thank you once more, our david
oh yes, now it’s getting to the bottom
so much over our planet – by yes, so many people . . . oh-oh !
see him here – read him here – then ok, best go to it’s new beginning
Copyright © 2020 by David Attenborough Productions Ltd. Cover copyright © 2020 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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Published in Great Britain by Witness Books, an imprint of Ebury Publishing, in 2020.
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ISBNs: 978-1-5387-1998-5 (hardcover), 978-1-5387-2000-4 (ebook) E3-20200818-JV-NF-OR
here, these abbreviated online CONTENTS . . .
- Our Greatest Mistake
- PART ONE
- My Witness Statement
- PART TWO
- What Lies Ahead
- PART THREE
- A Vision for the Future: How to Rewild the World
- Our Greatest OpportunityWith thanks to WWF for the scientific and conservationwork informing this book and the accompanying film. Explore book giveaways, sneak peeks, deals, and more.
Pripyat in the Ukraine is a place unlike anywhere else I have been. It is a place of utter despair.
On the face of it, it seems quite a pleasant town, with avenues, hotels, a square, a hospital, parks with fairground rides, a central post office, a railway station. It has several schools and swimming pools, cafés and bars, a restaurant by the river, shops, supermarkets and hairdressers, a theatre and a cinema, a dance hall, gymnasiums and a football stadium with an athletics track. It has all the amenities we humans have brought into existence to give us a content and comfortable life–all the elements of our homemade habitat.
Surrounding the town’s cultural and commercial centre, are the apartments. There are 160 towers, built at specified angles to a well-considered grid of roads. Each apartment has its own balcony. Each tower its own laundry. The tallest towers reach almost 20 storeys high, and each is crowned with a giant iron hammer and sickle, the emblem of the town’s creators.
Pripyat was built by the Soviet Union, in one busy period of construction in the 1970s. It was the designed, perfect home for almost 50,000 people, a modernist utopia to suit the very best engineers and scientists in the Eastern Bloc, together with their young families. Amateur film footage from the early 1980s shows them, smiling, mingling and pushing prams on the wide boulevards, taking ballet classes, swimming in the Olympic-size pool and boating on the river.
Yet no one lives in Pripyat today. The walls are crumbling. Its windows are broken. Its lintels are collapsing. I have to watch my step as I explore its dark, empty buildings. Chairs lie on their backs in the hairdressing salons, surrounded by dusty curlers and broken mirrors. Fluorescent tubes hang down from the supermarket ceiling. The parquet floor of the town hall is ripped up and scattered down the length of a grand, marble staircase. Exercise books litter the floors of school rooms, neat Cyrillic handwriting scoring their pages in blue ink. I find the pools emptied. The seats of sofas in the apartments have dropped to the floor. The beds are rotten. Almost everything is motionless–paused. If something is stirred by a gust of wind, it startles me.
With each new doorway you enter, the lack of people becomes more and more preoccupying. Their absence is the truth that is most present. I’ve visited other post-human towns–Pompei, Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu–but here, the normality of the place forces your attention on the abnormality of its abandonment. Its structures and accoutrements are so familiar that you know their disuse cannot simply be due to the passing of ages. Pripyat is a place of utter despair because everything here, from the noticeboards that are no longer looked at, to the discarded slide rules in the science classroom, to the shattered piano in the café, is a monument to the capacity of humankind to lose everything it needs, and everything it treasures. We humans, alone on Earth, are powerful enough to create worlds, and then to destroy them.
On 26 April 1986, reactor number 4 of the nearby Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant, known to everyone today as ‘Chernobyl’, exploded. The explosion was the result of bad planning and human error. The design of Chernobyl’s reactors had flaws. The operating staff were not aware of these and, in addition, were careless in their work. Chernobyl exploded because of mistakes–the most human explanation of all.
Four hundred times more radioactive material than that expelled by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined was sent over much of Europe on high winds. It fell from the skies in raindrops and snowflakes, entered the soils and waterways of many nations. Ultimately it broke into the food chain. The number of premature deaths caused by the event is still disputed but estimates range into the hundreds of thousands. Many have called Chernobyl the most costly environmental catastrophe in history.
Sadly, this isn’t true. Something else has been unfolding, everywhere, across the globe, barely noticeable from day to day for much of the last century. This too is happening as the result of bad planning and human error. Not one hapless accident, but a damaging lack of care and understanding that affects everything we do. It didn’t begin with a single explosion. It started silently, before anyone realised it, as a result of causes that are multifarious, global and complex. Its fallout cannot be detected by a single instrument. It has taken hundreds of studies across the world to confirm that it is even happening. Its effects will be far more profound than the contamination of soils and waterways in a few unfortunate countries–it could ultimately lead to the destabilisation and collapse of everything we rely upon.
This is the true tragedy of our time: the spiraling decline of our planet’s biodiversity. For life to truly thrive on this planet, there must be immense biodiversity. Only when billions of different individual organisms make the most of every resource and opportunity they encounter, and millions of species lead lives that interlock so that they sustain each other, can the planet run efficiently. The greater the biodiversity, the more secure will be all life on Earth, including ourselves. Yet the way we humans are now living on Earth is sending biodiversity into a decline.
We are all culpable but, it has to be said, through no fault of our own. It is only in the last few decades that we have come to understand that every one of us has been born into a human world that was always inherently unsustainable. But now that we do know this, we have a choice to make. We could carry on living our happy lives, raising our families, busying ourselves with the honest pursuits of the modern society that we have built, whilst choosing to disregard the disaster waiting on our doorstep. Or we could change.
This choice is far from straightforward. It is, after all, only human to cling tightly to what we know, and discount or fear what we don’t. Every morning, the first thing the people of Pripyat would have seen on drawing back the curtains in their apartments was the giant nuclear power station that would one day destroy their lives. Most of the inhabitants worked there. The remainder relied on those who did for their livelihoods. Many would have understood the dangers of living so close to it, yet I doubt whether any would have chosen to switch the reactors off. Chernobyl had brought them that precious commodity–a comfortable life.
We are all people of Pripyat now. We live our comfortable lives in the shadow of a disaster of our own making. That disaster is being brought about by the very things that allow us to live our comfortable lives. And 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. That is why I have written this book.
The natural world is fading. The evidence is all around. It has happened during my lifetime. I have seen it with my own eyes. It will lead to our destruction.
Yet there is still time to switch off the reactor. There is a good alternative.
This book is the story of how we came to make this, our greatest mistake, and how, if we act now, we can yet put it right.
As I write this, I am 94. I have had the most extraordinary life. It is only now that I appreciate how extraordinary. I have been lucky enough to spend my life exploring the wild places of our planet and making films about the creatures that live there. In doing so, I have travelled widely around the globe. I have experienced the living world first-hand in all its variety and wonder, and witnessed some its greatest spectacles and most gripping dramas.
As a boy, I dreamed, like so many other boys, of travelling to distant wilder places to look at the natural world in its pristine state and even find animals that were new to science. Now, I find it hard to believe that I have managed to spend so much of my life doing exactly that.
World population: 2.3 billion
Carbon in atmosphere: 280 parts per million
Remaining wilderness: 66 per cent
When I was 11 years old, I lived in Leicester in the middle of England. At that time it wasn’t unusual for a boy of my age to get on a bicycle, ride off into the countryside and spend a whole day away from home. And that is what I did. Every child explores. Just turning over a stone and looking at the animals beneath is exploring. It never occurred to me to be anything other than fascinated when watching what was going on in the natural world about me.
My elder brother had another view. Leicester had an amateur dramatic society that put on productions of near- professional standards, and although he persuaded me every now and then to join him and speak a couple of lines in walk-on parts, my heart was not in it.
Instead, as soon as the weather was warm enough, I would cycle off to the eastern part of the county where there were rocks full of beautiful and intriguing fossils. They were not, it is true, the bones of dinosaurs. The honey- coloured limestone had been deposited as mud at the bottom of an ancient sea, so no one could expect to find the remains of such land-living monsters in them. Instead I discovered the shells of sea-living creatures–ammonites, some six inches or so across, coiled like rams’ horns; others the size of hazelnuts, inside which were tiny scaffolds of calcite that had supported the gills with which the creatures within had breathed. And I knew of no greater thrill than picking up a likely-looking boulder, giving it a smart blow with a hammer and watching it fall apart to reveal one of these marvellous shells, glinting in the sunlight. And I revelled in the thought that the first human eyes to gaze upon it were mine.
I had believed from a very early age that the most important knowledge was that which brought an understanding of how the natural world worked. 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. Why were there so many different kinds of ammonites? Why was this one different from that? Did it live in a different way? Did it live in a different area? I soon discovered that plenty of other people had asked such questions, and had found a lot of the answers; and that these answers could be put together to form the most marvellous of all stories– the history of life.
The story of the development of life on Earth is for the most part one of slow, steady change. Every creature whose remains I found in the rocks, had spent its entire life being tested by its environment. Those that happened to be better at surviving and reproducing passed on their characteristics. Those that didn’t, couldn’t. Over billions of years, life forms slowly changed and became more complex, more efficient, often more specialised. And their long story, detail by detail could be deduced from what could be found in the rocks. The Leicestershire limestones had recorded only a tiny moment of it. But more chapters could be found in the specimens that the city’s museum had on display. And to find out yet more I decided, when the time came, that I would try to go to university.
There, I learned another truth. This long story of gradual change had been violently interrupted at points. Every hundred million years or so, after all those painstaking selections and improvements, something catastrophic happened–a mass extinction.
For different reasons at different times in the Earth’s history, there had been a profound, rapid, global change to the environment to which so many species had become so exquisitely adapted. The Earth’s life-support machine had stuttered, and the miraculous assemblage of fragile interconnections which held it together had collapsed. Great numbers of species suddenly disappeared, leaving only a few. All that evolution was undone. These monumental extinctions created boundaries in the rocks that you could see if you knew where to look and how to recognise them. Below the boundary there were many different life forms.
Above, very few.
Such mass extinctions have happened five times in life’s four-billion-year history.4 Each time, nature has collapsed, leaving just enough survivors to start the process once more. The last time it happened, it is thought that a meteorite over 10 kilometres in diameter struck the Earth’s surface with an impact 2 million times more powerful than the largest hydrogen bomb ever tested.5 It landed in a bed of gypsum, so, some think, it sent sulphur high into the atmosphere to fall across the globe as rain sufficiently acidic to kill vegetation and dissolve the bodies of plankton in the surface waters of the oceans. The dust cloud that arose blocked the light from the Sun to such a degree that it may have reduced the rate of plant growth for several years. Flaming remnants of the blast may have showered back to Earth, causing firestorms across the western hemisphere. The burning world would have added carbon dioxide and smoke to the already polluted air, warming the Earth through a greenhouse effect. And because the meteorite landed on the coast, it initiated colossal tsunamis that swept across the globe, destroying coastal ecosystems and sending marine sand significant distances inland.
It was an event that changed the course of natural history–wiping out three-quarters of all species, including anything on land larger than the size of a domestic dog. It ended the 175-million-year reign of the dinosaurs. Life would have to rebuild.
For 66 million years since then, nature has been at work reconstructing the living world, recreating and refining a new diversity of species. And one of the products of this rebooting of life was humanity.
Our own evolution is also recorded in the rocks. Fossils of our close ancestors are much rarer than those of ammonites because they first evolved only 2 million years ago. And there is a further difficulty. The remains of land- living animals are not, for the most part, sealed away beneath accumulating sediments as are those of marine creatures. Instead they are smashed by the destructive powers of the baking sun, the driving rain, and frost. But they do exist, and the few remains we have found of our ancestors show that we first evolved in Africa. As we did so, our brains began to increase in size at such a rate as to suggest that we were acquiring one of our most characteristic features–a capacity to develop cultures to a unique degree.
To an evolutionary biologist, the term ‘culture’ describes the information that can be passed from one individual to another by teaching or imitation. Copying the ideas or actions of others seems to us to be easy–but that is because we excel at it. Only a handful of other species show any signs of having a culture. Chimpanzees and bottle-nosed dolphins are two of them. But no other species has anything approaching the capacity for culture that we have.
Culture transformed the way we evolved. It was a new way by which our species became adapted for life on Earth. Whereas other species depended on physical changes over generations, we could produce an idea that brought significant change within a generation. Tricks such as finding the plants that yield water even during a drought, crafting a stone tool for skinning a kill, lighting a fire or cooking a meal, could be passed from one human to another during a single lifetime. It was a new form of inheritance that didn’t rely on the genes which an individual received from its parents. So now the pace of our change increased. Our ancestors’ brains expanded at extraordinary speed, enabling us to learn, store and spread ideas. But, ultimately, the physical changes in their bodies slowed almost to a halt. 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.
At the beginning of our existence as a species, our culture was centred upon a lifestyle of hunting and gathering. We were exceptionally good at both. We equipped ourselves with the material products of our culture such as hooks to catch fish and knives to butcher deer. We learned how to control fire for cooking and use stones to grind grain. But, despite our ingenious culture, our lives were not easy. The environment was harsh and, more importantly, unpredictable. The world, in general, was a lot colder than now. The sea level was much lower. Freshwater was harder to find, and global temperatures fluctuated greatly within relatively short periods of time. We may have had bodies and brains very like those we have now, but because the environment was so unstable, it was hard to survive. Data from genetic studies of modern-day humans suggests that in fact, 70,000 years ago, those climatic hazards left us susceptible to events that nearly exterminated us. Our entire species may have been reduced to as few as 20,000 fertile adults.6 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.
* * *
The Holocene–the part of the Earth’s history that we think of as our time–has been one of the most stable periods in our planet’s long history. For 10,000 years, the average global temperature did not vary up or down by more than 1°C.7 We don’t know exactly what produced this stability, but the richness of the living world may well have had something to do with it.
Phytoplankton, microscopic plants floating near the ocean’s surface, and vast forests extending right round the globe in the north, locked away a great deal of carbon and so helped to maintain a balanced level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Huge herds of grazing animals kept the grasslands rich and productive by fertilising the soils and stimulated new growth by grazing them. Mangrove swamps and coral reefs along the coast provided nurseries for young fish that, when mature, ranged into open waters and enriched the ocean’s ecosystems. A dense, multi-layered belt of rainforest around the Equator harnessed the Sun’s energy and added moisture and oxygen to the global air currents. And great white expanses of snow and ice at the northern and southern ends of the Earth reflected sunlight back into space, cooling the whole Earth like a gigantic air conditioner.
So the flourishing biodiversity of the Holocene helped to moderate the global temperatures of Earth, and the living world settled into a gentle, reliable annual rhythm–the seasons. On the tropical plains, dry and rainy seasons alternated with clockwork regularity. In Asia and Oceania, the winds changed direction at the same time each year, delivering the monsoon on cue. In northern regions, the temperatures rose above 15°C in March, triggering spring, and then stayed high until October when they dipped and brought autumn.
The Holocene was our Garden of Eden. Its rhythm of seasons was so reliable that it gave our species the opportunities we needed, and we took advantage of them. 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. The change was not deliberate. It did not happen by design. The path to agriculture was long, haphazard and accidental, and due more to luck than to foresight.
In the Middle East, the lands had all the characteristics needed for such happy accidents. They lie on the crossroads between three continents–Africa, Asia and Europe–so, for millions of years, species of plants and animals from all three have both passed through and established themselves here. The hillsides and floodplains were colonised by plants such as the wild ancestors of today’s wheat, barley, chickpea, peas and lentils–all species that produce seeds so rich in nutriment that they can survive the prolonged dry seasons. Such edible morsels must have attracted people every year. If they were able to gather more seeds than they needed immediately, they doubtless stored them, as some other mammals and birds do, so that they could be eaten during the winter when food is scarce. At some point, the hunter-gatherers stopped their wanderings and settled down, secure in the knowledge that their stored seeds would provide them with food when nothing else was easily available.
Wild cattle, goats, sheep and pigs all existed naturally in this region. Initially they must have been taken from the wild, but they too became domesticated within a few thousand years of the start of the Holocene. Again, there will have been many intermediate, and doubtless unintentional, steps in the journey from wild to tame. At first, the hunters selected males to kill, and protected breeding females, in order to boost the populations. Evidence for this has been found by scientists studying the bones of animals around ancient village sites. The humans may also have chased off other animal predators or lived without meat entirely for periods of the year to maintain the wild stock. Ultimately, they not only caught but kept animals alive for long periods and began to breed them, inevitably selecting as their stock those individuals that were less aggressive and more tolerant.
With time, all of these developments were enhanced by other innovations–building grain stores, herding, digging irrigation channels, tilling and planting, adding manure. Agriculture had arrived. Perhaps the advent of farming was almost inevitable when a species as intelligent and inventive as ours met a climate as stable as the Holocene’s. Certainly, the habit of farming started independently in at least 11 separate regions around the world, gradually developing cultivated strains of a very wide range of crops including familiar ones like potatoes, maize, rice and sugarcane, and domesticated animals such as donkeys, chickens, llamas and bees.
* * *
Farming transformed the relationship betweenhumankind and nature. We were, in a very small way, taming a part of the wild world–controlling our environment to a modest degree. We built walls to protect plants from the wind. We shaded our animals from the Sun by planting trees. Using their manure, we fertilised the land where they grazed. We ensured that our crops flourished in times of drought, keeping them watered by building channels from rivers and lakes. We removed plants that competed with the ones we found useful, and covered whole hillsides with those we particularly favoured.
Both the animals and the plants we selected in this way also began to change. As we protected the grazing animals, they no longer needed to guard against attacks from predators or fight for access to females. We weeded our plots so that our food plants could grow without competition from other species and get all the nitrogen, water and sunlight they needed. They produced larger grains, and bigger fruits and tubers. The animals became more biddable as we took away their need for wariness and aggression. Their ears flopped, their tails curled, they continued to make the yapping, bleating and whining noises of their younger years even when they were mature– perhaps because, in many ways they were eternally youthful, being fed and protected by us, their surrogate parents. And we were also changing from a species that was moulded by nature into one that had the ability to mould other species to match its own requirements.
The farmers’ work was hard. They suffered frequent droughts and famine. But eventually they were able to produce more than they needed for their own immediate requirements. Compared to their hunter-gathering neighbours, they were able to raise bigger families. These extra sons and daughters were useful, not only to tend the crops and livestock, but to assist their family in retaining possession of its fields. Farming made land more valuable than it had been in its wild state, and the farmers began to build more permanent shelters to maintain their claims.
The plots belonging to different families inevitably varied in soil type, water availability and aspect. So some crops and herds fared better than others. After feeding the family, the farmers were able to use any surplus to trade. Farming communities came to gather at open markets to barter their wares. They began to exchange food for other assets and for skills. The farmers needed stone, twine, oil and fish. They wanted the products of carpenters, masons and toolmakers, who now for the first time were able to trade for food rather than spending time growing it. As the number of trades increased, the markets developed into towns and then cities in many of the fertile river valleys. As each new valley was settled, some farmers moved to the next in search of fresh fields. Neighbouring tribes of hunter- gatherers, trading with the farming communities, merged with them as they grew, and the practice of farming spread at speed up the rivers into every watershed.
Civilisation had started. It gathered pace with each generation, and with each technical innovation. Water power, steam power, electrification were invented and refined–and eventually all the achievements with which we are familiar today were established. But each generation, in these ever-more-complex societies, was able to develop and progress only because the natural world continued to be stable and could be relied upon to deliver the commodities and the conditions that we needed. The benign environment of the Holocene, and the marvellous biodiversity that guaranteed it, became more important to us than ever.
World population: 2.7 billion
Carbon in atmosphere: 310 parts per million
Remaining wilderness: 64 per cent
After studying the natural sciences at university and doing my national service in the Royal Navy, I joined the infant BBC Television Service. It had started in 1936, the first in the world, using two small studios in Alexandra Palace in north London. It was suspended when the Second World War erupted, but in 1946 it began again, using the same cameras in the same studios. All its programmes were live and in black and white, and they could only be seen in London and Birmingham. 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.
To start with, we showed animals brought to the studios from the London Zoo. They were placed on a table covered by a doormat and usually handled by one of the Zoo’s experts. But that made them look like freaks or oddities. 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. I made a plan with Jack Lester, the Curator of Reptiles in the London Zoo. He would suggest to the Zoo’s Director that he might go to Sierra Leone in West Africa, which he knew well, and that I would go with him with a cameraman to film what he did. After each film sequence showing Jack at work in the wilderness, he would appear live in the studio, show the actual animal that he had caught and explain something about its natural history. It would be excellent publicity for the Zoo, and the BBC would get a new kind of animal programme. We called it Zoo Quest. So, in 1954, I set off for Africa with Jack and Charles Lagus, a young cameraman who had worked in the Himalayas and used the lightweight 16mm film camera that we would need.
The first programme was transmitted in December 1954. Unhappily, the day after it appeared Jack was taken to hospital with a disease so serious that it would eventually kill him. There was no way in which he could appear in the studio for the second programme the following week. Only one person could do the job, and that was me. So I was instructed to leave the control gallery from which I had directed the live cameras, and instead stand in the studio grappling with the pythons, monkeys, rare birds and chameleons that the expedition had brought back. So began my career in front of the camera.
The series turned out to be very popular and I started to travel the world making Zoo Quest programmes– Guyana, Borneo, New Guinea, Madagascar, Paraguay. Wherever I went, I found wilderness: sparkling coastal seas, vast forests, immense open grasslands. Year after year I explored such places with cameras, recording the wonders of the natural world for the viewers back home.
The people who helped us, guiding us through these jungles and deserts couldn’t understand how I found it so difficult to locate animals–animals that were plainly obvious to them. It was some time before I acquired the skills that I needed to become reasonably competent at living and working in the wilderness.
The programmes became extremely popular. People had never seen a pangolin before on television. They had never seen a sloth. We showed them the largest lizard, the so-called ‘dragon’ that lives on Komodo, a small island in central Indonesia, and filmed for the first time birds-of- paradise dancing in the New Guinea forest.
The 1950s were a time of great optimism. The Second World War that had left Europe in ruin was beginning to fade in the memory. The whole world wanted to move on. Technological innovation was booming, making our lives easier, introducing us to new experiences. It felt that nothing would limit our progress. The future was going to be exciting and bring everything we had ever dreamed of. Who was I, travelling the globe with the task of exploring nature, to disagree.
That was before any of us were aware that there were problems . . .
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