David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet, the critically acclaimed late 2020 documentary, is a powerful watch. Awe-inspiring natural beauty, captured on film, is interwoven with his signature emotive narration, plus a personal touch from this infamous presenter. It’s no surprise that this environmental call-to-arms caused ripples.
This “witness statement” tracks a lifetime studying nature: and its continual destruction and decline. Humans increasingly dominate and destroy the natural world, consuming more and more of the earth which supports us.
The great disaster he focusses on is biodiversity loss, particularly as caused by direct destruction or over-exploitation of ecosystems. This he intersperses, not clearly demarcating, with interrelated environmental crises of global warming and resource depletion.
These crises are compared to the Chernobyl disaster. That is: bad planning, an innocent human mistake. This false innocence throughout is most clearly exposed when he recounts how, in his youth, no-one was aware of environmental issues or of biodiversity loss.
“All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil” — so wrote Marx, in the 1860s. Attenborough is old, but not that old. Yet environmental science is not the most important thing that he could learn from the socialist and environmentalist movements. (While Attenborough was on all accounts a late advocate of action on climate change, to be fair to him, mass environmental movements only kicked off seriously later in his life.)
As previously, a key issue for this natural historian is population. Transitional clips, as we move from one decade of his life to the next, show the clocking up of world population, followed by increased atmospheric carbon concentration, then dropping remaining wilderness. The visual cues have a clear implication: there is a correlation — nay a causation! — between these factors. Increasing population, we may then understand, is driving these environmental crises.
That too many people existing is at fault follows naturally from the fairytale notion that humanity is acting in a harmony of interests. Attenborough’s film portrays the benefits brought about by chopping down rainforests, the incentives to deforestation, as generalised. Benefits by and for “people”, as a whole: resistance or contestation is absent.
This is how accelerating environment destruction, keeping pace with accelerating understanding of its harmful impacts, seems a simple mistake. Humanity has got carried away having too much fun.
If, as he contends, humanity has broken loose from our limits, we might ask why, and why now? No answer is forthcoming. A Marxist account can do better — I will sketch one next week.
This witness statement does advocate positive environmental changes: phasing out fossil fuels, limiting fishing, cutting out meat, and afforestation and rewilding.
Yet it is not clear what policies he advocates for bringing these changes about. As for winning such undefined policies in the first place, while he does touch on environmental movements, the focus seems more on communicating the urgency of tackling the climate crisis to the rich and powerful.
The same class, system, and institutions, that is, who have got us into this mess in the first place. And who, in large part, earnestly recognise that climate change poses significant threats, but have responded with inaction, greenwash, and hot air.
A Life On Our Planet offers valuable reminders of the urgency of tackling climate crises: while simultaneously pushing an inert — and therefore harmful — environmentalism.
• The second part of this article will be in Solidarity 581