ON THE SCENE: Examining ‘A Life on Our Planet’

As part of its exploration of becoming a Creation Justice Church and its Earth Day celebrations, the Keene Valley Congregational recently held an online Earth Day-themed Vespers and, in partnership with Keene Valley Library, is hosting screenings and post-screening discussions of Sir David Attenborough’s latest film, “A Life on Our Planet.”

“We’ve replaced the wild with the tame,” said Attenborough. “We are heading for disaster.”

Attenborough has devoted his life to exploring, documenting and sharing the wonders of the world through a series of award-winning documentaries. Now 94, with 39 documentaries, five audio recordings, and 43 awards for his educational, humanitarian and scientific contributions, including a Knighthood under his belt, Attenborough’s latest film is a call to action. Anderson Cooper, in a Sept. 29, 2020 interview, describes Attenborough’s most recent film as a self-described “witness statement, a firsthand account of what he’s seen happen to the planet, and a dire warning as to what he feels awaits us if we don’t act quickly to save it.”

The film, which is available on Netflix, begins by following a young Attenborough captivated by the natural wonder just outside his home, which includes a cliffside filled with ancient nautilus marine fossils. He lived in College House on the Campus of the University College Leicester, where his father was the principal. At a young age, he took to collecting newts for the zoology department, an activity and location that provided him a window into the diversity and wonder of nature and, through attending various lectures, an inkling that the natural environment was being compromised.

Now, 75 years later, that inkling has turned a threat of biblical proportions. The threat is us, we humans. Our actions are leading to wildlife collapse that’s caused a die-off of 60% of all wildlife since the 1970s. Our invasion and destruction of their habitat are exemplified by the loss, on average of 150 acres per minute, 78 million acres per year of just the Amazon rainforest, the “lungs of the planet,” 34% of the forest canopy since 1992.

Our voracious appetite has reduced migratory fresh-water fish such as salmon by 76% since 1970. Over the same period, ocean fish numbers have been cut in half due to overfishing, plastics, other human-caused pollution, and global warming. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 70% of the fish population is either fully used, overused, or in crisis.

As reported in a Jan. 20, 2021 issue of Sierra by author Fiona Chandra, scientists estimate that we’ll run out of seafood by 2050 if we do not address climate change, pollution entering our waterways, and overfishing. When you consider that currently, 20% of the world’s population depends on fish as their primary source of protein, such trends, if not corrected, will result in mass malnutrition if not starvation.

Our increasing consumption of animal protein, especially beef, chicken, and pork, is resulting in far more significant damage. Examples include mowing down rainforests to create places for the production of meat. We lose not only biodiversity but add an equivalent amount of carbon in the atmosphere equal to the quantity released by cars, trucks, and planes in the world. This destruction also increases the likelihood of future pandemics, and results in a wide range of human abuses.

All these trends, and more, were well underway as Attenborough started a life-long career working with the BBC and sharing stories of nature. At age 28, he talked BBC producers to let him go out and film nature, to bring back the worldwide wonders of nature for others to see and enjoy.

“Wherever I went, there was wilderness,” said Attenborough. “Sparking coastal seas, vast forests, immense grasslands; you could fly for hours over the untouched wilderness. It was the best time of my life.”

In the film, he showed a seemingly endless horde of Wildebeests thundering across the plains, filling it as far as one could see, and then gone the next day in a plain so vast to make the herd seem like a passing flock of sparrows. There were images of Attenborough playing with baby gorillas while the mother sat unperturbed nearby and him poking his face into that of a sloth saying “boo” for the sheer joy. He shared the excitement of the mating dance of small birds and the anxiety of another trying to avoid being dined upon by a larger creature.

Attenborough gained worldwide attention in 1979 with his BBC series “Life on Earth” seen by an estimated 500 million people. Life was good. All seemed well in his world.

One of his favorite places to visit was the Great Barrier Reef which he described as one of the most dramatic, beautiful, complex, and biologically rich environments in the world. But over the last decade he noticed what initially seemed beautiful, an all-white coral, was devoid of life. Areas he once treasured were turning into underwater deserts caused by rising water temperatures and pollution.

“Climate change is the greatest threat facing the planet in thousands of years,” said Attenborough. “Even the biggest and most awful things that humanity has done, so-called civilizations have done, pale in significance when you think what could be around the corner unless we pull ourselves together. Deserts in Africa have been spreading. They will soon be whole areas of the world where people can no longer safely live.”

Attenborough is not without hope. Critical is people, societies, and nation-states working together to address climate change. He said we need to recognize that we are a part of nature; we can’t live without it. As a marker, he said we need to re-wild the planet. As an example, he said if we kill all the trees, we’ll lose the oxygen in the atmosphere. His hope is in the youth, who are clamoring for radical change.

“He’s encouraging everyone to take action, and I heard that he’s optimistic about that,” said Debbie Rice of Keene. “I think we think that if we take action, the world is going to be a better and brighter place. He made clear that the positive effects of what we do may not be seen until our children’s grandchildren. So, we need to do what we’re going to do now for them to have a better life.”

“He pulled no punches on how bad it could be,” said Katharine Preston of Essex. “Then he makes the switch over to the hopeful, the things that could be done.”

The next screenings are April 22 and 24, both from 1 to 3 p.m. A Zoom discussions will be held at 4 p.m. April 24.

Registration for all events will be through the library’s website.