The Next Endangered Species
In honor of Endangered Species Day, I was tasked with reviewing David Attenborough’s “A Life on Our Planet.” At 93 years old, his narration throughout the documentary serves as his witness statement: After spending his entire lifetime exploring every corner of the natural world, he has observed the catastrophic impact humans have had on the planet’s biodiversity. Now, we have launched ourselves towards the next mass extinction.
“That is my witness statement. The story of global decline during a single lifetime.”
As I sit down to write this, Kendrick’s new album ironically comes on and the first words I hear is “I hope you find some peace of mind in this lifetime.” It’s safe to say, as Attenborough nears the end of his lifetime, his peace of mind is far from reach.
The documentary consists of a gut-wrenching 77 minutes of dreamlike snapshots of the planet contrasted with apocalyptic projections of where the natural world is headed. Spoiler: major doom ahead if we keep our current course. As the viewer, we’re tasked with understanding how preserving biodiversity is the crucial element to sustaining the delicately balanced system of nature that supports all life on Earth. We also come to understand that the human race very much meets the mark as an Endangered Species.
BIODIVERSITY: OUR LIFESOURCE
Let’s break this biodiversity thing down in the simplest terms possible.
Nature has been working hard for billions of years to build the highly sophisticated, delicately balanced, interlocking system that makes our world go round today. Biodiversity has become the key ingredient to ensuring the system remains in equilibrium. For this system to also be self-sustainable, every species on Earth must do its naturally selected part to work in harmony and sustain one other.
Turns out, the human race opted out of this agreement the more and more we came to benefit from the system. Instead of finding ways to remain harmonious with our surroundings as we progressed as a civilization, we decided that the natural world worked for us.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty incredible that as humans, we’re the only species on this planet who can pass our ideas down from one generation to the next, hence our exponential growth. But we’ve got to give credit where credit is due: we’ve only gotten as far as we have because the natural world has provided conditions and resources needed.
We exploited the system. We took from the delicately balanced world however we wished, wiping out entire species and habitats with no regard.
“Back then, it seems inconceivable that we, a single species, might one day have the power to threaten the very existence of the wilderness.”
Unfortunately, our excessive propensity to exploit everything we encounter, combined with our unparalleled intelligence has allowed us to dodge disease, predators and food insecurity, positioning our species in a problematic impasse: There are too damn many of us.
“We seem to have broken loose from the restrictions that have governed the activities and numbers of other animals.”
Throughout the documentary, a bleak running tally periodically informs the viewer of the shifts in population size, biodiversity loss and atmospheric carbon, corresponding with each stage of David’s career. Each time we progress through the documentary and the numbers creak into place in alarming increments, the dread seeps in. We’re very much meant to be alarmed by the breakneck pace of destruction set in motion by the “accomplishments” of the human race.
THREE KEY INDICATORS
To drive his point home, Attenborough draws our attention to three major parts of the natural world that are crucial to its proper function and are facing extreme threat due to human activity: forests, coral reefs and the polar ice.
“We have overfished 30% of fish stocks to critical levels. We cut down over 15 billion trees each year… We’re replacing the wild with the tame.”
Overfishing, rising ocean temperatures, and other human-induced climate changes are putting a huge strain on our coral reefs, which normally serve as hotspots for biodiversity. When they were filming Blue Planet in the late 90s, Attenborough’s film crew witnessed a white-out of the reefs and quickly realized that they were looking at the skeletons of dead coral. They realized that “the ocean was starting to die.”
Deforestation practices have stripped away our #1 technology relied upon for locking away harmful carbon emissions from wreaking havoc on our atmosphere. Rainforests are a crucial habitat for maintaining biodiversity, harnessing energy from the sun, and providing oxygen and moisture on a global scale. I was surprised by my own reaction to watching these living, faceless creatures die their chainsaw-induced deaths: I felt sick to my stomach as I took in the footage of the thoughtless clearing of colossal, thriving trees for monoculture farming. Don’t get me started on the lone orangutan, once swinging from the canopies of a healthy forest and later shown climbing a single skimpy tree in search of a shrinking supply of sustenance.
As someone who shrivels up when temperatures drop below 50 degrees, I was fairly surprised to learn that the Arctic serves as a thriving hub for biodiversity. The Arctic’s snowy surface works wonders when it comes to reflecting sunlight and heat back from the Earth, helping us stay cool, calm and collected. As global air temperatures climb, the ocean absorbs the extra heat and in turn, our glaciers are rapidly melting away. We’ve lost a whopping 40% of our glaciers in just 40 years.
Here at Empire, we have always strived to be a part of the climate change conversation, which is why we were inspired to create a product line that brings awareness and donates proceeds to protecting four big issues that need our help: Forests, the Arctic, Coral Reefs, Pollinators. I was a little bit surprised that the documentary didn’t mention the massive threat facing our food system due to the loss of pollinator populations. No biggie, you can get the scoop here.
HOW TO SAVE HUMAN LIFE ON EARTH
One point that David is clear about, which strangely left me with some semblance of hope, is that the Earth has a powerful ability to restore itself after catastrophic destruction, whether or not us humans are around to bear witness. With a proven track record of recovery from five mass extinctions, Attenborough explains how nature fights back: Life has always found ways to rebuild itself, but our species is one that may be missing from future iterations.
“A sixth mass extinction event is well underway. This is a series of one-way doors bringing irreversible change.”
Imagine it: Instead of visiting dinosaur exhibits on class field trips, the next all-powerful lifeform that comes to replace us will be visiting human museums, ooing-and--ahhing at the human replicas peering at them from behind the glass.
Ok, I’m high. Back to saving the human race.
David finally gives our hearts a break when he tells us that we’re not entirely doomed, despite the slew of devastating facts he’s just made us painfully aware of, never to be unknown. He tells us that biodiversity can save the day and that if we do our part to “rewild the world,” we could be sitting pretty in 100 years. *Cue hopeful music.*
David’s 5 Steps for Success for Sustaining Our Species
We must take measures to decrease the human population size. Every species reaches a max population size that can be sustained with the natural resources available; humans are no exception. The ways of achieving this are arguably pretty reasonable: raising people out of poverty, providing more access to healthcare and education, especially for women; and creating better opportunities for life.
“The trick is to raise the standard of living around the world without increasing our impact on that world.”
We must harness the power of natural, renewable energy to fuel our lives and stop the burning of fossil fuels. We’ve managed to produce as much carbon emission in 200 years that previously took us 1 million years of volcanic activity to produce. Yikes.
The alternative seems like a pretty win-win scenario for everyone involved (minus the oil companies): we harness power from sunlight, wind, water, geothermal and we never run out of energy. Did you know that we receive 20x the energy we need to sustain life-as-we-know-it every single day from sunlight alone? Morocco has already made moves to get smarter about its energy, generating 40% of its electricity from a network of solar power plants and setting itself on a course to export renewable energy in the near future.
Protecting Our Oceans
Our oceans are key to reducing carbon in the atmosphere, and, once again, biodiversity is the key to maximizing efficiency. Ironically, those who overfish without regard for the marine habitat they’re extracting from are hurting their own opportunity to thrive, as a healthy habitat means a bigger catch.
Take it from Palau, a tiny island who made a big push to restore its dwindling fish stocks. By creating no-fish zones, they helped fish populations build back to healthy levels and beyond, spilling over into open fish zones and making local fishermen and the reefs below extra happy.
“Estimates suggest that no fish zones over one third of our coastal seas would be sufficient to provide us with all the fish we will ever need.”
Tweak Our Diets
A return to wilderness depends largely on what foods we add to our grocery carts. Attenborough makes it plain ‘n simple: “The planet can’t support billions of large meat-eaters. There just isn’t the space.” The farmland and resources required to produce meat on a large scale has taken a chunk out of our planet’s remaining wilderness. It’s time to return the land to the wild.
I appreciate David's positive perspective on this shift that “we are completing a journey:” humans started as hunter gatherers, as it was the only sustainable option; once again it’s becoming our only sustainable option. Countries like the Netherlands have dedicated themselves to finding creative solutions for producing more food using less land with systems like stackable hydroponics.
“We need…to move from being apart from nature to a part of nature once again.”
For some, it may feel like it’s asking a lot to sacrifice their right to eat a hamburger whenever they damn please. I’d say the alternative doom scenario we’re headed for might take the cake. That's just me.
Return of the Trees
Healthy forests are our best bet for keeping carbon under control and locked away from causing harm to our atmosphere. They also play a fundamental role in maintaining the delicate balance of biodiversity.
Ideally, we'd follow Costa Rica’s lead. When their logging industry got out of control and wiped out their rainforests from 75% of their land to a measly 25%, they offered grants to local farmers to replant native trees. 25 years later – voilà: their rainforest doubled, back up to covering 50%. If we could apply this on a global scale, we would surely be in a comfier place as a species.
“A Life On Our Planet” seeks to reposition our narrative – that this planet exists to support human life first and foremost (did you catch Attenborough’s subtle dig with the title “A Life on Our Planet”?) – and to show that, in fact, our very existence as humans relies on our ability to care for the natural world and protect what biodiversity remains.
“This is now OUR planet, run by humankind for humankind. There is little left the rest of the living world”
We’d like to say thank you to Mr. Attenbourough. Thank you for dedicating your lifetime to exploring the intricacies and bewildering beauty of the natural world. Thank you for thoughtfully warning us of the catastrophe that’s coming for us by showcasing the beauty that’s at stake. Thank you for instilling confidence in us that nature is wise enough to balance itself out whether or not we are able to ease the strain we’re putting on the planet. Thank you for giving us hope that we have a chance to bounce back if we can find ways to protect the biodiversity that makes the Nature Machine function at peak performance.
Thank you for reminding us, with this compelling witness testimony of yours, that “in this world, a species can only thrive when everything else around it thrives too.”
We may not all have the pleasure of observing the rapid loss of entire species firsthand. Without the work of people like Attenbourough, we may be led to believe that this is all happening on a less-than-significant scale, but his work demonstrates that in the grand scheme of Earth’s existence, it’s happening at an incredibly rapid pace.
In the end, I’m hopeful that Attenborough may “find that peace of mind in this lifetime.” There are actionable solutions to our current situation, mainly using our power as human beings to benefit the entire system, not solely ourselves. Maybe you’re already taking action to advocate and fight against climate change in the small ways you can as an individual. Or maybe it takes the wisdom of a highly dedicated and well-traveled 93-year-old man and a cross-stitching of beautiful species mixed with catastrophic scenes to understand that it’s time to make a change.
You can watch the full movie on Netflix here.