David Attenborough in A Life on Our Planet TWITTER/VEGANFUTURE

Attenborough’s newest documentary to grace our screens was released on Netflix on the 28th September, the latest prodigy of the legendary partnership between the presenter and Alastair Fothergill, long-time producer and director of Attenborough’s films. The programme is Attenborough’s ‘witness statement’ of a life spent exploring the natural world, coupled with his vision for the future, placing side-by-side what is predicted by scientists, based on current climate and biodiversity trends, with what he hopes humanity will achieve if we find the will to do so.

The programme was frankly a harrowing watch. It was made so by the visible exasperation of the usually ever-optimistic, calm Attenborough, coupled with no-punches-pulled images of seas blood-red with whaling, orangutans desperately climbing up lone trees to look out across acres of oil palm plantations, and desolate coral reefs, robbed of colour and choked by seaweed. None of the criticisms levelled at the 2019 Our Planet series – namely that it failed to show the truly dire state of nature – can be made of this new instalment.

The series features stunning natural landscapesTWITTER/BRANDUR

But it was more than just harrowing; it was also an example of masterful storytelling. The sobering tale of anthropogenic impacts on the planet were sandwiched between opening and closing segments filmed in a Ukranian town within the Chernobyl exclusion zone – a disaster which was ‘the result of bad planning and human error’, Attenborough asserts matter-of-factly, forcing the audience to draw the inescapable analogy between this one-time disaster and the current results of human error – climate and ecological breakdown.

“The sight of Attenborough’s hopeful spirit broken is perhaps the hardest thing to watch in the whole programme.”

The documentary goes on to track human population growth from 2.3 billion back in 1937 to 7.8 billion in 2020, matching this with the associated figures for climbing atmospheric carbon, from 280 ppm to 415 ppm, and the drop in remaining wilderness, from 66% to today’s meagre 35%. We watch these figures steadily tick over to a jaw-clenching scrolling noise, not dissimilar to the sound effect of an old iPod’s wheel.

Just then, you think this must surely mark Attenborough’s cue to say something hopeful, and, instead, he seems truly broken, his usual polished, eloquent lines abandoned: ‘Um… so the world is not as wild as it was. Well, we destroyed it, not just ruined it. We have completely destroyed that world...’ His typically twinkling eyes are instead filled with tears, desperation, and guilt.

Wildlife is seen returning to Chernobyl in the seriesTWITTER/BRANDUR

It’s telling that the sight of Attenborough’s hopeful spirit broken is perhaps the hardest thing to watch in the whole programme. Everyone must be made to care and pushed to act – that’s clearly the aim of the programme – and if they haven’t got to you with shots of the Amazon ablaze, they’ll get you with a tearful Attenborough. For almost a minute, we flick between shots of our vulnerable planet hanging in the blackness of space, and a speechless, desolate Attenborough. And, after the dramatic shots of destruction and death, the quietness and stillness are almost too much to bear.


Mountain View

A Question of Faith or Science

But even then, the film refuses to deal out our anticipated turn and, by now, we feel an earned dose of hope and shiny solutions. We are then subjected to a tour through the next eight decades and scientists’ predictions for what is yet to come: the degradation of the Amazon into a dry savannah, the thawing of the permafrost, global deaths of corals, crashes in fish populations, and a crisis in global food production. All set to a soundtrack which is surely straight out of a Hitchcock film.

“This is a must-watch for everyone. Not just because it is spectacular television, but because future generations won’t forgive us if we don’t.”

What finally follows is a whistle-stop tour of ecology, something badly needed since the subject has been slowly axed from curricula over the last few decades. Setting out how biodiversity is our biggest ally in the fight against climate change, how the more diverse the natural world is, the more it can help us, Attenborough drip-feeds us the hope we’re now desperate for: ‘Rewilding the world is simpler than you might think… A century from now, our planet could be a wild place again. And I’m going to tell you how.’

An aerial image of melting ice caps TWITTER/BRANDUR

As Attenborough moves through the various solutions already within our grasp – investing in renewable energy, ceasing to invest in fossil fuels, moving to a plant-based diet, working to raise people out of poverty through healthcare and education – one can’t help feeling this is the leadership the planet is crying out for.

This programme is masterful and absolutely necessary. It’s harrowing. It’s no-holds-barred, no-punches-pulled, all-guns-blazing. Attenborough and Fothergill have certainly done their part, very obviously finishing with: ‘Now, over to you’.

This is a must-watch for everyone. Not just because it is spectacular television, but because future generations won’t forgive us if we don’t watch it. Take note and make a change. Strap in, though – it isn’t easy being made aware you’re the villain of the story.