David Attenborough, Earth Optimism 2021

Attenborough to World Leaders: The World ‘Doesn’t Work on Petrol’

On April 4, 2021, the “undisputed voice of our planet,” Sir David Attenborough, spoke with scientist and broadcaster Liz Bonnin. Attenborough’s talk was a highlight of Earth Optimism 2021, a global summit for ten days to celebrate conservation innovations and successes.

This year, Earth Optimism was held hosted online as a way to celebrate “what’s working to protect the future of our planet,” notes the Guardian.

Shifting in View from Saving Species to Saving the Planet

Sir David Attenborough was the final speaker this year for the “Hope for the Planet series.” Attenborough’s career as an English broadcaster and naturalist has spanned nearly seven decades, beginning in 1952 when he joined the BBC. At age 94, he’s more popular and relevant than ever, a leading voice in calling for change to save the planet’s interconnected ecosystems.

As serious as the problems are for our planet, Attenborough remains hopeful that people will take action before it’s too late.

Bonnin asked Attenborough how he’s seen conservationist’s approaches to save the planet change over his lifetime.

Attenborough says he’s seen an enormous shift. 

“This shift in my lifetime…is from single, charismatic species that we’ve got to save to realizing that what we have to save is ecosystems,” said Attenborough. “And the change that has happened within the last few years is a recognition that it’s not just ecosystems that we’re dealing with – it’s the planet,” he said emphatically.

Thus, one ecosystem in the Amazon rainforest affects the globe’s ecosystems, which developed over millions of years. Importantly, both damages and improvements in one part of the world can impact the planet.

Relearning What Indigenous People Have Always Known

Next, Bonnin notes that indigenous peoples worldwide have long known that humans are inextricably connected to nature. Now, modern societies must learn, appreciate, and start to live by their examples.

“…Indigenous people are those disproportionately affected by the way we’re living in the world, and yet they have such treasures of knowledge, don’t they? –about how we really are supposed to live on this planet,” she continued.

Attenborough says modern societies need to learn for the first time about our part in the ecosystem.

“We have to relearn what it means to be a part of an ecosystem,” said Attenborough. “It isn’t relearning is the problem now; it’s learning for the first time that it’s not that we’re a member of a particular ecosystem. We are all members of one enormous, gigantic, interconnected ecosystem.”

Attenborough stressed that people needed a fundamental change in attitude. What we do in our corner of the world can affect every part of the globe because everything is connected.

“And that’s going to take a new education for ourselves,” he added. “A new attitude.”

The old systems of nationalism “have got to change entirely.”

Attenborough and Jane Goodall

Then, Bonnin asked Attenborough if any conservation stories, in particular, inspired him strongly over the years. Immediately, Attenborough recognized Dame Jane Goodall’s work, changing attitudes toward animals like chimpanzees.

“A young girl in England who decided she was going to go and study chimpanzees by herself and did so,” Attenborough said admiringly.

Goodall slowly gained acceptance by the primates, and she observed them with empathy not generally seen in rigid scientific studies. As a result, we learned a great deal about our closest animal relatives.

“Her observations changed the attitude I think of a nation and beyond to a relationship that could exist between a human being and a perfectly wild animal society. She became one of them,” he said.

Goodall continues to travel extensively to call for saving and appreciating wildlife, particularly the primates so threatened by human encroachment and poaching.

Why Hopeful Stories Should Make Headlines

Today, the world faces extreme challenges to save ecosystems, curb climate change, and protect species. However, this year, the focus has been on the COVID-19 pandemic and political chaos. Few headlines focus on hopeful stories about good things, particularly when it comes to conservation.

For ten days, the Earth Optimism summit highlighted positive innovations that can bring positive change. Bonnin suggests that sharing positive storytelling is essential for creating the “change the planet needs.” Why aren’t the positive stories making headlines?

“Storytelling is the basis of effective communication,” agreed Attenborough.

The naturalist suggests that creating a compelling narrative is key to holding the global audience’s attention.

 For example, the most ambitious narrative he ever attempted was to tell the story of evolution through his Life on Earth series.

“It held its audience to the end because it was a narrative,” he said.

If stories about the narrative of positive change became headlines, what a difference it would make, notes Bonnin. Thus, more good news headlines are desperately needed and create “a ripple effect of positivity,” she added.

To create compelling narratives, Attenborough suggests stories about the whole range of biodiversity and characters in the natural world have to be told. “Every child should understand about the natural world,” he says, after teaching generations of kids about nature himself.

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Living in Harmony with Nature

Next, Attenborough recalls one of the most memorable and powerful moments in his life as a naturalist. In the mid-50s, he went to Guyana in South America and followed a skilled bushman through the swamp.

Attenborough took the invitation to shoot a Caiman on a log surrounded by wild birds, geese, and egrets. The moment he shot, the explosion disrupted the quiet and sent birds flying as the Caiman “arched into the air with a huge splash.”

“The entire scene was destroyed, and all the egrets and the birds screamed and disappeared into the horizon. I sat there appalled, and it was the first time I had ever shot anything, and it was the last time I ever shot anything.”

Attenborough’s experience reminds him symbolically of what humans are doing to Earth.

“And that moment of the wonder of this vast community of diverse birds and reptiles – and what I had done to it has lingered in my mind ever since. And, that, of course, is what we are doing to the world,” he said.

Bonnin asked him what the predominant feeling of that moment was and how it changed him going forward.

“How easy it was for ignorance to destroy; how complex the thing was that we were destroying and how beautiful the community was and how we could be a member of it,” responded Attenborough.

Although the 50s were a different time, Attenborough notes that things are changed today.

“We now know that not only is it possible to live in harmony with the natural world, but we have to live in harmony with the natural world if we are to survive,” he said. “So, it’s not just purple prose and romanticism, and so on; it is part of our very survival.”

Our Last Chance to Preserve Biodiversity

Attenborough goes on to emphasize that people across the world must begin to work together “if we are to survive.” To confront existential challenges, such as those posed by climate change, nations must be willing to “shed national interests for the international interests,” he says.

“It’s not just good wishes; it’s survival we’re talking about.”

Therefore, if the human species intends to survive, it will require a revolutionary change in attitude and fast. 

In November, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) will be a chance for world leaders to come together for change. The famed naturalist believes it may be the last chance for preserving Earth’s biodiversity from now on. Can world leaders take the required action?

“I do think that it may well be our last chance, a last chance to preserve the planet with the richness that it has at the moment,” said Attenborough. 

Only selfishness will prevent world leaders from making critical and productive changes. Worldwide, people are hungry and ready for change, if only the will is there to follow through.

“The rights and wrongs of it are absolutely clear,” he said of protecting the oceans. “The only thing that prevents it happening is selfishness, and we can’t allow that.”

Although leaders can’t reconcile growing economies with nature conservation, Attenborough says they mistake how the world fundamentally works. 

“You’ve really got to understand the way the world works, and it doesn’t work on petrol; it works on blood,” he points out.

The world is factually interconnected. Ultimately, we rely on nature, forests, and other ecosystems for our survival.

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Staying Hopeful While We Have the Chance

Although the situation for life on Earth is dire, Attenborough remains hopeful.

“You have no alternative,” he says. “What else are you supposed to do?” he quipped.

Attenborough doesn’t focus on the odds of success but on doing what we can now. 

“We have the chance, and those chances are disappearing. If we don’t take them, we are doomed.”

In the meantime, Attenborough will continue taking pleasure in observing nature all around him and inspiring people worldwide to do the same.

See the full interview below from the Cambridge Conservation Initiative: