This city in Ukraine was once home to almost 50,000 people.
It had everything a community would need for a comfortable life.
But on the 26th of April, 1986, it suddenly became uninhabitable.
The nearby nuclear power station of Chernobyl exploded.
And in less than 48 hours, the city was evacuated. No one has lived here since.
The explosion was a result of bad planning and human error. Mistakes. It triggered an environmental catastrophe that had an impact across Europe.
Many people regarded it as the most costly in the history of mankind.
But Chernobyl was a single event. The true tragedy of our time is still unfolding across the globe, barely noticeable from day to day. I’m talking about the loss of our planet’s wild places, its biodiversity.
The living world is a unique and spectacular marvel. Billions of individuals, and millions of kinds of plants and animals… [birds chirping] …dazzling in their variety and richness. Working together to benefit from the energy of the sun and the minerals of the earth. Leading lives that interlock in such a way that they sustain each other. We rely entirely on this finely tuned life-support machine. And it relies on its biodiversity to run smoothly. Yet the way we humans live on Earth now is sending biodiversity into a decline.
This too is happening as a result of bad planning and human error and it too will lead to what we see here.
A place in which we cannot live.
The natural world is fading. The evidence is all around. It’s happened in my lifetime. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. This film is my witness statement and my vision for the future, the story of how we came to make this our greatest mistake, and how, if we act now, we can yet put it right.
A Life On Our Planet
I am David Attenborough, and I am 93. I’ve had the most extraordinary life. It’s only now that I appreciate how extraordinary.
[Attenborough] I’ve been lucky enough to spend my life exploring the wild places of our planet. I’ve traveled to every part of the globe. I’ve experienced the living world firsthand in all its variety and wonder. In truth, I couldn’t imagine living my life in any other way. I’ve always had a passion to explore, to have adventures, to learn about the wilds beyond. [exclaiming in surprise] And I’m still learning. Boo! As much now as I did when I was a boy.
WORLD POPULATION: 2.3 BILLION
CARBON IN ATMOSPHERE: 280 PARTS PER MILLION
REMAINING WILDERNESS: 66%
It was a very different world back then. We had very little understanding of how the living world actually worked. It was called natural history because that’s essentially what it was all about… history. It was a great place to come to as a boy, because this is, um, ironstone workings, but it was disused. All this was absolutely clear, it was… only just stopped being a working quarry.
When I was a boy, I spent all my spare time searching through rocks in places like this… for buried treasure.
Fossils. It’s a creature called an ammonite. And in life the animal itself lived in the chamber here and spread out its tentacles to catch its prey. And it lived about 180 million years ago. This particular one has a scientific name of Tiltonicerus, because the first one ever was found near this quarry here in Tilton, in the middle of England. Over time, I began to learn something about the earth’s evolutionary history. By and large, it’s a story of slow, steady change.
Over billions of years, nature has crafted miraculous forms, each more complex and accomplished than the last. It’s an achingly intricate labor. And then, every hundred million years or so, after all those painstaking processes, something catastrophic happens, a mass extinction.
Great numbers of species disappear and are suddenly replaced by a few.
All that evolution undone. You can see it. A line in the rock layers. A boundary that marks a profound, rapid, global change. Below the line are a multitude of lifeforms. Above, very few.
A mass extinction has happened five times in life’s four-billion-year history.
The last time it happened was the event that brought the end of the age of the dinosaurs. A meteorite impact triggered a catastrophic change in the earth’s conditions. 75% of all species were wiped out. Life had no option but to rebuild. For 65 million years, it’s been at work reconstructing the living world… until we come to the world we know… our time. Scientists call it the Holocene. The Holocene has been one of the most stable periods in our planet’s great history.
For 10,000 years, the average temperature has not wavered up or down by more than one degree Celsius. And the rich and thriving living world around us has been key to this stability. Phytoplankton at the ocean’s surface and immense forests straddling the north have helped to balance the atmosphere by locking away carbon. Huge herds on the plains have kept the grasslands rich and productive by fertilizing the soils. Mangroves and coral reefs along thousands of miles of coast have harbored nurseries of fish species that, when mature, then range into open waters. A thick belt of jungles around the equator has piled plant on plant to capture as much of the sun’s energy as possible, adding moisture and oxygen to the global air currents. And the extent of the polar ice has been critical, reflecting sunlight back off its white surface, cooling the whole earth. The biodiversity of the Holocene helped to bring stability, and the entire living world settled into a gentle, reliable rhythm… the seasons.
[thunder rumbling] [lowing] On the tropical plains, the dry and rainy seasons would switch every year like clockwork. In Asia, the winds would create the monsoon on cue.
In the northern regions, the temperatures would lift in March, triggering spring, and stay high until they dipped in October and brought about autumn.
[birds chirping and chattering]
The Holocene was our Garden of Eden. Its rhythm of seasons was so reliable that it gave our own species a unique opportunity.
We invented farming. We learnt how to exploit the seasons to produce food crops. The history of all human civilization followed. Each generation able to develop and progress only because the living world could be relied upon to deliver us the conditions we needed. The pace of progress was unlike anything to be found in the fossil record.
Our intelligence changed the way in which we evolved. In the past, animals had to develop some physical ability to change their lives. But for us, an idea could do that. And the idea could be passed from one generation to the next.
We were transforming what a species could achieve.
A few millennia after this began, I grew up at exactly the right moment.
The start of my career in my 20s coincided with the advent of global air travel. So, I had the privilege of being amongst the first to fully experience the bounty of life that had come about as a result of the Holocene’s gentle climate.
WORLD POPULATION: 2.7 BILLION
CARBON IN ATMOSPHERE: 310 PARTS PER MILLION
REMAINING WILDERNESS: 64%
Wherever I went, there was wilderness. Sparkling coastal seas. Vast forests. Immense grasslands. You could fly for hours over the untouched wilderness. And there I was, actually being asked to explore these places and record the wonders of the natural world for people back home.
And to begin with, it was quite easy. People had never seen pangolins before on television. They’d never seen sloths before. They had never seen the center of New Guinea before.
It was the best time of my life.
The best time of our lives. The Second World War was over, technology was making our lives easier. The pace of change was getting faster and faster.
[Attenborough] It felt that nothing would limit our progress. The future was going to be exciting. It was going to bring everything we had ever dreamed of.
This was before any of us were aware that there were problems.
WORLD POPULATION: 3.0 BILLION
CARBON IN ATMOSPHERE: 315 PARTS PER MILLION
REMAINING WILDERNESS: 62%
My first visit to East Africa was in 1960. Back then, it seemed inconceivable that we, a single species, might one day have the power to threaten the very existence of the wilderness.
The Maasai word “Serengeti” means “endless plains.” To those who live here, it’s an apt description. You can be in one spot on the Serengeti, and the place is totally empty of animals, and then, the next morning… [bellowing] …one million wildebeest.
A quarter of a million zebra.
Half a million gazelle. A few days after that… and they’re gone… over the horizon. You can be forgiven for thinking that these plains are endless when they could swallow up such a herd. It took a visionary scientist, Bernhard Grzimek, to explain that this wasn’t true. He and his son used a plane to follow the herds over the horizon.
They charted them as they moved across rivers, through woodlands, and over national borders. They discovered that the Serengeti herds required an enormous area of healthy grassland to function. That without such an immense space, the herds would diminish and the entire ecosystem would come crashing down.
The point for me was simple: the wild is far from unlimited. It’s finite. It needs protecting. And a few years later, that idea became obvious to everyone.
[NASA technician] Five, four, three, two one, zero.
[Attenborough] I was in a television studio when the Apollo mission launched. It was the first time that any human had moved away far enough from the earth to see the whole planet. And this is what they saw… what we all saw. Our planet, vulnerable and isolated.
One of the extraordinary things about it was that the world could actually watch it as it happened. It was extraordinary that you could see what a man out in space could see as he saw it at the same time. And I remember very well that first shot. You saw a blue marble, a blue sphere in the blackness, and you realized that that was the earth. And in that one shot, there was the whole of humanity with nothing else except the person that was in the spacecraft taking that picture. And that completely changed the mindset of the population, the human population of the world.
Our home was not limitless. There was an edge to our existence.
It was a rediscovery of a fundamental truth. We are ultimately bound by and reliant upon the finite natural world about us.
This truth defined the life we led in our pre-history, the time before farming and civilization. Even as some of us were setting foot on the moon, others were still leading such a life in the most remote parts of the planet.
In 1971, I set out to find an uncontacted tribe in New Guinea. These people were hunter-gatherers, as all humankind had been before farming.
[speaking tribal language]
[Attenborough] They lived in small numbers and didn’t take too much.
[speaking tribal language]
[Attenborough] They ate meat rarely. The resources they used naturally renewed themselves. Working with their traditional technology, they were living sustainably, a lifestyle that could continue effectively forever.
[speaking native language]
[Attenborough] It was a stark contrast to the world I knew. A world that demanded more every day.
WORLD POPULATION: 4.3 BILLION
CARBON IN ATMOSPHERE: 335 PARTS PER MILLION
REMAINING WILDERNESS: 55%
I spent the latter half of the 1970s traveling the world, making a series I had long dreamed of called Life on Earth, the story of the evolution of life and its diversity. It was shot in 39 countries. We filmed 650 species, and we traveled one and a half million miles. That’s the sort of commitment you need if you want to even begin making a portrait of the living world.
But it was noticeable that some of these animals were becoming harder to find.
When I filmed with the mountain gorillas, there were only 300 left in a remote jungle in Central Africa.
Baby gorillas were at a premium, and poachers would kill a dozen adults to get one. I got as close as I did only because the gorillas were used to people. The only way to keep them alive was for rangers to be with them every day.
The process of extinction that I’d seen as a boy… in the rocks, I now became aware was happening right there around me to animals with which I was familiar.
Our closest relatives. And we were responsible. It revealed a cold reality.
Once a species became our target, there was now nowhere on earth that it could hide.
Whales were being slaughtered by fleets of industrial whaling ships in the 1970s. The largest whales, the blues, numbered only a few thousand by then. They were virtually impossible to find. We found humpbacks off Hawaii only by listening out for their calls.
A moment ago, we made this recording with an underwater microphone here in the Pacific near Hawaii. Just listen to this.
[whales singing] [whales continue singing]
Recordings like these revealed that the songs of the humpbacks are long and complex. Humpbacks living in the same area learn their songs from each other. And the songs have distinct themes and variations which evolve over time. [whales singing] Their mournful songs were the key to transforming people’s opinions about them.
[protester in English] Hello, Boctok. We are Canadian. [over megaphone] Please stop killing the whales.
[Attenborough] Animals that had been viewed as little more than a source of oil and meat became personalities.
[protester over megaphone] We are men and women, and we speak for children, and we’re all saying, “Please stop killing the whales.”
We have pursued animals to extinction many times in our history, but now that it was visible, it was no longer acceptable.
The killing of whales turned from a harvest to a crime. A powerful shared conscience had suddenly appeared.
Nobody wanted animals to become extinct. People were coming to care for the natural world…
as they were made aware of the natural world.
And we now had the means to make people across the world aware.
[theme music playing]
[Attenborough] By the time Life on Earth aired in 1979, I had entered my 50s. There were twice the number of people on the planet as there were when I was born.
You and I belong to the most widespread and dominant species of animal on earth.
We’re certainly the most numerous large animal. There are something like 4,000 million of us today, and we’ve reached this position with meteoric speed. It’s all happened within the last 2,000 years or so. We seem to have broken loose from the restrictions that have governed the activities and numbers of other animals.
[Attenborough] We had broken loose. We were apart from the rest of life on earth, living a different kind of life. Our predators had been eliminated. Most of our diseases were under control. We had worked out how to produce food to order.
There was nothing left to restrict us. Nothing to stop us. Unless we stopped ourselves…
we would keep consuming the earth until we had used it up.
Saving individual species or even groups of species would not be enough. Whole habitats would soon start to disappear.
I first witnessed the destruction of an entire habitat in Southeast Asia. In the 1950s, Borneo was three-quarters covered with rainforest.
[young Attenborough] We heard a crashing in the branches ahead. And there, only a few yards away, we spotted a great furry red form swaying in the trees. The orangutan.
[Attenborough] By the end of the century, Borneo’s rainforest had been reduced by half. Rainforests are particularly precious habitats.
More than half of the species on land live here. They’re places in which evolution’s talent for design soars.
[birds squawking] [clicking]
Many of the millions of species in the forest exist in small numbers. Every one has a critical role to play. Orangutan mothers have to spend ten years with their young, teaching them which fruits are worth eating. Without this training, they would not complete their role in dispersing seeds. The future generations of many tree species would be at risk. And tree diversity is the key to a rainforest.
In a single small patch of tropical rainforest, there could be 700 different species of tree, as many as there are in the whole of North America. And yet, this is what we’ve been turning this dizzying diversity into. A monoculture of oil palm. A habitat that is dead in comparison.
And you see this curtain of green with occasionally birds in it, and you think it’s perhaps okay. But if you get in a helicopter, you see that that is a strip about half a mile wide. And beyond that strip, there is nothing but regimented rows of oil palms. There is a double incentive to cut down forests. People benefit from the timber… and then benefit again from farming the land that’s left behind.
Which is why we’ve cut down three trillion trees across the world. Half of the world’s rainforests have already been cleared. What we see happening today is just the latest chapter in a global process spanning millennia. The deforestation of Borneo has reduced the population of orangutan by two-thirds since I first saw one just over 60 years ago.
We can’t cut down rainforests forever, and anything that we can’t do forever is by definition unsustainable.
If we do things that are unsustainable, the damage accumulates ultimately to a point where the whole system collapses.
No ecosystem, no matter how big, is secure.
Even one as vast as the ocean. This habitat was the subject of the series The Blue Planet, which we were filming in the late ’90s.
WORLD POPULATION: 5.9 BILLION
CARBON IN ATMOSPHERE: 360 PARTS PER MILLION
REMAINING WILDERNESS: 46%
It was… an astonishing vision of a completely unknown world, a world that had existed since the beginning of time. All sorts of things that you had no idea had ever existed, all in a multitude of colors, all unbelievably beautiful.
And all of them completely undisturbed by your presence. For much of its expanse, the ocean is largely empty. But in certain places, there are hot spots where currents bring nutrients to the surface and trigger an explosion of life. In such places, huge shoals of fish gather. The problem is that our fishing fleets are just as good at finding those hot spots as are the fish. When they do, they’re able to gather the concentrated shoals with ease. It was only in the ’50s that large fleets first ventured out into international waters… to reap the open ocean harvest across the globe. Yet, they’ve removed 90% of the large fish in the sea. At first, they caught plenty of fish in their nets. But within only a few years, the nets across the globe were coming in empty.
The fishing quickly became so poor that countries began to subsidize the fleets to maintain the industry.
Without large fish and other marine predators, the oceanic nutrient cycle stutters. The predators help to keep nutrients in the ocean’s sunlit waters, recycling them so that they can be used again and again by plankton. Without predators, nutrients are lost for centuries to the depths and the hot spots start to diminish.
The ocean starts to die.
Ocean life was also unravelling in the shallows. In 1998, a Blue Planet film crew stumbled on an event little known at the time. Coral reefs were turning white. The white color is caused by corals expelling algae that lives symbiotically within their body.
When you first see it, you think perhaps that it’s beautiful, and suddenly you realize it’s tragic. Because what you’re looking at is skeletons. Skeletons of dead creatures.
The white corals are ultimately smothered by seaweed. And the reef turns from wonderland… to wasteland. At first, the cause of the bleaching was a mystery. But scientists started to discover that in many cases where bleaching occurred, the ocean was warming. For some time, climate scientists had warned that the planet would get warmer as we burned fossil fuels and released carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. A marked change in atmospheric carbon has always been incompatible with a stable earth. It was a feature of all five mass extinctions. In previous events, it had taken volcanic activity up to one million years to dredge up enough carbon from within the earth to trigger a catastrophe. By burning millions of years’ worth of living organisms all at once as coal and oil, we had managed to do so in less than 200.
The global air temperature had been relatively stable till the ’90s. But it now appeared this was only because the ocean was absorbing much of the excess heat, masking our impact.
It was the first indication to me that the earth was beginning to lose its balance.
The most remote habitat of all exists at the extreme north and south of the planet. I’ve visited the polar regions over many decades. [imperceptible] They’ve always been a place beyond imagination… with scenery unlike anything else on earth… and unique species adapted to a life in the extreme. But that distant world is changing. In my time, I’ve experienced the warming of Arctic summers. We have arrived at locations expecting to find expanses of sea ice and found none. We’ve managed to travel by boat to islands that were impossible to get to historically because they were permanently locked in the ice.
By the time Frozen Planet aired in 2011, the reasons for these changes was well established. The ocean has long since become unable to absorb all the excess heat caused by our activities.
As a result, the average global temperature today is one degree Celsius warmer than it was when I was born.
A speed of change that exceeds any in the last 10,000 years. Summer sea ice in the Arctic has reduced by 40% in 40 years.
Our planet is losing its ice.
This most pristine and distant of ecosystems is headed for disaster.
Our imprint is now truly global. Our impact now truly profound. Our blind assault on the planet has finally come to alter the very fundamentals of the living world.
We have overfished 30% of fish stocks to critical levels. We cut down over 15 billion trees each year.
By damming, polluting, and over-extracting rivers and lakes, we’ve reduced the size of freshwater populations by over 80%.
We’re replacing the wild with the tame.
Half of the fertile land on earth is now farmland. 70% of the mass of birds on this planet are domestic birds. The vast majority, chickens. We account for over one-third of the weight of mammals on earth. A further 60% are the animals we raise to eat. The rest, from mice to whales, make up just 4%.
This is now our planet, run by humankind for humankind. There is little left for the rest of the living world.
Since I started filming in the 1950s, on average, wild animal populations have more than halved. I look at these images now and I realize that, although as a young man I felt I was out there in the wild experiencing the untouched natural world… it was an illusion. Those forests and plains and seas were already emptying.
Um, so, the world is not as wild as it was. Well, we’ve destroyed it. Not just ruined it. I mean, we have completely… well, destroyed that world. That non-human world is gone. Uh… The… Human beings have overrun the world.
That is my witness statement. A story of global decline during a single lifetime.
But it doesn’t end there.
If we continue on our current course, the damage that has been the defining feature of my lifetime will be eclipsed by the damage coming in the next.
WORLD POPULATION: 7.8 BILLION
CARBON IN ATMOSPHERE: 415 PARTS PER MILLION
REMAINING WILDERNESS: 35%
Science predicts that were I born today, I would be witness to the following.
The Amazon Rainforest, cut down until it can no longer produce enough moisture, degrades into a dry savannah, bringing catastrophic species loss… and altering the global water cycle.
At the same time, the Arctic becomes ice-free in the summer. Without the white ice cap, less of the sun’s energy is reflected back out to space. And the speed of global warming increases.
Throughout the north, frozen soils thaw, releasing methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide, accelerating the rate of climate change dramatically.
As the ocean continues to heat and becomes more acidic, coral reefs around the world die. Fish populations crash.
Global food production enters a crisis as soils become exhausted by overuse. Pollinating insects disappear. [thunder rumbling] And the weather is more and more unpredictable.
Our planet becomes four degrees Celsius warmer. Large parts of the earth are uninhabitable. Millions of people rendered homeless. A sixth mass extinction event… is well underway. This is a series of one-way doors… bringing irreversible change. Within the span of the next lifetime, the security and stability of the Holocene, our Garden of Eden… will be lost.
UN Climate Change Conference, 2018
Right now, we’re facing a manmade disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon. But the longer we leave it, the more difficult it’ll be to do something about it. And you could happily retire. But you now want to explain to us what peril we are in. Um… and, in a way, I wish I wasn’t involved in this struggle. [chuckles] Because I wish the struggle wasn’t there or necessary. But I’ve had unbelievable luck and good fortune. Um, and I certainly would feel very guilty… if I saw what the problems are and decided to ignore them.
[Attenborough on video] Climbing over the tightly-packed bodies is the only way across the crowd. [groaning] Those beneath can get crushed to death.
[Attenborough] We are facing nothing less than the collapse of the living world. The very thing that gave birth to our civilization. The thing we rely upon for every element of the lives we lead. No one wants this to happen. None of us can afford for it to happen. So, what do we do? It’s quite straightforward. It’s been staring us in the face all along. To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity. The very thing that we’ve removed. It’s the only way out of this crisis we have created. We must rewild the world.
[uplifting music playing]
[reindeer grunting] [birds hooting] [buffalo snorting] [birds cawing] [elephants trumpeting]
Rewilding the world is simpler than you might think. And the changes we have to make will only benefit ourselves and the generations that follow. A century from now, our planet could be a wild place again. And I’m going to tell you how.
[cawing and chirping]
Every other species on Earth reaches a maximum population after a time. The number that can be sustained on the natural resources available. With nothing to restrict us, our population has been growing dramatically throughout my lifetime.
On current projections, there will be 11 billion people on Earth by 2100. But it’s possible to slow, even to stop population growth well before it reaches that point. Japan’s standard of living climbed rapidly in the latter half of the 20th century. As healthcare and education improved, people’s expectations and opportunities grew, and the birth rate fell. In 1950, a Japanese family was likely to have three or more children. By 1975, the average was two. The result is that the population has now stabilized and has hardly changed since the millennium. There are signs that this has started to happen across the globe. As nations develop everywhere, people choose to have fewer children. The number of children being born worldwide every year is about to level off. A key reason the population is still growing is because many of us are living longer. At some point in the future, the human population will peak for the very first time. The sooner it happens, the easier it makes everything else we have to do.
[Attenborough] By working hard to raise people out of poverty, giving all access to healthcare, and enabling girls in particular to stay in school as long as possible, we can make it peak sooner and at a lower level.
Why wouldn’t we want to do these things? Giving people a greater opportunity of life is what we would want to do anyway. The trick is to raise the standard of living around the world without increasing our impact on that world. That may sound impossible, but there are ways in which we can do this.
The living world is essentially solar-powered. The earth’s plants capture three trillion kilowatt-hours of solar energy each day.
That’s almost 20 times the energy we need… just from sunlight. Imagine if we phase out fossil fuels and run our world on the eternal energies of nature too. Sunlight, wind, water and geothermal.
[Attenborough] At the turn of the century, Morocco relied on imported oil and gas for almost all of its energy. Today, it generates 40% of its needs at home from a network of renewable power plants, including the world’s largest solar farm. Sitting on the edge of the Sahara, and cabled directly into southern Europe, Morocco could be an exporter of solar energy by 2050. Within 20 years, renewables are predicted to be the world’s main source of power. But we can make them the only source.
It’s crazy that our banks and our pensions are investing in fossil fuel… when these are the very things that are jeopardizing the future that we are saving for.
A renewable future will be full of benefits. Energy everywhere will be more affordable. Our cities will be cleaner and quieter. And renewable energy will never run out. The living world can’t operate without a healthy ocean and neither can we. The ocean is a critical ally in our battle to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. The more diverse it is, the better it does that job.
And, of course, the ocean is important to all of us as a source of food. Fishing is world’s greatest wild harvest. And if we do it right, it can continue… because there’s a win-win at play. The healthier the marine habitat, the more fish there will be, and the more there will be to eat. Palau is a Pacific Island nation reliant on its coral reefs for fish and tourism. When fish stocks began to reduce, the Palauans responded by restricting fishing practices and banning fishing entirely from many areas. Protected fish populations soon became so healthy, they spilt over into the areas open to fishing. As a result, the “no fish” zones have increased the catch of the local fishermen, while at the same time allowing the reefs to recover. Imagine if we committed to a similar approach across the world. Estimates suggest that “no fish” zones over a third of our coastal seas would be sufficient to provide us with all the fish we will ever need. In international waters, the UN is attempting to create the biggest “no fish” zone of all. In one act, this would transform the open ocean from a place exhausted by subsidized fishing fleets to a wilderness that will help us all in our efforts to combat climate change. The world’s greatest wildlife reserve. When it comes to the land, we must radically reduce the area we use to farm, so that we can make space for returning wilderness. And the quickest and most effective way to do that is for us to change our diet.
Large carnivores are rare in nature because it takes a lot of prey to support each of them. [wildebeest snorting] For every single predator on the Serengeti, there are more than 100 prey animals. [snorting] Whenever we choose a piece of meat, we too are unwittingly demanding a huge expanse of space.
The planet can’t support billions of large meat-eaters. There just isn’t the space.
If we all had a largely plant-based diet, we would need only half the land we use at the moment.
And because we would be then dedicated to raising plants, we could increase the yield of this land substantially.
The Netherlands is one of the world’s most densely-populated countries. It’s covered with small family-run farms with no room for expansion. So, Dutch farmers have become expert at getting the most out of every hectare. Increasingly, they’re doing so sustainably. Raising yields tenfold in two generations while at the same time using less water, fewer pesticides, less fertilizer and emitting less carbon. Despite its size, the Netherlands is now the world’s second largest exporter of food.
It’s entirely possible for us to apply both low-tech and hi-tech solutions to produce much more food from much less land.
We can start to produce food in new spaces. Indoors, within cities. Even in places where there’s no land at all. As we improve our approach to farming, we’ll start to reverse the land-grab that we’ve been pursuing ever since we began to farm, which is essential because we have an urgent need for all that free land.
Forests are a fundamental component of our planet’s recovery. They are the best technology nature has for locking away carbon. And they are centers of biodiversity. Again, the two features work together. The wilder and more diverse forests are, the more effective they are at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
We must immediately halt deforestation everywhere… and grow crops like oil palm and soya only on land that was deforested long ago. After all, there’s plenty of it.
But we can do better than that.
A century ago, more than three quarters of Costa Rica was covered with forest. By the 1980s, uncontrolled logging had reduced this to just one quarter. The government decided to act, offering grants to land owners to replant native trees. In just 25 years, the forest has returned to cover half of Costa Rica once again. [birds chirping] Just imagine if we achieve this on a global scale.
The return of the trees would absorb as much as two thirds of the carbon emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by our activities to date.
With all these things, there is one overriding principle. Nature is our biggest ally and our greatest inspiration. We just have to do what nature has always done. It worked out the secret of life long ago. In this world, a species can only thrive… when everything else around it thrives, too. We can solve the problems we now face by embracing this reality. If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us. It’s now time for our species to stop simply growing. To establish a life on our planet in balance with nature. To start to thrive.
When you think about it, we’re completing a journey. Ten thousand years ago, as hunter-gatherers, we lived a sustainable life because that was the only option. All these years later, it’s once again the only option. We need to rediscover… how to be sustainable. To move from being apart from nature to becoming a part of nature once again. Tonight, we’ve got a rather different program for you.
[Attenborough] If we can change the way we live on Earth, an alternative future comes into view. In this future, we discover ways to benefit from our land that help, rather than hinder, wilderness. Ways to fish our seas that enable them to come quickly back to life. And ways to harvest our forests sustainably. We will finally learn how to work with nature rather than against it.
In the end, after a lifetime’s exploration of the living world, I’m certain of one thing. This is not about saving our planet… it’s about saving ourselves.
The truth is, with or without us, the natural world will rebuild. In the 30 years since the evacuation of Chernobyl, the wild has reclaimed the space.
Today, the forest has taken over the city. It’s a sanctuary for wild animals that are very rare elsewhere. And powerful evidence that however grave our mistakes, nature will ultimately overcome them. The living world will endure. We humans cannot presume the same. We’ve come this far because we are the smartest creatures that have ever lived. But to continue, we require more than intelligence. We require wisdom.
There are many differences between humans and the rest of the species on earth, but one that has been expressed is that we alone are able to imagine the future. For a long time, I and perhaps you have dreaded that future. But it’s now becoming apparent that it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s a chance for us to make amends, to complete our journey of development, manage our impact, and once again become a species in balance with nature. All we need is the will to do so. We now have the opportunity to create the perfect home for ourselves, and restore the rich, healthy, and wonderful world that we inherited. Just imagine that.