In our exclusive extract of Sir David Attenborough’s’s new paperback edition of A Life On Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision of the Future, he shares what lies ahead for our planet due to the impact humans have had on nature and his hopes for the future.
I fear for those who will bear witness to the next 90 years, if we continue living as we are doing at present. The latest in scientific understanding suggests that the living world is on course to tip and collapse. Indeed, it has already begun to do so, and is expected to continue with increasing speed, such that the effects of its decline will become greater in scale and more impactful as they follow one after the other.
Everything we have come to rely upon – all the services that the Earth’s environment has always provided us for free – could begin to falter or fail entirely. The forecast catastrophe would be immeasurably more destructive than Chernobyl or anything we have experienced to date. It would bring far more than flooded real estate, stronger hurricanes and summer wildfires. It would irreversibly reduce the quality of life of everyone who lives through it, and of the generations that follow. When the global ecological breakdown does finally settle and we reach a new equilibrium, humankind, for as long as it continues to exist on this Earth, might be living on a permanently poorer planet.
The devastating scale of the catastrophe now forecast by mainstream environmental science is a direct result of the way we are currently treating the planet. Beginning in the 1950s after the war, our species entered what has been termed the Great Acceleration. Measures of impact and change across a host of parameters demonstrate a strikingly similar pattern when plotted on a graph against time.
The trends in our activities can be expressed in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), energy use, water use, the building of dams, the spread of telecommunications, tourism, the spread of farmland. You can analyse the change in the environment in many ways – by measuring the rise of carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide or methane in the atmosphere, the surface temperature, ocean acidification, loss of fish populations, tropical forest loss.
But whatever you measure, the line on the graph will appear to be much the same. From the mid-century, it will show a sharply accelerating rise, a steepening mountain slope, a hockey-stick. Graph after graph after graph, all the same. This runaway growth is the profile of our contemporary existence. It is the universal model of the period of history that I have witnessed on Earth – the great underlying explanation of all the change that I report. My testimony is a first-person narrative of the Great Acceleration. You look at all these graphs – this one repeating line – and you ask yourself the obvious question: how can this continue? Of course, the answer is that it can’t.
The new paper book version of A Life on Our Planet is published by Penguin Random House by David Attenborough. RRP $22.99.
David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet is also a 2020 British documentary film narrated by David Attenborough and produced and directed by Jonnie Hughes. The film was nominated for five Emmy Awards in 2020. It was released by Netflix alongside a companion book of the same name.