Last week, I saw the new documentary by David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet. His documentaries are often about how beautiful the Earth is, but this one was different. He shows how humans have made a mess of our planet. Attenborough reveals in a very clear way how nature has developed since the 1950s. It is quite depressing, though, to see this development within the space of just over an hour. Luckily, he covers several solutions on how we can restore our planet.
With some simple statistics, Attenborough quickly shows a large part of the issue. We went from a world population of 2.3 billion, a concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere of 280 parts per million and a remaining wilderness of 66% in 1937 to a world population of 7.8 billion, a global average atmospheric carbon dioxide of 415 parts per million and a percentage of 35% of remaining wilderness in 2020. And we are not talking about thousands of years here. We are just talking about a period of less than 100 years.
It is scary to see how nature destroying activities of humans have been developing on this planet over the last 100 years. Attenborough very accurately shows how our planet is in danger, how the process of extinction is happening to animals we are familiar with, and how we are the ones responsible.
Stability within nature
In the documentary, Attenborough explains how the temperature on our planet has not moved up or down more than 1 degrees Celsius for over 10,000 years. The main reason he puts forward is that nature has helped balance the atmosphere to lock in carbon. Jungles around the equator captured energy from the sun and added oxygen into the air. Furthermore, the extent of the polar ice reflected sunlight back to space, cooling the Earth.
This stability, however, was very much disrupted by human activity in just 100 years. In the 20th century, technology made our lives more comfortable. The pace of change was faster than seen ever before, without us being aware of the problems that we were creating. Humans were using more and more of the planet’s resources as they were demanding more every day. One example is cutting down large chunks of rain forests and destroying biodiversity for farming purposes.
The world was demanding more every day, and this became blatantly clear when Attenborough visited an uncontacted tribe in New Guinea in the 1970s. These people were hunter-gatherers, as was all humankind before we discovered farming. This tribe didn’t use much, and the resources they did use naturally renewed themselves. They lived their lives sustainably, a lifestyle that could continue forever. This was in stark contrast with the world Attenborough and most other people knew.
Using more and more resources from our planet go hand in hand with the human population growing significantly in size. Attenborough’s simple conclusion: We had broken loose. We were simply apart from the rest of life on Earth. It is not rocket science that he uses here. Our predators had been eliminated, diseases were mostly under control, and we could produce our own food. There was nothing left that restricted us. The only thing that could stop us was ourselves.
Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
In under 100 years, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere changed from 280 parts per million to 415 parts per million. Attenborough explains that a severe change in atmospheric carbon has always been incompatible with a stable Earth. He refers to all five mass extinctions that happened on Earth in life’s four billion year history, the last that brought an end to the age of the dinosaurs. In all of the previous mass extinctions, the volcanic activity took millions of years to trigger a catastrophe, while we were able to do this in less than 200 years by burning coal and oil.
The global air temperature was stable until the 1990s. But as the ocean was not able to absorb much of the warming caused by human activity, the global average temperature has now risen by 1 degrees Celsius since the middle of the 20th century. This speed of change exceeds anything we have seen over the last 10,000 years. A direct consequence of this warming is that the polar ice in the Arctic has reduced by 40% in 40 years, reinforcing global warming with less ice reflecting sunlight back into space.
Attenborough explains in detail that to restore the stability on our planet, we must restore its biodiversity. The very thing we removed from our planet. To do this, he puts forward multiple solutions.
Every other species on Earth reaches a maximum population after a time. This should be a sustainable number given the available natural resources. As there is nothing really to restrict us, the current projections show that our population will reach 11 billion by 2100. To slow down or even stop population growth, he uses Japan as an example. Japan’s standard of living has improved massively in the second half of the 20th century. As healthcare and education improved, opportunities grew, and the birth rate fell. Families in Japan had three or more children on average in 1950, while this dropped to an average of two in 1975. What is interesting is that the population is now stable and has hardly changed since 2000.
When more nations are able to develop, people will choose to have fewer children. As such, the human population will, at some point, peak and level off. Attenborough explains that the sooner this happens, the easier it will make everything else we have to do.
The trick here should be raising the standard of living worldwide without increasing our impact on the world. This can be done by quickly phasing out fossil fuels for our energy. The living world is already essentially solar-powered with the Earth’s plants capturing 3 trillion kilowatt-hours of solar energy each day – 20 times the energy humans need. Running our planet only on sunlight, wind, water, and geothermal will make sure we never run out of energy.
Attenborough explains that the ocean is also essential for the living world, as it plays a crucial role in reducing carbon from the atmosphere. The more diverse it is, the better it is at doing that job. There is also a win-win situation with the ocean at play. The healthier the ocean, the better it works against reducing carbon, and the more fish there is, the more there will be to eat.
Introducing no fish zones allows fish populations to grow, such that these populations slowly spill over to the zones where fishing is permitted. Attenborough suggests that no fish zones in a third of our coastal seas would be sufficient to provide us with all the fish we ever need.
Attenborough also says that we need to reduce the area we use to farm in order to create space for the wilderness. To do this, he says we have to change our diet. The world can not support billions of large meat-eaters. There is just not enough space for that. He compares this to the rare occurrence of large carnivores, as it takes a lot of prey to support them.
Finally, the forests are also fundamental in the recovery of our planet. Forests are both a center of biodiversity and are the best natural way to lock away carbon. The more diverse forests are, the better they absorb carbon from the atmosphere. As such, deforestation must stop immediately everywhere.
The conclusion of Attenborough is simple: If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us. We have to stop with simply growing, and we have to establish a life on our planet in balance with nature. We have to stop being apart from nature, and become part of nature once again.