Mr Attenborough’s Book

Is it possible to feel so overwhelmed by world events that a strange sort of inertia begins to take hold of your mind and body? Prior to the Brexit farrago, the Covid-19 emergency, and war in Ukraine, I wouldn’t have thought such a thing was possible. But not now.

There is trouble every day without respite, and it’s beginning to feel that dysfunction is the normal state of being in the Anthropocene. You could easily be forgiven for feeling saturated in the slurry of bad news spewing forth from a salivating media machine. Global warming, the destruction of natural systems, and a precipitous extinction crisis provide unlimited grist for the digital mill; but the reports from the front are perennially bleak. Perhaps we should all just lie down and take a moment.

There is a huge gap between the most recent of my journal entries because I too have been exhausted by thinking too hard and too long about events that I cannot possibly alter or influence. Covid-19 should have been the great leveller, but it hasn’t altered the status quo in the slightest. If anything, the resolve of exploitative multinationals and reactionary politicians remains undiminished.

I still believe that the written word is a powerful catalyst for far-reaching change, but lately I haven’t felt able to write anything especially important. The outstanding issues of the day have been writing themselves into the public psyche, obviating any need for commentary from me. So, I have been writing my book and my play, and quietly getting on with work and family commitments. I have even been to the pub once or twice, but where, I ask, has all my original energy gone?

I know others feel the same way. Many of them are what you would call ‘The Usual Suspects’. There are, however, others who have begun to feel this subliminal despair, but I didn’t expect to read such a strong expression of mounting concern from one of the world’s greatest optimists.

David Attenborough is a household name, an establishment figure, and a respected voice. His programmes have educated millions about the natural world, and inspired many to take up the cause of protecting it. His stories have often laid bare the impact of anthropogenic activity long before anyone else, but he has always tried to end his reports on an optimistic note. The words “…but there is hope” might have been his catchphrase, were they not uttered so often in the face of no hope at all.

Attenborough’s most recent book, ‘A Life on Our Planet’ was first published in 2020, and it’s out now in paperback. It’s worth reading this potted memoir, if only for the new and elegant candour that he’s introduced as a better fit for these perturbing times. Granted, it’s late in the day to introduce realism into a rose-tinted view of nature conservation, but it has all the more impact coming from an undisputed authority figure.

In the closing lines of the introduction, he mourns the fading of the natural world, adding “it has happened in my lifetime”. The following sentence is short, sharp and uncharacteristically direct. “It will lead to our destruction”. This is angry Attenborough, and I suspect that he’s angry with himself for not being more outspoken.

Yet, he’s not in the business of empty rhetoric. He thinks we can avoid catastrophe, but this time around he’s not expecting us to simply ‘all pull together’. It’s time for truth to tell power that it really has to get its finger out. The world has to get real about the real world. That is why the book is essentially a ‘now-or-never’ call to action.

Its pages fall open at lines like, ‘We humans…are sending biodiversity into decline’; ‘I fear for those who will bear witness to the next 90 years’; ‘how can this continue?’; and ‘the lifestyle that the wealthiest of us have become used to is wholly unsustainable.’ He doesn’t quite name names, and it’s not a complete volte-face, but it’s still pretty radical when the words are coming from the most comforting voice in broadcasting history.

These days, it seems, Attenborough’s hopes are no longer that someone will come up with a solution sometime in an imagined future. At 94, he has only one hope left; that humanity will wake up, smell the mendacity, and act immediately; or else, face an all too imaginable fate.

Michael Stephen Clark

1320 Elements

A Life on Our Planet’ is out now, published by Witness Books (A Penguin imprint); priced £9.99