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Life on this planet is fleeting

Review of: A Life on Our Planet: My witness statement and a vision for the future, by David Attenborough
Witness Books, London, 2020

by

Published: 31 August 2021 (GMT+10)
book-cover

For most people, Sir David Attenborough (b. 1926) needs no introduction. Even if you do not know his name, it is likely you will have heard his voice. Since the 1950s, he has narrated over sixty BBC wildlife series and countless other television productions including, Life on Earth (1979), The Trials of Life (1990), The Blue Planet (2001), Planet Earth (2006), Frozen Planet (2011), The Hunt (2015), Dynasties (2018), and A Perfect Planet (2021). He is an accomplished writer too, with almost 30 books to his name—A Life on Our Planet, covered in this review, is co-authored with Jonnie Hughes.1

This book is easy to read, with numerous interesting black and white images and photographs throughout. It has two insert sections with glossy photographs (almost all colour). However, let the reader be forewarned: this 266-page volume is not solely descriptive, it has a significant propaganda component—ultimately, Sir David has an agenda in writing this book.

A Life on Our Planet is in three parts. In part one he gives an overview of his life and career. Although autobiographical, each chapter headed with not only the calendar year, but also the world’s population at that time, the parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere on that date,2 and an estimate of the remaining percentage of wilderness worldwide.3 Part two discusses Attenborough’s view of our planet’s prospects if things continue as they are. Part three provides his vision of how to affect the future for the better.

Brief biography

David Attenborough grew up in Leicester (UK) and enjoyed spending time away from home on his bicycle, investigating nature—he also had a keen interest in fossils. Occasionally, he got roped into a bit of acting by his elder brother Richard (1923–2014), who later achieved fame as an actor and filmmaker.4 David chose to study the natural sciences (geology and zoology) at Cambridge University and later did his two years of national service in the Royal Navy, before joining the BBC, initially in radio, and later in its fledgling television service. This led, in the fullness of time, to his long career as a famous writer, narrator and presenter of nature documentaries the world over.

Warming due to CO2

The main thread throughout A Life on Our Planet is the all-encompassing climate change—previously known by the more restrictive term ‘global warming’. Although the warming of the planet (however small the increments) is solely touted as a problem, Attenborough admits that, from his evolutionary viewpoint, it actually helped “life to proliferate” (p. 78) in the past. He also states that the “last time the Earth was as warm as it is now, there was far less ice than there is today” (p. 92). There is no doubt in Attenborough’s mind, though, that global warming in recent times is anthropological—man-made (p. 111)—which he calls “Our blind assault on the planet” (p. 95). He still refers to the discredited hockey-stick graph (p. 106).

wikipedia.org/john-cairnsdavid-attenborough
Sir David Attenborough, March 2015.

The biggest culprit of the rising temperature, we are told, is the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). But despite all the incriminating tirades of how bad CO2 is,5 David Attenborough fails to mention that plants and trees flourish with higher levels of dioxide. For someone who repeatedly says we need to “Rewild the World” (part three of the book), it is a rather significant omission. Not only were we near a historical low CO2 concentration in the atmosphere6—at around 295 parts per million (ppm)—but flora would start to die if this value dropped below 170 ppm.7 What’s more, it has been demonstrated that crops (e.g. tomatoes) yield more produce when grown at elevated CO2 levels. According to former Greenpeace director Patrick Moore,8 when the concentration of “CO2 is higher … plants can live where it was previously too dry for them”.9 Thus there has been a greening of planet earth with the rise in CO2 levels.10


Renewables

Wanting to see a radical reduction of CO2 emissions, Attenborough is a strong proponent of using renewable energy. His much favoured candidates for this are solar panels and wind turbines, saying there are 11 nations with less than 10% of their total energy budget made up of fossil fuels (p. 143). He claims that there are three in Latin America and five in Africa, but no reference is given. This conflicts with information from The World Bank.11 Not a single African country features in the World Bank’s record and only two of the three countries which Attenborough lists as totally fossil fuel independent are present (Iceland and Albania).

He states that wind turbines can stand “above a forest, without disturbing the developing wilderness” (p. 186). What about the existing wilderness, including birds and bats which are killed by turbines? Surely David Attenborough cares about flying creatures too? Ecomodernist Michael Shellenberger played a significant role in the Obama administration in the US (2009–2017), spending about $150 billion on the precursor of the Green New Deal. His highly praised (albeit controversial) book Apocalypse Never notably rejects alarmism. He informs readers that, “in many countries, wind turbines pose the single greatest threat to bats after habitat loss and white-nose syndrome [fungal disease]” and they also “kill big, threatened, and slow-to-reproduce species like hawks, eagles, owls, and condors”.12

wind-turbines-and-solar-panels
Wind turbines and solar panels have a finite life.

Attenborough discusses the world’s largest solar farm in Morocco (p. 145). He mentions that the Moroccans store solar heat for many hours using molten salt. This raises some questions. On average (depending on location and season), half of the time no sunlight is available. Energy storage is essential, but for more than just a few hours. What about cloud build-up or, more particularly, a solar eclipse? Where panels one moment are producing energy, this supply collapses.13 What to replace it with? “Battery technologies are not yet adequately developed”, Attenborough confesses (p. 140). Alternative fuel sources are still necessary, requiring a natural gas plant to be geared up to meet any shortfall (or else face blackouts). A natural gas plant delivers over 40× more power per square metre than solar panels (nuclear up to 120×). Shellenberger contrasts solar with nuclear power as follows:

“Solar panels require sixteen times more materials in the form of cement, glass, concrete, and steel than do nuclear plants, and create three hundred times more waste.”14

In sum: Solar energy is less efficient, requires more materials, generates more waste, and makes us rely on energy storage elsewhere (which itself leaves a footprint). David Attenborough seems to have forgotten to mention some of these drawbacks.15

Populations

The showpiece picture for propagating the supposed detrimental effects of climate change has, hands down, long been the polar bear. A Life on our Planet taps into this imagery and warns of polar bear extinction (p. 92). Attenborough does not devote much space to these creatures (perhaps aware that polar bear populations have actually not dwindled, but instead have thrived since the 1970’s),16 and he quickly moves on to walruses, the new alarmist ‘poster child’.

Allegedly due to less available ice, walruses are having to squeeze themselves onto beaches along the Russian Arctic coast. Some individuals have been filmed climbing up higher to find available space and, due to their poor eyesight—so he says (p. 93)—have toppled off the clifftops, plummeting to their death.17 Attenborough continues: “You don’t have to be a naturalist to know that something has gone catastrophically wrong”. Indeed. Instead of reporting the facts, however, Attenborough uses an appeal to emotion (few enjoy reading about or seeing an animal dying) to greatly distort the truth. The truth of the matter was exposed well before the publication of his book. The polar bears previously mentioned ventured upon a large group of walruses and those that had waddled to higher ground got spooked by the approaching gang of around two dozen polar bears and fled off the cliff top, falling to their death.18

At least Attenborough is not wrong about the human population—it is indeed growing. He devotes an entire chapter to “Planning for peak human” (pp. 190–202), i.e. the moment when the world population reaches its maximum.19 He wonders if “we can encourage it to peak sooner and lower” (p. 197). Those are carefully chosen words, perhaps due to him having regretted his 2013 statement, quoted in the Independent (UK):

“Humans are a ‘plague on earth’”.20

Attenborough calls his proposal a win-win situation (p. 100) which entails us “losing our dominance over nature” (p. 211). But Attenborough’s words are in opposition to those of God Himself:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28).

Anthropocene

Attenborough subscribes to the proposed nomenclature for a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene:21 “the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment”, its onset being in the 1950s (p. 223), according to its proponents. However, he writes about,

  • “profound, rapid, global change to the environment” (p. 16),
  • “global temperatures fluctuated greatly within relative short periods of time” (p. 19),

while believing (in keeping with his deep time perspective) that,

  • “radical change in the level of atmospheric carbon was a feature of all five mass extinctions in the Earth’s history” (p. 88).

Yet all of those changes were allegedly millions of years before the industrialisation by—or even the arrival of—humankind! And now humans are supposedly causing these things?

Inconsistencies

Somewhat surprisingly, Sir David sometimes rather contradicts himself—or fails to discuss facts that seem critically important in assessing his claims. This is the reality in a number of instances mentioned earlier. More examples of such inconsistencies are:

People are special

“What has changed spectacularly is our culture” (p. 19).

“We moved from being a part of nature to being apart from nature” (p. 125).

“We human beings are, above all, the most astonishing problem solvers” (p. 139).

People are not special

“We do not have a special place. We are not the preordained and final pinnacle of evolution” (p. 65).

People don’t really know (yet)

We are only just beginning to understand that there is an association between the rise of emergent viruses and the planet’s demise” (p. 118, emphasis added).

People know what will happen

“The more we continue fracturing the wild with deforestation, the expansion of farmland and the activities of the illegal wildlife trade, the more likely it is that another pandemic will arise” (also on p. 118, emphasis added).

Closing remarks

Many Christians understand what motivates a man like David Attenborough. Known and respected globally as a veteran wildlife documentary-maker and champion of the environment, unfortunately his worldview has no place for God, which is apparent when you read the book A Life on Our Planet or view any of his documentaries. Instead, his thinking is man-focussed. He believes we caused the problems—in a sense being right (e.g. Romans 8:22), although he clearly did not think of the spiritual aspect—and that we will resolve the problems. We won’t, although we should certainly look after planet Earth sensibly, given our dominion over it (Genesis 1:26).

The following quote summarizes Sir David’s vision:

“The future of humanity depends upon the success of these [political] meetings. … we must do these things to save ourselves” (p. 218).

How tragically wrong this statement is. First of all, it represents a rejection of the Creator—for true wisdom, including environmental conservation, begins with acknowledging Him (Proverbs 9:10). Secondly, while his vision doesn’t extend beyond our planet, salvation is ultimately a spiritual matter. Only Jesus Christ can save us, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Here is a personal note to the author (at the time of writing it’s not too late):

Sir David, you say that you “had believed from a very early age that the most important knowledge was that which brought an understanding of how the natural world worked” (p. 14). No, the most important knowledge is the knowledge of God (Proverbs 2)! You believe we can save ourselves. We cannot, and that, Sir David, includes you. We all need a Saviour: Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:3–6).

References and notes

  1. Attenborough, D., A Life on Our Planet: My witness statement and a vision for the future, Witness Books, London, p. 241, 2020. Co-author Jonnie Hughes’ name does not feature on the cover of the book. Return to text.
  2. Attenborough explains in the book that this means carbon dioxide (CO2). Return to text.
  3. That is, wilderness that was untouched and untamed by mankind at the time. Return to text.
  4. The Right Honourable, The Lord Attenborough (a life peer from 1993), Richard was famous for his role as the scientist John Hammond in the first two Jurassic Park movies (1993, 1997). Return to text.
  5. CO2 is not considered toxic below 5,000 parts per millions (ppm); in the US, 10,000 ppm. Return to text.
  6. Mulhern, O., A 4.5 billion-year history of CO2 in our atmosphere, earth.org, 12 August 2020. Return to text.
  7. See CO2 is ‘plant food’ under the header ‘Concern for the environment’: Batten, D., Anthropic Global Warming (AGW): a biblical and scientific approach to climate change, 19 November 2020. Return to text.
  8. Patrick Moore left Greenpeace in 1986, critical of their scare tactics and disinformation. They have turned too political for his liking. Return to text.
  9. Moore, P., Fake invisible catastrophes and threats of doom, Ecosense Environmental Inc., Comox, B.C., Canada, p. 57, 2021. Return to text.
  10. Carbon Dioxide Fertilization Greening Earth, Study Finds, nasa.gov, 26 Apr 2016. Return to text.
  11. The World Bank, World Development Indicators: Energy production and use, worldbank.org, accessed 21 July 2021; http://wdi.worldbank.org/table/3.6#. Return to text.
  12. Shellenberger, M., Apocalypse never: Why environmental alarmism hurts us all, HarperCollins, New York, pp. 182–183, 2020. Return to text.
  13. Cloutier, C., Solar eclipse causes power shortage: ‘Greater consequences for the future’, netherlandsnewslive.com, 9 June 2021. Return to text.
  14. Ref 12, page 189. Return to text.
  15. Sky News Australia, ‘ABC forgets’ documentary which ‘absolutely skewers the renewable energy industry’, youtube.com, 27 April 2020. Return to text.
  16. Crockford, S., Barents Sea polar bears thriving despite huge summer ice loss: spring research results are in, polarbearscience.com, 1 July 2021. Return to text.
  17. This traumatic scene features in Attenborough’s BBC series Seven Worlds, One Planet (2019), as well as Our Planet (Netflix, 2019). Return to text.
  18. GWPF, Netflix, Attenborough and cliff-falling walruses: the making of a false climate icon, youtube.com, 17 May 2019. Return to text.
  19. The maximum is, of course, not a known number, estimated to be 9.4–12.7 billion by 2100 (p. 190). Attenborough chooses a figure of 11 billion (p. 197). Return to text.
  20. Pa, Humans are a ‘plague on Earth’: Sir David Attenborough warns that negative effects of population growth will come home to roost, independent.co.uk, 22 January 2013. Return to text.
  21. Itself, highly controversial among geologists. See, for example: The Editors, The term “Anthropocene” is popular—and problematic, Scientific American, December 2018. Return to text.