Book Review: ‘A Life on Our Planet’ by David Attenborough

A Life on Our Planet by David AttenboroughCFWI Climate Ambassador Pippa Stilwell brings us the following review of A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future by David Attenborough.

Sir David Attenborough was born in 1926. He has spent his life exploring the wild places of our planet and making films about the creatures that live there. The trajectory of his life has followed, step by step, the progress of what has been called ‘The Great Acceleration’ – that is, the huge advances in science, technology, and exploration which mark the unfolding of the 20th and 21st centuries.

This extraordinary book begins in 1937, when the world population was 2.3 billion, when levels of carbon in the atmosphere measured 280 parts per million, and when 66% of pristine wilderness remained. In the first part of the book, in what the author describes as ‘my witness statement’, each chapter is headed by a date and tracks the steady rise of these statistics to, in 2020, a world population of 7.8 billion, 415 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere, and 35% of wilderness remaining. Are we, he asks, sleepwalking into a catastrophe?

What lies ahead? In the middle chapters, the author outlines how the Earth is a sealed system: It is our planet, and we share it with all the living world. To restore its balance, we need as a priority to stop burning fossil fuels and to switch to green energy. But we also need to restore the planet’s ecosystems, which have sustained human civilisation for 12,00 years, and life in the wild for millions of years before that. And, he asserts, we need to re-wild the world.

Part three of the book reveals Attenborough’s vision as he outlines the routes we might take towards a sustainable future, for example:

  • Abandoning the impossible goal of annual economic growth
  • Switching to clean energy
  • Rewilding the seas, and protecting no-fishing zones over at least one third of the planet’s oceans
  • Making farming sustainable, and improving practice to limit land use
  • Rewilding the land

Although the early chapters of the book make for grim reading, the later section is optimistic and inspiring, outlining the exciting innovations that are already coming into play in many parts of the world. There really is a global movement for change.

However, that movement must have fairness at its core, financing resilience building for those communities already experiencing the worst calamities of climate change. It is women who bear the brunt of these calamities, and education for women across the globe is hugely important, enabling them to feed their children, whilst empowering them to limit the size of their families if they so wish.

The book’s conclusion restates the importance of restoring the natural world. Sir David Attenborough’s most recent series is entitled Our Perfect Planet (BBC 1 Sunday at 8pm) and examines some of the extraordinary and once pristine ecosystems now under threat from man-made climate change. It is well worth watching, and the book makes essential reading.

A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future, David Attenborough, Penguin Random House UK 2020 ISBN 978-1-529-10827-9

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