimately saved them from extinction.

Today, A Life On Our Planet has harnessed the power of Netflix to reach millions and raise awareness around the world. Supported, of course, by the technology of social media to reach millions more and inspire people like me to eat one less burger a week.

So, it’s not all doom and gloom (just yet). Sir David Attenborough has put the ball firmly in our court and technology has scored a last-minute equaliser to help take the wellbeing of our planet into extra time.

Let’s hope it doesn’t go to penalties.