ENTERTAINMENT

SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGH reveals how those born today experienced the sixth mass extinction


Pripyat in Ukraine is a place like no other that I have been to. It's a place of utter despair.

At first glance, it seems to be quite a pleasant city with avenues, hotels, a square, a hospital, parks with rides, several schools and swimming pools, cafes and bars, supermarkets and hairdressers, a football stadium and 160 towers apartments.

Pripyat was built for nearly 50,000 people in the 1970s, a modernist utopia for the best engineers and scientists in the Soviet Union and their young families.

Yet nobody lives in Pripyat today. The walls are crumbling. The windows are broken. I have to watch my step as I explore the dark, empty buildings.

Sir David Attenborough is pictured with a young elephant. I think I need to bear testimony not only of the miracles I've seen, but of the devastation that has happened in my life – entire ecosystems destroyed, habitats swallowed up by agriculture and habitat swallowed up as populations grow, species so good like obliterated

In the hairdressing salons, chairs lie on their backs, notebooks lie on the floors of the classrooms. Almost everything is motionless – stopped. With every new door you step in, the lack of people becomes more and more preoccupied.

Pripyat is a monument to humanity's ability to lose everything it needs and cherishes.

On April 26, 1986, Reactor No. 4 at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, sending radioactive material across Europe and causing the premature death of an estimated hundreds of thousands of people.

The explosion was due to poor planning and human error. The Chernobyl reactors had design flaws. The operating staff was not aware of this and worked carelessly. Chernobyl exploded due to failure – the most humane explanation of all.

Many have called Chernobyl the costliest environmental disaster in history. Unfortunately that's not true.

All over the world something different has developed that has hardly made itself felt from day to day in the last century.

Again, this happens due to poor planning and human error. Not a single unfortunate accident, but a detrimental lack of care and understanding that affects everything we do.

Pripyat in Ukraine is a place like no other that I have been to. It's a place of utter despair. David Attenborough can be seen in a documentary about Chernobyl up in Ukraine

Pripyat in Ukraine is a place like no other that I have been to. It's a place of utter despair. David Attenborough can be seen in a documentary about Chernobyl up in Ukraine

It didn't start with a single explosion. It started silently before anyone noticed.

We are all people of Pripyat now. We live our comfortable lives in the shadow of our own disaster.

The natural world is fading. The evidence is everywhere. It happened in my lifetime. I've seen it with my own eyes.

If we don't take action now, it will lead to our destruction. The disaster will be immeasurably more devastating than Chernobyl.

It will do a lot more than flooded land, stronger hurricanes and summer forest fires. It will irreversibly diminish the quality of life of all who live through it and future generations. As long as it exists on this earth, humanity could live on a permanently poorer planet.

I'm 94 now. I've had the most extraordinary life, exploring the wild places on our planet and making films about the creatures that live there. I've traveled far around the globe.

Humanity's blind attack on the planet is changing the foundations of the living world. The populations of gorillas and orangutans - some of our closest animal relatives - have been devastated by the loss of half of the world's rainforests. Sir David is pictured above with a chimpanzee

Humanity's blind attack on the planet is changing the foundations of the living world. The populations of gorillas and orangutans – some of our closest animal relatives – have been devastated by the loss of half of the world's rainforests. Sir David is pictured above with a chimpanzee

I have experienced the living world in all its diversity and amazement first hand and seen some of its greatest spectacles and most gripping dramas.

Now, not only do I have to bear testimony of the wonders I have seen, but the devastation that has gone on in my life – entire ecosystems destroyed, habitats swallowed up by agriculture and habitat swallowed up as populations grow, species as good as extinguished. My testimony is a first-person narration about how human growth has come at a terrible price paid by the natural world.

When I was 11 years old, I lived in Leicester. At the time, it was not uncommon for a boy my age to get on a bike, ride to the country, and spend a whole day away from home. And I did that. Every child explores. Just turning a stone and looking at the animals underneath is an exploration.

I knew of no greater thrill than picking up a stone, striking it with a hammer, and watching it fall apart to reveal an ammonite in the sunlight – the shell of a sea creature spanning many millennia.

Every creature whose remains I found in the rocks had spent their entire lives being tested by their surroundings. Much of the history of the evolution of life on earth has been one of slow, steady changes.

But when I went to university, I learned that something catastrophic happened every 100 million years or so – a mass extinction caused by a profound, rapid, global change in the environment to which so many species had adapted.

A large number of species suddenly disappeared, leaving few behind. All this development has been reversed.

Such mass extinctions have occurred five times in the four billion year old history of the earth. Each time nature has collapsed and there are just enough survivors left to start the process again. Last time it was thought that a meteorite more than ten kilometers in diameter hit the Earth's surface with an impact two million times stronger than the largest hydrogen bomb ever tested.

I have experienced the living world in all its diversity and amazement first hand and seen some of its greatest spectacles and most gripping dramas

I have experienced the living world in all its diversity and amazement first hand and seen some of its greatest spectacles and most gripping dramas

Now we face the real possibility of a sixth mass extinction caused by human actions.

The end of World War II brought with it an unsurpassed period of relative peace that allowed the majority to make incredible advances in average life expectancy, global literacy and education, access to health care, human rights, per capita income, democracy, advances in transport and traffic has communication that made my career.

However, all of these benefits come at a cost. We pollute the earth with far too many fertilizers and convert natural habitats – such as forests, meadows and swamps – into arable land too quickly. We're warming the earth far too quickly and adding carbon to the atmosphere faster than ever before in the history of our planet.

The Chernobyl nuclear reactor had built-in weaknesses and thresholds, some of which the crew were aware of and some of which were not. They intentionally moved the dials to test the system, but without respecting or understanding the risks they were taking.

Once pushed too far, a chain reaction was triggered that destabilized the machine. From that moment on there was nothing they could do to stop the looming disaster. The complex, fragile reactor was already doomed.

In the control room on Earth, we absent-mindedly turn up the dials, just as the unfortunate night shift crew did in Chernobyl. Our activities commit the earth to failure.

David Attenborough is pictured above in Rwanda when he was filming on location for Life on Earth in 1979

David Attenborough is pictured above in Rwanda when he was filming on location for Life on Earth in 1979

People rightly talk a lot about climate change. However, it is now clear that man-made global warming is just one of several crises. A team of distinguished scientists led by Johan Rockstrom and Will Steffen has identified nine critical thresholds that are firmly linked to the earth's environment: climate change, fertilizer use, land conversion, loss of biodiversity, air pollution, depletion of the ozone layer, acidification of the oceans, chemical pollution and freshwater abstractions.

If we keep our impact within these thresholds, we can have a sustainable existence. If we push our demands so far that one of these limits is exceeded, we risk destabilizing the life-sustaining machine on earth, permanently weakening nature and losing its ability to maintain a safe, benevolent environment.

We have already passed the first four of these nine thresholds. In my 94 years I have witnessed the transformation of wilderness into farmland and the resulting increase in fertilizer use, habitat loss, biodiversity – and of course climate change.

Humanity's blind attack on the planet is changing the foundations of the living world. The populations of gorillas and orangutans – some of our closest animal relatives – have been devastated by the loss of half of the world's rainforests.

Coastal developments and seafood growing projects have reduced mangroves and seagrass floors by more than 30 percent. Plastic debris has been found all over the ocean, from surface waters to deepest trenches. More than 90 percent of seabirds have plastic fragments in their stomachs and no beach is free from plastic waste.

We extract more than 80 million tons of seafood from the oceans every year and have reduced 30 percent of fish stocks to critical levels.

We have cut the free flow of almost all major rivers in the world with more than 50,000 major dams, changed the water temperature, and drastically changed the timing of fish migration and farming.

If we don't take action now, it will lead to our destruction. The disaster will be immeasurably more devastating than Chernobyl. Sir David is pictured on Belaveno Beach in Madagascar

If we don't take action now, it will lead to our destruction. The disaster will be immeasurably more devastating than Chernobyl. Sir David is pictured on Belaveno Beach in Madagascar

Not only do we use rivers as landfills, we also load them with fertilizers, pesticides and industrial chemicals, which we distribute on the areas they drain. We take their water and use it to irrigate our plants and lower their levels so much that at some point in the year some of them no longer reach the sea.

But there is much worse to come. I fear for those who will bear testimony of the next 90 years if we continue to live as we currently do. Scientists predict that the damage that has been the defining characteristic of my life will be dwarfed by the damage over the next 100 years.

Those born today could observe the following scenarios:

2030s

Floods, drought … and polar bears are dying out

After decades of aggressive deforestation and illegal burning in the Amazon basin to secure more land for agriculture, the Amazon rainforest is set to be reduced to 75 percent of its original size by 2030.

This can prove to be a tipping point when suddenly the forest can no longer produce enough moisture to feed the rain clouds and parts of the Amazon transform into seasonal dry forest and then into open savannah.

Reduced rainfall would lead to water shortages in cities and droughts in the farmlands caused by deforestation. Food production would be radically affected.

The loss of biodiversity would be catastrophic. Species that may have given us medicines, new foods, and industrial uses may have disappeared.

We currently cut more than 15 billion trees each year. The main driver of deforestation is beef production. Brazil alone dedicates 170 million hectares of its land, seven times the size of Great Britain, to pasture. Much of this area was once rainforest.

Thawing started earlier and freezing came later. This is devastating for the polar bear, who relies on the northern sea ice as a platform for seal hunting

Thawing started earlier and freezing came later. This is devastating for the polar bear, who relies on the northern sea ice as a platform for seal hunting

The second driver is soy. Soy is grown on around 131 million hectares, a large part of it in South America. More than 70 percent is used to feed cattle that are raised for meat.

Third, the 21 million hectares of oil palm plantations, mostly in Southeast Asia, are causing devastating habitat loss. In Borneo, the orangutan population has declined by two-thirds in just over 60 years, mainly due to palm oil.

There are only a few deep, dark forests left. With fewer trees holding the ground in place, flooding would occur frequently. 30 million people may have to leave their homes. Loss of carbon-storing trees would release additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and accelerate global warming.

The Arctic Ocean is expected to have its first completely ice-free summer in the 2030s, resulting in open water at the North Pole. Since the earth would have less ice, it would be less white each year, which means that less solar energy would be reflected back into space and the rate of global warming would increase again. The Arctic would gradually lose its ability to cool the planet.

When we filmed Frozen Planet in 2011, the world was on average 0.8 ° C warmer than when I was born in 1926.

This is a rate of change that is surpassing that which has occurred in the past 10,000 years. The arctic summers grew longer. Thawing started earlier and freezing came later. This is devastating for the polar bear, who relies on the northern sea ice as a platform for seal hunting.

As the ice-free period lengthened, the scientists noticed a worrying trend. Pregnant women, deprived of their reserves, now gave birth to younger boys.

It is entirely possible that in one year the summer will be a little longer and the boys born that year will be so small that they cannot survive their first polar winter. This whole population of polar bears would then crash.

2040s

Countries turn to mud and calamity

The warming climate in the north would have thawed the permafrost, the previously frozen soils that exist beneath the tundra and forests of much of Alaska, northern Canada, and Russia.

Within a few years, a quarter of the land surface in the northern hemisphere could become a mud bath as the ice that holds the ground together disappears. There would be massive landslides and major floods.

Hundreds of rivers would change their course, thousands of small lakes would be emptied. The impact on local wildlife would be overwhelming and people would have to leave the area.

Thawing would hit everyone on earth – releasing four times more carbon than humanity has emitted in the last 200 years – and turn on a methane and carbon dioxide gas tap that we probably could never turn off.

The warning signs of such a catastrophe can already be seen. Walruses live largely on clams that grow on certain specific spots on the seabed in the Arctic. In between fishing hours, they drag themselves onto the sea ice to rest.

But these resting places have now melted away. Instead, they have to swim to the beaches on distant shores. There are few suitable places. Two-thirds of the Pacific walrus population, tens of thousands of them, now congregate on a single beach.

Some are crowded, climb up slopes and are on the cliffs. Their eyesight is very poor outside the water, but the smell of the sea at the base of the cliff is unmistakable. So try to get there by the shortest route possible.

The vision of a three-ton walrus falling to its death is not easily forgotten. You don't have to be a naturalist to know something went catastrophically wrong.

2050s

Not to eat fish as the oceans are getting acidic

The entire ocean could be sufficiently acidic to cause catastrophic decline due to the formation of carbonic acid from carbon dioxide.

This would make it more difficult for coral reefs – the most diverse of all marine ecosystems – to repair their calcium carbonate skeletons, and they could be torn apart. Some predict that 90 percent of coral reefs would be destroyed.

The coral reefs are already dying. In 1998, a film crew on The Blue Planet series found reefs that were losing their normal, delicate colors and turning white.

While it looked beautiful, it was tragic indeed: the all-white branches, feathers, and fronds were the skeletons of dead creatures that made up the reef's complex community, transforming this biologically diverse environment from wonderland to wasteland.

It took scientists a while to discover that bleaching often occurred where the ocean was warming quickly. The pale corals were the canaries in a coal mine and warned us of an impending catastrophe.

Plankton and fish populations could also suffer. The harvest of oysters and mussels would fail.

The 2050s could be the beginning of the end for the remaining commercial fishing and fish farming. This is on top of the already catastrophic drop in fish numbers over the past few decades caused by overfishing. A ready-made source of protein that has fed us throughout our history would gradually disappear from our diet.

2080s

Huge crop failures as another pandemic

Global food production could be in crisis. Where intensive agriculture has been adding too much fertilizer for a century, the soils would be depleted and lifeless. Key harvests would fail.

Meanwhile, global warming can lead to higher temperatures, monsoon changes, storms and droughts that doom agriculture.

If the current rate of pesticide use, habitat removal and the spread of disease in pollinators like bees persist, insect species loss would affect three-quarters of our food crops. Nut, fruit, vegetable and oilseed crops could fail if they cannot rely on the careful work of insects to pollinate them.

We overload the land with nitrates and phosphates, graze it, burn it, overload it with unsuitable crops and spray it with pesticides to kill the bottom invertebrates that bring it to life. Many soils are losing their topsoil and turning from rich ecosystems full of fungi, worms, special bacteria and a multitude of other microscopic organisms into hard, sterile and empty soil.

Where intensive agriculture has been adding too much fertilizer for a century, the soils would be depleted and lifeless. Key harvests would fail (file photo)

Where intensive agriculture has been adding too much fertilizer for a century, the soils would be depleted and lifeless. Key harvests would fail (file photo)

The situation could get worse with the emergence of another pandemic.

We are only just beginning to understand that there is a link between the emergence of new emerging viruses and the extinction of the planet.

The more we continue to break the wilderness through deforestation, expansion of farmland and illegal wildlife trade, the more likely it is that another pandemic will occur.

2100

The total collapse of the living world

Today the wild world – this non-human world – has almost completely disappeared. Wildlife populations have more than halved on average since the 1950s.

Ninety-six percent of the mass of all mammals on earth are made up of our bodies and those of the animals we raise to eat. We overran the earth. But by the next century we may have made much of it uninhabitable.

The 22nd century could begin with a global humanitarian crisis – the greatest forced human migration event in history. Coastal cities around the world would face a predicted 3 foot rise in sea levels in the 21st century caused by slowly melting ice sheets and a creeping expansion of the warming ocean. Sea levels could be high enough by 2100 to destroy ports and flood the hinterland.

There is a bigger problem, however. If all these events develop as described, our planet would be 4 ° C warmer by 2100. More than a quarter of the human population could live in places with an average temperature of over 29 ° C, a daily heat that today only burns the heat of the Sahara.

The sixth mass extinction of the earth would be unstoppable. It is predicted that within the lifespan of someone born today, our species will cause nothing less than the collapse of the living world, which is exactly what our civilization relies on.

Neither of us want this to happen. None of us can afford to let this happen. But what do we do when so many things go wrong?

The good news is that the solutions are within our reach. There are a number of steps and goals we can take to avert the impending disaster.

We must address seven crucial questions in order to save the planet:

  • More sustainability;
  • A happy planet;
  • Clean energy;
  • Reconstruction of the oceans;
  • Take up less space;
  • Rebuild the country;
  • Slowdown in population growth.

© David Attenborough, 2020

Adapted from a Life on Our Planet by David Attenborough, published by Ebury Press October 1st for £ 20. To pre-order a copy for £ 17 with free shipping, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 by September 27th.

David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet will premiere in cinemas around the world on September 28th and will include an exclusive interview with Sir David Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin. The film will then be released worldwide on Netflix this fall.

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