In Netflix's A Life On Our Planet, David Attenborough makes a strong statement about saving humanity
Netflix's A Life On Our Planet is banked on Sir David Attenborough's memories of 94 years on this planet, with profound reflections on the wilderness and the absolute urgency to save humankind from an impending climate-change disaster.
On 22 September, a new digital clock was unveiled in Manhattan’s Union Square in New York City, displaying the time left to act – down to the very second – before we reach complete climate collapse. As of now, that number is 7 years, 84 days, 15 hours… and counting.
In addition to the timer in red showing the “deadline” the world has to prevent catastrophic climate events, the clock also displays a second figure in green, dubbed as a “lifeline”. The lifeline represents the percentage of available energy currently being supplied by renewable sources – a figure that the artist-activists hope will increase as climate awareness grows.
Venerable broadcaster and nature historian Sir David Attenborough, who has dedicated his life to documenting and conserving the natural world, calls the global devastation "our greatest mistake", but also offers a glimmer of hope in his new Netflix film, A Life On Our Planet. However, his latest feature shies away from the usual sweeping aerial shots, ornate underwater scenes, or making peers with never-seen-before fritters; instead it is a plea to save the planet.
Just like the spinning climate clock, A Life On Our Planet is Attenborough's 'witness statement' to the urgent global crisis.
Banked on Attenborough's memories of 94 years on the planet, the documentary is a story of global decline over a single lifetime, with profound reflections on how we got here and what we can do to change our future. While the documentary provides a chance for the veteran to look back at his remarkable life, beginning with his experiences of fossil-hunting as a young boy and moving through his memories of shooting renowned series like Life On Earth and Blue Planet — this is less of a celebration, more a warning.
The documentary opens in Chernobyl, exploring how once a city of 50,000 people, is now completely abandoned, lives left behind in the panic due to the nuclear power plant explosion of 1986. It is no longer habitable for we observe that the forests and wild have now overtaken the city. It may look like a scene straight of an apocalyptic film, but as the narrator notes in a grave voice, this could be the very fate of increasingly large sections of the globe if we don't come up with strategic intervention.
The feature further illustrates the damage Attenborough has observed in his lifetime, as a point of emphasis for how drastically the world has changed in a scant nine decades — the global population has more than tripled, deforestation has increased at a frightful rate and the oceans continue to warm at a rapid speed. When Attenborough was born, in 1926, average temperatures were one degree cooler than they are today – it’s not so much the heat, but the speed of the change which has thrown nature out of balance.
Tracking some of the most pivotal moments of his career - from making contact with a remote New Guinea tribe living in a completely sustainable fashion to his famous encounter with Silverback gorillas - the film carefully threads between the themes of despair and hope. While the first half of 80-minute documentary details our problems as a global society, the second half dedicates to our collective power to right our wrongs.
Though the film features wildlife footage from his previous documentaries, it also shows devastating shots such as large chunks of polar ice melting and all-encompassing pollution taking over the planet. In one particularly distressing scene, the narrator talks about the homeless orangutans of Borneo. He notes that over half of the world’s rainforests have been cleared to make room for oil palms – which equates to some three trillion trees. With dwindling rainforests, the orangutan families have been broken in half, with younger ones left to fend for themselves. As the footage of homeless fritters scouring bare, lifeless branches fill the screen, Attenborough remarks how a monoculture of oil palm, has left a thriving habitat dead in comparison.
With the timeline ticking, the host gives us a glimpse of the world that someone born today will live in. Wildfires rage. The polar ice caps melt. Unpredictable weather. The Amazon, stripped of trees by deforestation, transforms into a desert. The coral is no longer bursting with life. Humans starve, as over-farmed land struggles to keep up with the demand. It is a bleak picture. Sitting quietly in a blacked-out studio, Attenborough's statements are disarmingly profound as he discusses humanity's absolute failure to protect our fragile ecosystem.
Nevertheless, he switches to his warm candour to create an uplifting and pragmatic latter half. He offers exciting and financially sound solutions to the myriad problems, from regulating the fishing industry, re-wilding the planet, increasing the use of renewables, and controlling population growth. While his approach to sustainable living may come off as preachy, it almost sounds convincing and do-able for he's someone who has cherished the earth for almost 100 years and wants us to look after it after he’s gone.
A Life on Our Planet may seem like a mournful portrait of the world that used to be, but overturns into a critical viewing in lieu of the climate change crisis. For in the end, as Attenborough says, “it’s not really about saving the planet. It’s about saving ourselves.”
David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet is currently streaming on Netflix.
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