A Life on Our Planet, a review

In 2100, the natural world is suffering terribly. The frontier forests are largely gone — no more Amazon or Congo or New Guinea wildernesses — and with them most of the biodiversity hotspots. Coral reefs, rivers, and other aquatic habitats have deteriorated badly. Gone with these richest of ecosystems are half or more of Earth’s plant and animal species. Only a few fragments of wild habitats persist as relics here and there, guarded by governments and private owners rich and wise enough to have held them fast as the human tidal wave washed over the planet.
Like human genetic diversity, the fragmentary biodiversity that survived to 2100 has also become much more geographically simplified. The cosmopolitan flow of alien organisms has flooded each fauna and flora with immigrants from multiple other faunas and floras. To travel around the world along any chosen latitude is to encounter mostly the same small set of introduced birds, mammals, insects, and microbes. These favored aliens compose the small army of companions that travel best in our globalized commercial transport and thrive in the simplified habitats we have created. An aging and wiser human population undestands very well — too late now — that Earth is a much poorer place than it was back in 2000, and will stay that way forever.
Such is likely to be the world of 2100 — if present trends continue. The most memorable heritage of the 21st century will be the Age of Loneliness that lies before humanity. The testament we will have left in launching it might read as follows:
We bequeath to you the synthetic jungles of Hawaii and a scrubland where once thrived the prodigious Amazon forest, along with some remnants of wild environments here and there we chose not to lay waste. Your challenge is to create new kinds of plants and animals by genetic engineering and somehow fit them together into free-living artificial ecosystems. We understand that this feat may prove impossible. We are certain that for many of you even the thought of doing so will be repugnant. We wish you luck. And if you go ahead and succeed in the attempt, we regret that what you manufacture can never be as satisfying as the original creation. Accept our apologies and this audiovisual library that illustrates the wondrous world that used to be. — Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life

My mother has a Chickering upright grand piano. It was built in the 1890s in Boston, and was somehow disassembled and the reassembled on the West Coast (probably via faerie magic of some sort). I (very briefly) played the piano in my formative years, and one thing I’ve learned on numerous, lesser pianos, is, that piano is an exquisite piece of craftsmanship. Even my piano teacher’s pianos didn’t compare. This thing is more responsive, louder, and just more musical than any other keyboard-based instrument I’ve ever encountered (okay, so it may not be louder than a Yamaha keyboard with 3 meter speakers, but those certainly aren’t as fast and easy on the fingers as the Chickering). The quality of this instrument is so obvious that even a relatively non-musical type like myself can recognize it.

I bring this up because David Attenborough’s work — all of it — is so heart-breakingly beautiful and masterful that even if your sole knowledge of the natural world comes from National Geographic, you can start to appreciate the incomprehensible craftsmanship. And, in my own lifetime, his work not only improved, it’s gotten an order of magnitude better.

I noticed a similar phenomenon with Jacque Cousteau a number of years ago while writing an undergrad term paper on him. As a biologist told me rather astutely, Cousteau’s greatest, lasting legacy was humanizing a very foreign, hostile environment in a way that motivated us to preserve it. I bring that up because Cousteau’s work only developed that notable environmental urgency toward the end of his career, as he noted a considerable decline in the Mediterranean. As he stopped working for himself, and started working for the next generation.

I bring that and the Chickering to this piece, because David Attenborough’s career took a massive leap from “extraordinary” to “Mozart” in the late 90s, when he and producer Alastair Fothergill teamed up to make the insanely good Blue Planet series. This is the moment when Attenborough’s work transcended the genre and became something comparable only to itself. I found that documentary during the aforementioned term paper, and, in a year of watching nature documentaries, Blue Planet is ridiculously better than all the others (even J. Cousteau’s work). It opens with a shot of a blue whale; a creature I had literally never previously seen before on film, and then, somehow, it gets even better.

There is a brief moment in that series — just a moment, mind — when Attenborough points to a haunting and disturbing new phenomenon of coral reef die-offs that leaves them bone-white; a process called “bleaching.” This is the moment when Attenborough started becoming the closest we’ll get to a real Lorax. I’d say it was in that moment that he started trying to humanize that last, precious vestiges of wildness we haven’t already devoured.

I’m pretty sure that’s the moment, because that’s what Attenborough says in A Life on Our Planet. This is a combination autobiography and plan for the future, in the medium the master works best in; television. Speaking in broad strokes, the history of life on this planet can be summarized as;

  1. There is an ecosystem. There is vast life within it. All is good, albeit chaotic.
  2. We enter a geological era of unprecedented climate and geographical stability, allowing life to peak in weird new ways and levels of diversity never seen before.
  3. Some obscure primate in East Africa learns that an upright stance allows it greater tool use.
  4. Roughly four million years later, that primate’s great-great-great-etc. grandkids fuck up the planet in less than a century.
  5. Attenborough, who’s been around for most of that century, fastidiously and depressingly describes the decline of nature he’s witnessed.

That last point leaves something of a bitter taste in one’s psyche. I’ve been a travel and nature reader for most of my life, and, as someone else noted, it’s almost inevitable that, no matter where you go, what you do, even if it’s some forbidden temple in the middle of a minefield in the darkest jungles of Cambodia, someone from Friendly Planet will cheerfully point out that you really should have seen this place before it was a tourist-ridden dump. It’s downright depressing to hear that the greatest documentaries in human history were filmed in a post-natural world. I’d say it’s odd to feel cheated to be born so late, but I imagine third century Persians were envious of how great the first century Greeks had it. And I’m only alive because of some 23rd century technology (for regular readers, one reason I stick with Head Warlock in Charge as my oncologist despite his curmudgeonly demeanor is that I’m 75% sure he has access to a DeLorean), so there’s that particular bind. But I digress.

There’s a masterful sense of loss and tragedy that infuses this work in a way I’ve only seen in Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See. Yes, folks, Attenborough is now in the same realm as Douglas “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” Adams (although less funny). And that haunting, beautiful sense of loss would overshadow not only this piece — indeed, at one point, Attenborough points out that his own, idealized, seemingly pure wildlands of his youth and early career were already showing some wear and tear that a four million-year-old Ape infestation can cause a house. That shadow would envelope all of Attenborough’s work to date, if not for the stunning display of hope in the latter half of the film.

To understand why the second half of the film is inspiring, you have to go back and review nature documentaries in general (for some folks, that will be a more-onerous task than others) prior to Blue Planet (PBS’s long-running Nature series is a decent standard, as are most National Geographic specials), and then review all of Attenborough’s post-BP work, and, bear in mind, they were all made with less nature available, but somehow get better. I believe that is the ethos that’s informed the last 20 years of Attenborough’s career — he’s well-aware his time is fast approaching, and it possibly could be for the last remaining, intact wild places; and the crucial challenge facing all life, is, how to do more with less. As Attenborough himself notes, just as we’ve discovered in the last 20 years that our species is far more dangerous and catastrophic than previously thought, nature is also far more resilient and nurturing than previously thought. His astonishingly simple solution is to simply preserve those last few biodiversity hotspots, and slowly back away, and give life room to grow and recover. Ground zero for this argument is, possibly literally, ground zero; the abandoned Ukrainian town of Pripyat, where the Chernobyl reactor made the place uninhabitable for human life, and nature came back better and faster than anyone predicted.

And Attenborough has numerous other clever examples of doing more with less (as he points out, despite a distinct lack of farmland, the Netherlands is a major crop exporter), raising human living conditions to a point that stabilizes the global population. And then, we step back from nature in those places we don’t need to be in it, and let the natural world recover itself.

During my year of intensive chemotherapy in a struggle against a fatal disease; I wrote some of the best stuff I’ve ever written. The secret was, every time I stepped away from my computer, I honestly, 100% believed that would be it. That would be the very last thing I’d ever write. I suspect that similar philosophy has informed all of David Attenborough’s post-Blue Planet work. And I also think he fully believes this is the last thing he will ever make, and he treats it as such. And, with that obligation to treat your art as your swan song, it becomes immeasurably better. A Life on Our Planet is, to summarize, a heartbreaking work of staggering genius that celebrates the wondrous world that once was, and exhorts us to reclaim that lost heritage by turning our uniquely human ingenuity and imagination from greed and egotism to kindness and generosity.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved. — Charles Darwin

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