David Attenborough’s latest documentary—A Life on Earth— takes his concern about how we humans are managing our home to a new level. Instead of a voice-over with gentle concerned warnings, he speaks to us directly with his dismay emanating from his brimming sad eyes.
The film brings home how biodiversity makes our living world tick, but loss of wild areas means the clock for human life is ticking. Mass extinctions have happened five times in human history, and Attenborough wants to stop the next one.
For 10,000 years the average temperature didn’t vary by more than 1 degree Celsius. Dry and rainy seasons regularly and predictably alternated over most of the globe enabling farmers to provide our food. Then things began to change. In 1937, our world population was 2.3 billion, 66% of the Earth’s land was considered wild, and the number of parts of carbon molecules per million was 280. In 2020, the population is 7.8 billion, only 35% of our land is wild, and the number of parts of carbon per million has increased to the dangerous level of 415. Environmentalist Bill McKibben named his organization 350.org after the safe level of 350.
In the 1950s modernization progressed at pace, and human life became easier with sophisticated appliances, cars, TVs, and planes taking us all over the world. Earth seemed infinite with unlimited resources. Only our astronauts beginning with the Apollo missions could see the beauty and finitude of the blue marble.
Over Attenborough’s long career, he bore witness to the decline of mountain gorilas, whales, and so many species that today only 4% are wild. (I guess the rest are pets or awaiting to be served at our tables.) The number of acres of rain forests—gardens of biodiversity— has also drastically declined. As an example, Borneo was 75% rain forest in the 1950s, but today half of it is gone. 15 billion trees per year are slaughtered. Many efforts to replenish biodiverse forests are feeble because the newly planted trees are of a single variety—Palm Oil trees. The supply of fresh water is down by 80%.
Without significant action, by 2030 the Amazon will burn and the Arctic ice disappear. By 2040 the soil will thaw, releasing methane, a more harmful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Sustainable living is required for human’s continued existence with decent lives. Biodiversity, is the key and entails rewilding our Earth. We need to plant trees, trees, and more trees of appropriate kinds. An organization called Restor is gathering data for achieving the right mix of wild plant and animal life. More information on Restor will be part of an upcoming series: Age of Nature on PBS:
A plant and fish based diet is sustainable but one built around meat consumes too much land to sustain our growing human population. The natural world will rebuild without us. Chernobyl is evidence as natural trees have flourished. In working with rather than against nature, we can save ourselves. Behaving wisely is as critical as applying our best scientific efforts.