NOVEMBER 23 — The immensely popular Sir David Attenborough was once quoted as saying that despite all that has happened to our world, he still believed that there was hope. Hope for us to reverse the decline of nature if only we came together and committed to a change. To that he added that while the change was indeed possible, he might not be around to see it. Hearing a 93-year old man, who had spent nearly five decades showing us rare glimpses of the living world, admit to his fears that a healed living world was potentially out of his reach moved many viewers to tears. It brought to mind a Greek saying, “a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”
In April 2020, as the world was reeling from the devastation of Covid-19, Attenborough released his first feature film, David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet. The timeliness of the release was downplayed only by the magnanimous legacy of the living world the film turned out to be. In the trailer to the film, Attenborough describes the film as “my witness statement and vision for the future” and in the film, he tells us “a story of global decline in a single lifetime”.
Produced by Silverback Films in collaboration with WWF, the film takes us through the earth’s evolutionary history, clearly delineating its various stages, starting from 1937 when Attenborough was a mere ten-year old, inquisitive and passionate about his buried treasure — the fossils he collected. We then see footage of him as a young broadcaster in the 1950s traversing the world’s corners to bring to people’s homes fascinating glimpses of the living world, both known and unknown. “Wherever I went, there was wilderness, sparkling coastal seas, vast forests, immense grasslands”, he says.
And as we sit there feeding our eyes and minds with the rich images of raw, untouched nature and the stories he tells us about them, he introduces the notion of the second world war, or more accurately, the glitzy technology and the pace of progress that the war brought with it. And this was a time, he says, when people were unaware of the damaging repercussions progress was going to potentially bring into their future. “Back then, it seemed inconceivable that we, a single species, might one day have the power to threaten the very existence of our wilderness,” Attenborough says.
It took years for the realisation to set in, and it was in the 1960s that people actually became aware that this planet we call home was far from limitless; that without the preservation of this immense space we know as nature, the entire ecosystems would eventually collapse. It was a time, Attenborough says, of “rediscovery of a fundamental truth that we are ultimately bound by and reliant upon the finite natural world around us.” And most importantly, a rediscovery of the truth that the nature around us desperately needed protecting.
While viewers were left contemplating on the destructive impacts of technology and modernisation on their lifestyles, Attenborough introduces footage of his travels to remote areas where people lived on traditional technology. These were people who were taking in from their environment only resources that could naturally renew themselves. People who were practising — sustainable living — a notion fairly unknown back then. While the larger part of the modern, civilised world was slowly consuming earth and was in the process of using it up, these people were living sustainably; pursuing a lifestyle that could realistically continue for the longest time possible, while giving back to nature more than what they took from it.
It was between the late 1970s and 1990s that the world witnessed the real workings of biodiversity decline, says Attenborough in the film. And these were all due to impacts of human activities.
The decline was not outwardly addressed or known and only became apparent to natural historians during their nature trips — that animals were becoming harder to find.
This brought the world in the face of a cold reality; that humans were increasingly pursuing animals to extinction just like in prehistoric times. The only difference now was that the visibility of such actions was actually being felt. This made the world realise that something was fundamentally wrong about the way we co-existed with the living world. “A powerful shared conscience had suddenly appeared” Attenborough recalls.
As the human population began increasing at meteoric speed, habitats of wildlife started disappearing at alarming rates. It appeared that the world was in our control and nothing could stop people from wanting more. And over the next few decades, it was becoming apparent that Earth had become a planet run by a single species; the humankind, for the humankind alone. The impact of the damage we had done to our environment is clearly presented by the statistics Attenborough lays out in his film. In the late 1990s, the world population had increased to 5.9 billion, carbon in the atmosphere was 360 parts per million, and the wilderness had reduced to 46 per cent as compared to 1937, where it was 2.3 billion, 280 parts per million and 66 per cent respectively.
The film strikes a chord with all those who have long sensed imminent dangers to the living world. We have been in need of this wake-up call for long, and the film offers just that. It makes us realise that we need to act now to address this global manmade disaster, and if we don’t, we risk facing extinction and potential collapse of the living world.
To restore our planet, we must rejuvenate its biodiversity. And Attenborough believes that the way to do this to “rewild the world.” And it’s not as difficult as it seems, he says. “The trick is to raise the standard of living around the world, without increasing our impact on that world.” We could slow down the human population and opt for more sustainable ways of living. And use less of the world’s immense natural space for farming and plantations. We must keep our oceans healthy and thriving and explore renewable energy sources. The opportunities to “rewild the planet” are extensive. To wholly embrace the opportunities, we must first come to terms with the gravity of our mistakes and seek sustainable methods of working with nature, and not against it.
In the local context too, Malaysia’s progressive growth to become a fully-developed nation has brought forth grave threats to our biodiversity. Pressures of economic growth have created marked decline on our natural ecosystems. The inconvenient truth that Malaysia must now come to terms with is that its extraordinary natural capital needs serious healing. For decades now, WWF-Malaysia has been working towards halting the degradation of our national environment, to build a future in which humans can live in harmony with nature. Over the years, we have worked hard to ensure conservation of our biological diversity, advocate for the use of sustainable natural resources, and initiate efforts to reduce pollution and wasteful consumption. Challenges to implement our efforts have been many; and the overall commitment of Malaysians towards healing our environment has unfortunately been a tad too mild.
A new wave of realisation must take off. A realisation that the process of healing our environment is a collective responsibility of all the ‘stakeholders of our ecosystems’ – the government, corporate organisations, small-medium industries (SMEs), small-time traders, media platforms, the current generation of movers and shakers, the young, the old — in short, each and every Malaysian who, by default, consumes a part of this environment.
At WWF-Malaysia, we are constantly working with our partners e.g. government agencies, progressive companies and local communities on ways to implement our goals and objectives to heal the nation. Our vision is fundamentally to protect and restore nature by 2030 for the benefit of people of Malaysia and the world. In devising our aspirations to achieve a balance of humans living in harmony with nature, our vision and strategies take into consideration the national context (Shared Prosperity Vision 2030, the five-year Malaysia Plans, various national and state level policies and plans) and the global context (WWF Global Goals and Outcomes, New Deal for Nature and People, Sustainable Development Goals and Multilateral Environmental Agreements).
Sir David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet has been a revelation to many. As Attenborough puts it, “there are many differences between humans and the rest of the species on earth, but one that has been expressed is that we alone are able to imagine the future.” The film is fundamentally a call for us to use our wisdom to imagine the future of our world. One that prompts us into deciding the kind of world we wish to leave behind for our future generations. There is time still to make amends and learn to live in balance with the world around us; and the wild around us. Doing so is crucial to not only save our planet, but also to save ourselves.
*David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet is currently streaming on Netflix.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.