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A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future - Sir David Attenborough

Last updated Aug 29, 2023


# Metadata

# Highlights

The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture. (Location 5)

# INTRODUCTION Our Greatest Mistake

it is quite natural to carry on in this way until there is a convincing reason not to do so and a very good plan for an alternative. (Location 90)

# PART ONE My Witness Statement

It was not laws invented by human beings that interested me, but the principles that governed the lives of animals and plants; not the history of kings and queens, or even the different languages that had been developed by different human societies, but the truths that had governed the world around me long before humanity had appeared in it. (Location 122)

The story of the development of life on Earth is for the most part one of slow, steady change. (Location 128)

Over billions of years, life forms slowly changed and became more complex, more efficient, often more specialised. (Location 131)

To an evolutionary biologist, the term ‘culture’ describes the information that can be passed from one individual to another by teaching or imitation. (Location 159)

By some 200,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans, Homo sapiens–people like you and me–had appeared. We have changed physically very little since then. What has changed spectacularly, is our culture. (Location 168)

If we were to develop much further we needed a little stability. The retreat of the last glaciers, 11,700 years ago, brought that stability. (Location 178)

Almost as soon as the environment stabilised, groups of people living in the Middle East began to abandon gathering plants and hunting animals and took to a completely new way of life. They started to farm. (Location 194)

My job was to produce non-fiction programmes of all kinds, but as the number and variety of programmes shown each evening increased I started to specialise in natural history. (Location 249)

I yearned to let viewers see them in their proper surroundings–in the wild where their varied shapes and colours made sense–and eventually I worked out a way in which I might do that. (Location 252)

The first programme was transmitted in December 1954. (Location 259)

It was some time before I acquired the skills that I needed to become reasonably competent at living and working in the wilderness. (Location 268)

What looked like a path of destruction in the herds’ wake was in fact an essential stage in the grasses’ life cycle. If there were too few grazers, the grasses would disappear shaded by taller plants that would come to dominate in the herds’ absence. (Location 299)

Without its vast space, the Serengeti ecosystem would lose its balance and collapse. (Location 314)

The point was made. Nature is far from unlimited. The wild is finite. It needs protecting. (Location 320)

This would be done by a new network called BBC2. Its programmes would also explore new styles and subjects. What exactly these were, was not defined; that would be the responsibility of its controller. To anyone interested in broadcasting, such a job was irresistible. (Location 334)

The pictures from Apollo 8 had transformed the mindset of the population of the world. (Location 373)

in the twentieth century, the development of the internal combustion engine put a stop to that. Explorers now used Land Rovers and jeeps, light aircraft and even helicopters. I knew of only one place where great discoveries were still being made by explorers travelling entirely on foot–New Guinea. (Location 386)

I pointed to cakes of salt we had brought with us. It is used as currency all over New Guinea. They nodded. (Location 422)

I had had a vision of how all human beings had once lived–in small groups that found all they needed in the natural world around them. The resources they relied upon were self-renewing. They produced little or no waste. They lived sustainably, in balance with their environment in a way that could continue effectively, for ever. (Location 437)

After an hour or so we could hear crashes ahead of us and we knew we were close. As we moved cautiously forward, Ian started to make a series of loud grunting noises to signal our presence. It was important not to catch them by surprise. If we did the dominant male might charge us. We came to a clearing and Ian called a halt. We must now sit out in the open so that the gorillas could see us. Once they knew we were with Ian, they would be unlikely to take fright. (Location 483)

They were feeding, ripping up the vegetation by the handful. We sat and watched enthralled until, after a few minutes, they got to their feet and leisurely strolled away. We had been accepted, Ian said. Next time, we could film. (Location 487)

if there were ever a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature’s world, it must be with the gorilla. The male is an enormously powerful creature but he only uses his strength when he is protecting his family and it is very rare that there is violence within the group. (Location 495)

By the time I was born, 50,000 whales were being killed every year to supply an established market for their oil, their meat and their bones. (Location 521)

The size of terrestrial animals is limited by the mechanical strength of bone: above a certain weight, bone breaks. (Location 524)

whales are now thought to be responsible for bringing more important nutrients to surface waters in some parts of the ocean than the outflows of local rivers.9 The ocean of the Holocene needed its whales to remain productive. (Location 536)

In the late 1960s, an American biologist Roger Payne had turned from recording the ultrasonic sounds of bats to investigating claims from the US Navy that there were songs in the ocean. (Location 547)

I did not want to suggest that humanity was in some way separate from the rest of the animal kingdom. We do not have a special place. We are not the preordained and final pinnacle of evolution. We are just another species in the tree of life. Nonetheless we have broken free from many of the constraints that affect all other species. (Location 566)

Unlike all other species in the history of life on Earth, we were free from the pressures of evolutionary natural selection. Our bodies had not changed significantly in 200,000 years, but our behaviour and our societies had become increasingly detached from the natural environment that surrounds us. There was nothing left to restrict us. (Location 577)

The absence of seasons in the tropics gives a timelessness to the forest that encourages biodiversity. Since the plants are not tied to a climatic calendar, their flowering, fruiting and production of seeds can happen at any time. (Location 612)

We cannot continue to cut down rainforests for ever, and anything that we can’t do for ever is, by definition, unsustainable. If we do things that are unsustainable, the damage accumulates to a point when ultimately the whole system collapses. No habitat, no matter how big, is secure. (Location 645)

cyanobacteria began to photosynthesise, using energy from the Sun’s rays to build their tissues. The exhaust gas of the process–oxygen–caused a revolution. It became the standard fuel for a much more efficient way of extracting energy from food, and so paved the way for the establishment of all complex life. (Location 661)

demand valve, the device that is still the essential mechanism enabling human swimmers to breathe underwater. (Location 671)

In fish populations, size matters. Most open-water fish grow throughout their lives. The reproductive potential of a female fish is related to her bulk. Large mothers produce disproportionately more eggs. So, by removing all the fish over a certain size, we remove its most effective breeders and soon populations collapse. (Location 705)

Invention accumulates. If you combine the diesel engine, GPS, and the echo sounder, the opportunities they create are not just added to one another, they are multiplied. But the ability of fish to reproduce is limited. (Location 718)

The ocean routinely has chains with four, five and more links. (Location 721)

Each generation defines the normal by what it experiences. (Location 735)

A radical change in the level of atmospheric carbon was a feature of all five mass extinctions in the Earth’s history and a major factor in the most comprehensive annihilation of species–the Permian extinction, 252 million years ago. (Location 770)

The living world has never been able to deal with significant increases of carbon in the atmosphere. Our addiction to coal, oil and gas was on course to knock our environment from its benign, level setting and trigger something similar to a mass extinction. (Location 785)

The dark seas now absorb more of the Sun’s heat, creating a positive feedback and speeding the thaw still further. The last time the Earth was as warm as it is now, there was far less ice than there is today. The thaw has a lag–a slow start. But once it gets going, it will be impossible to halt. (Location 806)

We have interrupted the free flow of almost all the world’s sizeable rivers with over 50,000 large dams. Dams can also change the temperature of the water, drastically altering the timing of fish migrations and their breeding events. (Location 847)

The top driver of continuing deforestation, which doubles that of the next three greatest cases combined, is beef production. (Location 859)

Many soils are losing their topsoil and changing from rich ecosystems brimming with fungi, worms, specialist bacteria and a host of other microscopic organisms, into hard, sterile and empty ground. (Location 872)

Even more startling is the fact that 96 per cent of the mass of all the mammals on Earth is made up of our bodies and those of the animals that we raise to eat. Our own mass accounts for one third of the total. Our domestic mammals–chiefly cows, pigs and sheep–make up just over 60 per cent. The remainder–all the wild mammals, from mice to elephants and whales–account for just 4 per cent. (Location 879)

# PART TWO What Lies Ahead

When a few bacteria are placed on a bed of food in a sterile, sealed dish–a perfect environment, free from competition, sitting on abundant nutrients–they take some time to adapt themselves to the new medium–a period called the lag phase. (Location 918)

Food starts to run out everywhere, the gathering waste becomes deadly throughout the dish, and the colony crashes as quickly as it rose. Ultimately, the sealed dish becomes a very different place–a place with no food, its environment ruined, hot, acid and toxic. (Location 928)

rise of the industrial age–which enabled us, with new sources of power and machinery to multiply the efforts of an individual–but it appears to have finally been triggered by the end of the Second World War. The war effort itself was responsible for breakthroughs in medicine, engineering, science and communication. (Location 932)

Our accelerating growth cannot continue forever–those photographs from Apollo show quite clearly that Earth is a closed system just like the bacteria colony’s sealed dish. (Location 943)

The decline is self-feeding–the more that dieback occurs, the more it causes further dieback. The drying of the entire Amazon basin is therefore predicted to be swift and devastating. (Location 976)

The Amazon’s greatest environmental service is that, for the whole of the Holocene, more than 100 billion tonnes of carbon has been locked away in its trees. (Location 986)

# PART THREE A Vision for the Future How to Rewild the World

our journey must be guided by a new philosophy–or, more accurately, a return to an old philosophy. (Location 1068)

The University of Oxford economist Kate Raworth has clarified this challenge by adding an inner ring to the planetary boundaries model. This new ring holds the minimum requirements of human well-being: good housing, healthcare, clean water, safe food, access to energy, good education, an income, a political voice and justice. (Location 1090)

Things can thrive without necessarily getting bigger. (Location 1103)

As any economist will explain, over the last 70 years all our social, economic and political institutions have adopted one overriding goal–an ever-increasing growth in each nation, judged by the crude measure of gross domestic product. (Location 1119)

The hope and expectation of many environmental economists is that a sixth wave of innovation–the sustainability revolution–is almost upon us. In this new order, innovators and entrepreneurs will make fortunes by devising products and services that reduce our impact on the planet. (Location 1139)

In 2019, New Zealand made the bold step of formally dropping GDP as its primary measure of economic success. It didn’t adopt any of the existing alternatives, but instead created its own index based upon its most pressing national concerns. All three Ps–profit, people and planet–were represented. (Location 1155)

growth-agnostic world (Location 1164)

according to the environmental economists, we must now curb our passion for growth, distribute resources more evenly and start to prepare for life as a mature canopy tree. (Location 1169)

when any of us–animal, plant, alga, phytoplankton, fungus, or bacterium - finally come to break up these organic molecules to get at the energy within, carbon dioxide escapes as a by-product into the atmosphere to be used by plants in photosynthesis once again. (Location 1182)

If we do make the transition to renewables at the lightning speed required, humankind will forever look back on this generation with gratitude, for we are indeed the first to truly understand the problem–and the last with a chance to do anything about it. (Location 1213)

Perhaps the most formidable obstacle we face is the abstract force we might call vested interests. Change is a threat to any invested in the status quo. (Location 1235)

carbon tax that penalises any and all emitters. The Swedish government introduced such a tax in the 1990s, and it led to a strong move away from fossil fuels in many sectors. (Location 1251)

Sitting on the edge of the Sahara, and with a cable linking directly into southern Europe, Morocco could perhaps one day be a net exporter of solar energy. For a nation that was never blessed with fossil fuels, it is a ticket to a more prosperous world. (Location 1269)

And most damaging of all, we fish everywhere. There is nowhere in the ocean left to hide. Marine biologists such as Professor Callum Roberts explain that all of these issues can be fixed if we adopt a global approach directed by the information we already have from marine science. (Location 1300)

No-fish zones allow individual fish to grow older and bigger. And bigger individuals produce disproportionately more offspring. They then, in turn, repopulate neighbouring waters that are fished. (Location 1306)

After only 15 years, the amount of marine life in the no-fish zone had increased by more than 400 per cent to a level similar to reefs that had never been fished at all, and the fish shoals began to spread into the neighbouring waters. (Location 1315)

The MPA model works because it stops us doing something we should never have begun to do–eat into the core fish stocks, the capital of the ocean. (Location 1319)

Estimates suggest that no-fish zones encompassing a third of our ocean would be sufficient to enable fish stocks to recover and supply us with fish for the long term. (Location 1325)

This ambition of taking what you need, rather than what you can get, runs through the traditions of the people of Palau, an island nation in the tropical Pacific. (Location 1338)

This tradition now sits at the heart of the country’s fishing policies. Their four-time president, Tommy Remengesau Jr., describes himself as a fisherman taking a leave of absence to serve in government. (Location 1345)

There is a critical question to answer: how can we get more food from less land? (Location 1437)

In the 1950s, as a result of the traumas of the Second World War, there was a strong desire in the Netherlands for families to be self-sufficient and have enough land to grow their own food. (Location 1443)

They rotate crops in any one field over the years, using a cycle of up to ten different species of crop plant, each demanding a different profile of nutrients from the soil, so that it will never become exhausted. (Location 1466)

There is an inefficiency, a loss of energy between the plants and the herbivores. (Location 1491)

A loss of energy between levels on the food chain also happens between herbivore and carnivore. (Location 1493)

This loss in energy as we rise up the food chain explains the numbers of animals we find in the wild. (Location 1499)

We humans are neither herbivores nor carnivores. We are omnivores, anatomically equipped (Location 1501)

Of all the meats, it is beef that is on average by far the most damaging in its production. Beef makes up about a quarter of the meat that we eat, and only 2 per cent of our calories, yet we dedicate 60 per cent of our farmland to raising it. (Location 1517)

A wealth of research has already been done to deduce what kind of diet would be fair, healthy and sustainable–both good for people and good for the planet. The universal opinion is that in the future we will have to change to a diet that is largely plant-based with much less meat, especially red meat. (Location 1520)

I’ve found in recent years, without taking any sudden decision, I’ve gradually stopped eating meat. I can’t pretend it was overly purposeful nor even that I feel virtuous for having done so, but I have been surprised to realise that I don’t miss it. The entire food industry is developing ways to accommodate this trend. (Location 1532)

by radically increasing yields in sustainable ways, regenerating degraded land, farming in new spaces, reducing the meat in our diet, and benefitting from the efficiencies of alt-proteins, we may be able to go much further and start to reverse the land grab. (Location 1555)

there is no way of calculating the value of the wilderness and environmental services, both global and local, that it provides. One hundred hectares of standing rainforest has less value on paper than an oil palm plantation. Tearing down wilderness is therefore seen as worthwhile. The only practical way to change this situation is to change the meaning of value. (Location 1594)

Experience in conservation projects has shown that positive change will only last for the long term if local communities are fully involved in developing the plans and directly feel the benefit of rising biodiversity. (Location 1630)

Creating wild lands across the Earth would bring back biodiversity, and the biodiversity would do what it does best: stabilise the planet. (Location 1715)

Demographic transition is a term used by geographers to describe the path that nations move along during their economic development. It has four stages, (Location 1748)

China thought it had the answer in 1980 when it put in place its one-child policy. Quite aside from the moral issues, the difficulty of administering the policy, and the social and cultural disruption associated with it, there is little evidence such an approach works any faster than economic development. In the time that China’s average family size dropped from six children to just over one, neighbouring Taiwan experienced a greater drop without following a one-child policy, purely as a consequence of going through its natural transition at speed. It seems that the best way to stabilise the population is to support nations that seek to speed up their demographic transition. (Location 1795)

straightforward–empowerment brings freedom of choice and when life offers more options for women, their choice is often to have fewer children. (Location 1806)

revelation–by simply investing in social and education systems, we may be able to reduce the peak of the human population by more than 2 billion people, and bring it about 50 years earlier. (Location 1817)

Raising people out of poverty and empowering women is the fastest way to bring this period of rapid population growth to an end. (Location 1820)

In a thriving, sustainable future, we would follow a largely plant-based diet, filled with healthier alternatives to meat. We would use clean energy for all our needs. Our banks and pension funds would only invest in sustainable business. Those of us that choose to have children would be likely to have smaller families. We would be able to choose wood products, foodstuffs, fish and meat thoughtfully, informed by the detailed information available with every purchase. Our waste would be minimal. The little carbon our activities still emit would be offset automatically within the purchase price, funding rewilding projects all over the world. (Location 1845)

I can remember a time before the disposable society we have today, when we repaired and reused, when we had little or no plastics, and food was a precious commodity. (Location 1852)

In nature, the waste from one process becomes the food for the next. All materials are reused in cycles, involving many different species, and almost everything is ultimately biodegradable. (Location 1855)

bake the waste in an oxygen-free environment to create biochar, a charcoal-like mass that can be used as a building material, a low carbon fuel or an additive to soils that enriches them and locks carbon back away beneath the surface. (Location 1872)

London has declared itself to be the world’s first National Park City with a plan to turn over half of its area into natural spaces and make the lives of Londoners greener, healthier and wilder. (Location 1903)

Give and take, that is the essence of what balance is all about. (Location 1918)

# CONCLUSION Our Greatest Opportunity

We have come as far as we have because we are the cleverest creatures to have ever lived on Earth. But if we are to continue to exist, we will require more than intelligence. We will require wisdom. (Location 1986)

# Acknowledgements

it is heart-warming to discover the extent to which brilliant minds are now at work to understand and, further, to solve the problems we face. My great hope is that these minds may soon come together in a position to influence our future. (Location 2312)