Are these the last days of life on earth?

Are these the last days of life on earth? David Attenborough
A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future

by David Attenborough (Witness Books/Ebury Press, £20.00)

When this latest title from Sir David Attenborough arrived, quite by chance, I had been reading in my relaxation time some of his very first books. They recount his adventures in making the Zoo Quest series for BBC television back in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I found these books – to which the title is an afterword – were very interesting, but were like messages from a lost world, which indeed is what they are.

Those familiar with his most recent films will have seen the high production values that go into them. Back when he was a younger man than we might imagine, there was just himself on camera (silent), with cameraman Charles Lagus. Just two men with a camera and a tape recorder. These days it must take about 50 people to make the modern films, a huge team descending on some remote and fragile environment. “Every contact leaves a trace” the eminent French criminologist Prof. Locard proclaimed – a mantra that every modern detective repeats. Yet it is hard for most people to believe that every programme made about the world, every tourist cruise excursion to the South Pole leaves a mark, and is in fact evidence in a way of a confirmation of a crime against nature.


The world young David Attenborough reported on was still much as it had been when the first explorers arrived. It was not the old colonists that destroyed the wild world, but the influence of the US by abolishing the old empire and making way for the penetration of big business that began the wreck of the world that Sir David records and comments on.

This is the problem that this book explores in delicate observation and sensitive prose. He makes his witness statement, discusses what lies ahead and proposes a vision of how the world might be ‘rewilded’.

This moment in time is, he concludes, our great opportunity. He is optimistic, but the day after beginning this book I was not so sure and I lay awake all night in despair. In the news it was being reported that the US and China with others were ramping up the increased use of fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Powerful and wealthy interests support this, in both commerce, politics and sad to say among prelates of the churches. (There is no need to name names: in their heart of hearts the guilty know who they are.)

But then the next day it was reported that in Thailand a huge floating sun power generator will, for that country at least, reverse the trend suggested by the actions of the great powers.

This is a book all should read. Regard it if you like as a sort of secular companion to Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’.


Later this year there will be an important and possibly historic climate conference in Glasgow. But already Greta Thunberg says she for one will not be going, for she thinks cleansing the world of Covid-19 comes first. Of course she is right. That would be a present day action in which all can play their part. Glasgow may yet be a hot air occasion. Or not. Up to us.

For it is not really all down to governments: it is down to all of us, you, me and every private person. We can call on governments to change. But in our lives we can change at once. But, calls to re-open pubs and hairdressers hardly suggest that all of us are ready to make that change. David Attenborough knows what must be done; but with millions dying around us, people like President Jair Bolsonaro says it is merely “a bit of flu”, and making the 2% who really own Brazil wealthier is more important. Does it matter if the poor die? The rich have never thought is did, or does.

This is book to read before the end of the year, or the end of world: whichever comes first.