David Attenborough – A Life on Our Planet
The English Broadcaster and Natural Historian, David Attenborough, who at 94 years old has seen the evolution of nature and de-acceleration of wildlife first hand, has dedicated his life to documenting the natural world. He gives his witness statement of the future and life as we know it via his documentary – A life on our planet.
Attenborough expresses his concerns for the deteriorating state of the planet, which he believes is the product of Human over-population and increasing demand on resources. He discusses some harsh realities, including man made Global warming, the extent of deforestation, and the absurdities of mass plastic pollution. He tells us that we cut 15 billion trees down a year and have reduced fresh water populations by over 80%. He makes It known that humans make up 1/3 of the weight of mammals on earth, with a further 60% making up for the animals we raise to eat, with only 4% ranging from mice to whales making up the rest. Here he paints the picture of urgency, whereby before he dies, he feels it is his responsibility to make the public aware of the damage we are causing and to provide ways to combat the impending doom of climate change before it’s too late.
Many viewers who watched the documentary were left with a sobering impression of this depiction of the planet and the accelerated climate change. Even going as far as predicting what the planet would look like in 10 years if we were to continue on the same path. He said in his harrowing statement,
“Our blind assault on the planet has finally come to alter the very fundamentals of the living world” and “human beings have over-run the world, this is now a planet run by humankind, for humankind, there is little left for the rest of the living world.”
Since Attenborough started filming in the 1950’s, on average wild animal populations have more than halved. He is in obvious distress over how we’ve let this happen, and he is deeply concerned that soon it will be too late to do anything about it. He believes future generations will have a very different life compared to his and it saddens him.
One of the most thought-provoking parts of the documentary is a visual scale of how quickly the world has lost its wilderness compared to the rapid increase in human population:
World population – 2.3 billion
Carbon in atmosphere – 280 parts per million
Remaining wilderness – 66%
World population – 4.3 billion
Carbon in atmosphere – 335 parts per million
Remaining wilderness – 66%
World population: 5.9 billion
Carbon in atmosphere: 360 parts per million
Remaining wilderness: 46%
World population: 7.8 billion
carbon in atmosphere: 415 parts per million
Remaining wilderness: 35%
The Gaia effect – An alternative view
James lovelock, who turned 100 this year, is a world-renowned scientist and inventor who has developed his own theories regarding climate change and the evolution of the planet. He has been described as “The scientist who changed our view of the Earth” by the Independent. “The most influential scientist and writer since Charles Darwin” by the Irish times and “The visionary who gave the world Gaia Theory” by the Daily Telegraph.
Lovelock, a previous employee at NASA and a past medical researcher and inventor of burn treatments for WW2 soldiers, has spent his life studying and engulfing himself in natural science. He attended museums frequently from the age of 6, stemming from his passion for steam trains, to which he said that learning science in the museum was more useful than school. He expressed a far superior knowledge in science amongst his peers, and went on to study the natural evolution of the planet. He thinks of himself as a deeply intuitive person, an engineer of scientific thought and has come up with many ground breaking theories and inventions through-out his lifetime. Perhaps his most profound hypothesis is The Gaia affect – which presents the idea that the planet is its own self-regulating organism, which maintains the conditions necessary for life depending on the life that inhabits it. Here he believes that the state of the planet involves a series of thriving ecosystems, planetary cycles, and the evolution of life has forced the planet to adapt and evolve throughout its existence.
The concept is recognised as speculative, but it does cover some very interesting points that are widely agreed with. He believes that life itself has always caused mass extinctions, has always interfered with the planet’s cycles and changed the atmosphere on many occasions. It suggests that climate change is a natural process, that the planet has been going through for billions of years with the evolution of life.
This theory is in agreement that human life is accelerating the process of climate change because of our species thriving so much and adapting the environment to fit our needs, but that it is in itself – natural, and would always happen even without human involvement, just at a much slower pace. The 5 previous mass extinctions give credit to this theory as humans were not around when any of them occurred – but they still happened. The planet, for billions of years, has evolved according to life.
The science behind the Gaia effect has been in question for over 50 years with it causing controversy in the world of climate change. It was named after the Greek goddess of Earth ‘Gaia’ and holds the theory that since life began, it has worked to modify the environment. An example of the Gaia effect is this:
A sun gradually heats a planet until it is just warm enough for a species of black daises to colonize the entire surface. Black daisies absorb heat so they thrive in these low temperatures, but there are mutant white daisies which reflect the heat, and as the temperatures rise even further, these begin to flourish. So, the planet is cooled by white daises and warmed by black ones. A simple flower is able to regulate and stabilize the environment on a planetary scale. If this is scaled up to incorporate all the flora and fauna on Earth, then you have the system, Lovelock calls Gaia.
Lovelock, also a strong believer in us creating and stepping into the new era of the Novacene, has studied this concept for the majority of his adult life and has written many books explaining his theory. He believes that the problem we are facing today is caused by the pressure humans have put on the environment, but has added that creations including A.I and other incredibly intelligent technology will work with humans to keep the planet cool enough to ensure Gaia’s survival. He is in agreement that the planet will not be able to cope in extreme temperature rises such as the ones being predicted with the continued rate of pollution and oil extraction. Like all living things, the earth becomes frail in old age. A mass extinction could be triggered by catastrophic climate change effects and Lovelock is not so certain the planet would survive it.
“A prophet who deserves every honour the human race can bestow” (The Guardian)
“Lovelock Is the closest thing we have to an Old Testament prophet” (…) “The greatest scientific thinker of our time” (The Sunday Times)
The 5 mass extinctions
The 5 mass extinction events, that we know have already taken place on earth, were caused by a whole host of non-human-related reasons. A quick summary for all 5 is necessary, to comprehend a plausible answer for whether we are already in the process of the 6th mass extinction.
1st mass extinction – Ordovician
The Ordovician event that happened about 440 million years ago and killed up to 85% of all living species. Life had just started out at this point so there wasn’t much of it; there were large aquatic animals and some land animals. This extinction happened in two different waves and was supposedly caused by the movement of continents and severe climate change. The first wave was an ice age that smothered the entire Earth, causing sea levels to lower with many land species unable to adapt quickly enough to survive the harsh climates. The second wave was when the ice age finally ended. The episode came to a halt so suddenly that ocean levels rose too fast, meaning the ocean couldn’t hold enough oxygen to maintain the species that had survived the first wave. Again, species were too slow to adapt before extinction took them out completely. It was then up to the few surviving aquatic autotrophs to increase the oxygen levels so new species could evolve.
2nd mass extinction – Devonian
The second mass extinction event occurred in the Devonian period about 375 million years ago. This event followed the Ordovician extinction quite quickly. The worst thing about it was that life had begun to flourish, species were adapting to new environments and the climate had stabilized. However, this burst of life sped up the process of the 2nd mass extinction, with several hypothesis made by scientists as to why this seemingly well liveable planet wiped out almost 80% of land and water animals. One theory is that the first wave which killed a lot of aquatic life, may have been caused by the quick colonization of land – Many aquatic plants adapted to live on land, leaving fewer autotrophs to create oxygen for all the sea life. The plants’ rapid move to land also had a major effect on the carbon dioxide available in the atmosphere. The removal of green-house gases in the atmosphere rapidly lowered temperatures across the globe which meant land species had trouble adapting to these changes – leading to an inevitable extinction as a result. The second wave is more of a mystery. It could have included mass volcanic eruptions and some meteor strikes, but the exact cause remains unknown.
The 3rd mass extinction – Palaeozoic Era
The ‘The Great Dying’ was the largest of the 5 mass extinctions. Over the course of about 60,000 years, 96% of all life on earth became extinct. This extinction took place in the Permian period of the Palaeozoic Era about 250 million years ago. Aquatic and terrestrial life forms perished quickly as the event took place and it still remains much of a mystery, with many hypotheses being thrown out by scientists who study this era of the Geologic Time Scale. Some believe that there was a series of chained events that led to so many species dying out. This could have been massive volcanic eruptions paired with asteroid impacts that caused deadly methane and basalt to dissipate into the environment and spread across the Earth’s surface. There could have also been a decrease in oxygen that would have suffocated life and brought rapid climate changes. New research however, points to a microbe from the Archaea domain that flourishes when methane is high, these extremophiles may have taken over and choked out life in the oceans as well.
The 4th mass extinction – Triassic-Jurassic
The fourth mass extinction called the Triassic-Jurassic period was the least impactful extinction of the 5, killing just over half of all living species. This extinction event was the product of a combination of smaller extinction events that happened over the last 18 million years. The causes of these smaller extinctions can be attributed to volcanic activity with basalt flooding. Gases dissipated into the atmosphere from the volcanoes and created climate change issues that changed sea levels and possibly pH levels in the oceans.
The 5th mass extinction – Cretaceous Period
The cretaceous-Tertiary Mass extinction, (or K-T extinction) the end of the Cretaceous Period of the Mesozoic Era about 65 million years ago, is probably the best-known extinction event despite it not being the largest. Up to 75% of all known living species died during this time, including the dinosaurs, who thrived and evolved for 165 million years prior to this event. These huge creatures were almost completely wiped out, leaving only a few species of Jurassic birds and large reptilians such as crocodiles and alligators to reinvigorate the planet. According to the National Geographic and new data that came out in 2002, there is reason to believe that distant relatives of humans – primates – were also around during this time, and for us to be here now, they must have survived. The evidence comes from a new technique used to reconstruct the course of animal evolution, with it now suggesting that primates co-existed with the dinosaurs between 55, and up to 90 million years ago. The cause of this mass extinction was believed to be that of a huge asteroid impact that sent debris of space rocks into the air, producing an ‘impact winter’ that drastically altered the climate across the entire planet. Scientists have worked this out by the analysis of huge craters left in the earth’s surface, which has them dated back to this time.
So, are we living in the 6th mass extinction?
This is the question we’ve been waiting for, but it’s not as simple as a yes/no answer. As we can see from the break down of the 5 mass extinctions above, these events take time. We could be in the process of the 6th mass extinction but the people alive today won’t be around to witness the end result. Our future grandchildren might start seeing the effects of the mass extinction event more obviously. As of yet, we are witnessing life dying out in slow motion, enough for the average person to not even realise it is happening. But scientists have been studying the decrease in wilderness, deflation in species numbers, and the rise in Co2 for a long time now – and the evidence is striking.
Scientists have branded this the Holocene or most lately known as the Anthropocene extinction, which they do believe is the result of human activity. The included extinctions span across numerous species of plants and animals including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fishes and invertebrates. Arguably, the scariest part of all is the current rate of extinction which is between 100 and 1,000 times higher than natural background extinction rates. Ecologically, humanity has been noted as an unprecedented “global super predator” that consistently preys on the adults of other apex predators and has worldwide effects on food webs. The 2019 Global Assessment report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem services, published by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform, declares that roughly one million species of plants and animals face extinction within decades as the result of human actions.
So, in short, yes – We are in the midst of a 6th mass extinction event, and all evidence points towards the human race and our impact on the environment. In 100 years, we could have lost up to half of the planet’s remaining wildlife. However, there are a few ways we could prevent, or hold off the future that we’ve written for ourselves. Those are:
- We could stop burning fossil fuels
- We could learn more about protecting Earth’s land and oceans
- We could fight illegal wildlife trafficking
- We could address human population growth
- We could reconnect with the natural world
- We could reduce, reuse and recycle
- We could look into alternative food consumption like veganism or even be open minded to lab grown meat which is becoming more of a possibility than ever now.
- We need to avoid single use plastic
- We could choose eco-friendly gardening, cleaning and personal care products
- We need to dispose of hazardous household waste like batteries responsibly
- We could compost our food waste
Some of these things might seem out of the realms of possibility for the average citizen, and that is why it becomes crucial to stand together, to make sure governmental agencies and authorities put the correct measures in place. So far, this is not happening. In fact, much evidence suggests that we are being lied to by our governments on a global scale. The UK government for example, has come out with some targets – Minimal targets that even when adhered to, won’t make nearly the amount of difference we need, and we can’t always judicate whether they’re following them or not anyway. The real horror show is that even with these minimalistic pollution reducing targets, the government has given a maximum oil extraction order to companies such as SHELL, with the threat that if they do not maximise their oil extraction, they will lose their licence to operate. There are incentives, given by our government, to blatantly disregard the national crisis we are facing for economic benefits. This is not just going to destroy the majority of life on earth, but it will wipe out humanity for good. And for what? Money will mean nothing when there are no future generations to benefit.
There is hope
Despite the majority of us struggling to come to terms with the environmental crisis, there are a few amazing humans’ miles ahead of the rest. The fight for the climate has gathered pace, as activists across the world stand up against corporations, banks and governmental officials to save the planet. Greta Thunberg is a Swedish environmental activist who is internationally known for attending conferences with leaders and challenging their environmental policies. She has brought passion and determination to fighting the crisis and at just 16 years old at the time of her revolutionary first protest she’s become a pivotal influence in the younger generation’s lives. It proved that it doesn’t matter what age you are, you can fight for what you believe in. That inspiration spread like wild fire, with young people across the globe standing with her in protests and marches, prior to the pandemic, to demand compliance for negating pollution levels from their governments.
Kristal Ambrose, a biologist from the Bahamas, has convinced the government to ban single-use plastic. This process wasn’t easy for her as she was faced with prejudice and discrimination due to her class and race, but the importance of the campaign outweighed her shame and she didn’t let it hold her back. She lobbied the local politicians and launched an education campaign to inform people about overconsumption, particularly in rich nations, that contributed to the accumulation of rubbish on previously pristine beaches. She is quoted saying “In the Bahamas it’s a big deal, because we receive the world’s waste as well as our own. This is paradise until you look closely, then you see the plastic pollution that washes in with the Sargasso Sea.”
Leydy Pech is an indigenous Mayan beekeeper, who is also a promoter of sustainable development for rural communities in Mexico. In June 2012 she led a coalition known as Sin Transgenicos made up of beekeepers, NGO’S, and environmentalists that halted the planting of genetically modified soybeans. The Monsanto Company was an American agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation that was acquired by Bayer as part of its crop science division. Monsanto began growing small plots of genetically modified soybeans in Mexico for experimental purposes but in 2010 and 2011, these projects were extended to “pilot projects”. The soybeans are known as “roundup ready”, related to the herbicide roundup which is also a Monsanto product. The main ingredients in round up is glyphosate, a likely carcinogen linked to birth defects and even miscarriages. Pech spent a lot of time and energy in making sure 7 states in Mexico were pesticide free to protect her bees, and the surrounding environment and eco systems. She won the Goldman environmental prize.
Nemonte Nenquimo is an indigenous activist and member of the Waorani nation from the Amazonian Region of Ecuador and she led a campaign that saved 500,000 acres of Amazon rainforest from oil extraction. She is the first female president of the Waorani of Pastaza and co-founder of the indigenous-led nonprofit organization ceibo alliance. She is 34 years old and has been listed in The Time magazine as one of 100 most influential people in the world. She is the first indigenous woman on the list and the second Ecuadorian. She bridged the gap between the world’s indigenous people and western society, bringing together elders and youth, and uniting distinct indigenous tribes that were once divided and in the process she saved a massive part of the Amazonian Forrest.
Lucie Pinson, 34, grew up in Nantes, France became an environmental activist who pressured France’s three largest banks to eliminate financing for new coal projects and coal companies. Despite decades of research bringing up stark evidence of the dangers of coal, it remains the world’s primary source of energy, especially in the developing world.
The French financial sector has long played a key role in financing and insuring the global expansion of the coal industry. Three of the French largest banks – BNP Paribas, Crédit Agricole, and Société Générale are part of the 20 banks who make up 75% of finance for coal with just those three banks providing loans of more than 32 billion to the global coal industry. Lucie Pinson has managed to successfully coerce the banks to refuse further funding for future coal projects. Denmark is the first country to have set a date for the complete ban of oil extraction. It will end future licensing rounds for oil and gas exploration permits in the North Sea and sets existing production to expire no later than 2050. This is the first step to an oil-free future.
The final note
As a community we need to work together to teach, learn and be conscious about the serious matter at hand. Humanity tends to live in the moment, with little thought about the consequences in the future. We should be thinking about protecting the house before it catches light, rather than dealing with the aftermath.
It is the responsibility of the world’s governments and media outlets to continue addressing the issue, informing the public on plans to combat the crisis, and providing detailed ways and solutions, as we as individuals can help. The crucial ongoing work of activists will play a monumental part in making sure governments stick to their targets, but it is time for more people to become activists for the planet. Together, we can attempt to rewrite the future, and the time for that Is now.