By Rev. Dr Chris Walker

I have just read David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet. The subtitle is My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future. He writes about his concern for the planet out of his long experience in filming the natural world. However, he also provides hope for the future, if only we are willing to make the changes needed for a sustainable and hospitable planet.

Attenborough was born in England in 1926, so he was 94 when the book was published in 2020. He points out that when he was 11 years old in 1937 the world population was 2.3 billion, carbon in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million and remaining wilderness was 66%. He notes that our part of Earth’s history, the Holocene, has been one the most stable periods in the planet’s history. For 10,000 years the average global temperature did not vary by more than one degree Centigrade. The rhythm of the seasons was reliable. Farming and domesticating animals began. Civilisation had started.

By 1960 the world population was 3 billion, carbon in the atmosphere was 315 parts per million and remaining wilderness was 62%. German scientist Bernhard Grzimek presented films on African wildlife. His most famous was Serengeti Shall Not Die which won an Academy Award for a documentary in 1959. He pointed out the inter-dependent characteristic of the region. The vast area was necessary for the animals and plants to thrive. With Tanzania and Kenya about to claim independence, there was the danger of turning the plains into farmland. Fortunately, this did not happen as Tanzania banned human settlement in the Serengeti and Kenya created new reserves. The point was made: the wild needs protecting.

Attenborough spoke about and filmed the endangered mountain gorillas of Rhwanda and whales being hunted nearly to extinction. He affirmed the importance of rain forests, the most bio-diverse places in the world. However, rainforest trees are being cleared for just one tree – the oil palm.

By 1997 world population was nearly 6 billion, carbon in the atmosphere was 360 parts per million and remaining wilderness was 46%. The largest habitat of all is the ocean covering 70% of the Earth’s surface. Large commercial fleets first ventured into international waters in the 1950s. Initially the catches were rich but overfishing soon changed this – using technology and huge nets. Also, global warming has resulted in bleaching events in the coral reefs, such as the Great Barrier Reef. He pointed out that coral reefs rival rainforests in terms of their biodiversity.

By 2020 world population was nearly 8 billion, carbon in the atmosphere was 415 parts per million and remaining wilderness was 35%. The world is noticeably warming with more extreme weather events. The speed of change is unprecedented. This is being felt at the Arctic and Antarctic with reduced sea ice. The Arctic has shrunk by 39% in 30 years and glaciers in many places are retreating. Algae grow on the underside of sea ice. Polar bears rely on ice platforms from which to hunt seals. Lengthening ice-free periods is a worrying trend. We have reduced 30% of fish stocks to critical levels. We have lost half of the world’s shallow-water corals. Coastal developments have reduced the extent of mangroves and seagrass beds by more than 30%.

Plastic debris is now found throughout the ocean from surface waters to the deepest trenches. Globally we have reduced the size of the animal population by over 80%. The world’s rainforests have been reduced by half – the top driver of continuing deforestation being beef production. Insect numbers have dropped by a quarter in 30 years. All this means the world as we know it is not sustainable. We have to change. A global ecological breakdown threatens.

Beginning in the 1950s our species has entered what has been termed the Great Acceleration. We live on a finite world – we could cross tipping points from which there is no return. However, Attenborough does offer hope if we are willing to take action. We need to reverse the current trends. It is estimated that 50% of humanity’s impact on the living world is attributable to the richest 16%. We have to move beyond the idea of growth to sustainability. We need to think not just of profits but also people and the planet. Switching to clean energy is imperative. We have to rapidly move from reliance on fossil fuels to having renewable energy sources.

Rewilding the seas is required. The industry that is currently causing the most damage to the ocean is fishing. We fish some places and some species too much and waste too much. He recommends we create a network of no-fish zones throughout coastal waters. This would allow fish to grow older and bigger with more offspring. They would then repopulate neighbouring areas.

We need to take up less space for farmland and use sustainable farming practices. Changing to a diet that is largely plant based with much less meat is required. Rewilding the land is also something we should be doing more of. There are examples, such as re-introducing wolves into Yellowstone National Park which has had beneficial outcomes. Reforestation is taking place in a number of nations reversing the previous practice.

The growth in human population has been from fewer than 2 billion to 8 billion in less than 100 years. It continues to grow and we are fast approaching the Earth’s carrying capacity for humanity. It has been found that the most effective way to significantly reduce family size is the empowerment of women – education, access to health care and contraception, and economic possibilities. Simply by investing in social and economic systems we can reduce the peak of the human population.

Attenborough concludes, “The next few decades represent a final opportunity to build a stable home for ourselves and restore the rich, healthy and wonderful world that we inherited from our distant ancestors.” I would add, and given to us by God to enjoy and share.

First published on Chris Walker’s blog, June 15, 2024