A Life on our Planet by Sir David Attenborough: A Book review

The book , “A life on our planet” , is an account by the ‘King of Natural History’, Sir David Attenborough. It's reflective, anecdotal and delightfully autobiographical in parts about the most revered naturalist to ever walk the planet. The narrative is calm yet bold, alarmist though not hyperbolic. Attenborough aims to describe the destruction of the planet during his lifetime, convince us that we must act now to restore nature and explain to us how we might do this. We begin in 1937, with an 11-year-old Attenborough developing a keen interest in the natural world, while searching for fossils near his Leicester home. At 94 years old, Attenborough has seen the world develop in ways that would have been unthinkable in his youth. His extensive travels, courtesy of his career at the BBC, have enabled him to explore some of the world’s most extraordinary and biodiverse destinations, many of which he has sadly seen destroyed since his first visit.

There is an engaging and descriptive narrative about the modern history of the natural world through the author’s eyes, eventually finding ourselves in 2020. Attenborough’s childhood adventures, the population has more than trebled, atmospheric carbon has increased by nearly half, and Earth’s remaining wilderness has declined from 66% to a worrying 25%.

The book is divided into three distinct sections. Part One of the book includes a witness statement. It has an account of the extensive travels of the naturalist which have enabled him to explore some of the world’s most extraordinary and biodiverse destinations, many of which he has sadly seen destroyed since his first visit. It makes us realize that the world as we see it today, is widely different from what was seen by our elders in their youth.

This first section of the book is a one-man antidote to shifting baseline syndrome – making us realize that the “natural world” of today, or even of our childhoods, is remarkably different to the natural world which our elders experienced in their youths. The autobiographical insights into his life are delightful, yet the witness statements they provide are just as distressing. Though he puts humankind in an antagonist light where acidification of the oceans, conversion of wilderness to agriculture, overfishing are causing widespread degradation of the environment. Despite that, Attenborough’s love for humanity, as well as the natural world, is apparent throughout.

The second part of the book is an account of “what lies ahead”, from today into the next century. It provides a jarring foresight to what the current youth might experience by the time they will reach Attenborough’s age. There will be climate refugees with floods, fires, food shortages getting commonplace. This segment serves to shock the reader with the forecasted destruction of the nature of mankind, if we didn't act immediately.

This is followed by his vision for the future. He rolls out his version of a roadmap to dole out the current crisis. He presents case studies which are promising such modern practises in agriculture in Netherlands, protection of fish stocks at Palau. He draws attention to collectivised efforts at a political and corporate level. He talks about the importance of divesting from fossil fuels, ending our obsession with growth in GDP, and moving towards a more equitable future for women in less economically developed countries. The books cover a vast range of issues across its sections. It also talks about classic concepts such as carrying capacity, trophic cascade and the demographic transition model explained very simply yet effectively.

This book has a very convincing pitch that the time to act to save the planet is now.

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