David Attenborough's 5 Lessons For Every Human

Sustainability efforts hit home harder through visual storytelling.
Fabienne Lang
Sir David Attenborough seated at the Great Barrier ReefAustralia DFAT/Wikimedia Commons

Sir David Attenborough is the most revered natural history broadcaster and narrator of our time. His unmistakable voice has resounded around cinemas and living rooms over his six-decade-long career.

Attenborough has been to every continent, and almost every country, since his worldwide explorations began in 1954, when, as he says, much of our planet's wilderness was still relatively untouched. 

The tone of his films has slowly taken a different turn over the decades. His successful nine series program, Life, which aired in 1979, had a very different angle than some of his more recent projects like 2019's Climate Change: The Facts and 2020's David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet.

The majority of his initial documentaries focused on showcasing Earth's wondrous species and habitats, whereas his more recent projects incorporate stronger messages around sustainability and the disastrous effects of climate change

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by A Life On Our Planet (@davidattenborough)

Instead of retiring after a long career, the 94-year-old Attenborough is making it his top priority to call us all into action and implore us to live sustainably. By blending impactful storytelling with facts, beautiful images, and a lifetime's worth of information, Attenborough gets the message across about sustainability in a way no scientific paper can. 

His work makes it clear that, if nothing is done, the world as we know it, and have known it, will cease to exist. Fortunately, Attenborough also offers a number of lessons for humanity. These lessons, if properly followed, may allow us to preserve our world.

David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet

In A Life on our Planet, which you can find on Netflix, Attenborough shares penetrating and invaluable insights about how our planet has changed in recent decades. The 83-minute long film is Attenborough's "witness statement," as he calls it. It spans his lifetime and, in it, he shares chilling facts of how our Earth has changed over that time.

For every significant chapter in Attenborough's life, a panel of statistics comes onto the screen. In 1937, for example, the world's population was 2.3 billion, the remaining wilderness sat at a respectable 66 percent, and there were 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In staggering contrast, the final figures shown are from 2020, when the world's population was 7.8 billion, our remaining wilderness had plunged to 35 percent, and the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had soared to 415. 

It's not all doom and gloom, though, as Attenborough shares his knowledge about how we can rebalance biodiversity and restore the balance of nature, while at the same time create a healthier and more equal world for humans. We've heard these ideas before, but Attenborough's personal connection and gravitas help them to hit home in a much more compelling way. 

1. Only use renewable energy

"We are ultimately bound by and reliant upon the finite natural world about us," states Attenborough in this film. Some of these finite and harmful resources that we as humans have been depending on are fossil fuels.

By burning coal and oil the global air temperature has risen by one degree Celcius just in the course of Attenborough's lifetime. If we continue in this way, he points out, we will continue to warm our planet to unsustainable temperatures and ruin Earth's biodiversity.

Unfortunately, our oceans aren't able to absorb all this excess heat we're creating, and our North and South Poles are warming — something that was also fully detailed in Attenborough's spectacular 2011 documentary, Frozen Planet.

Already, the summer sea ice in the Arctic has reduced by 40 percent in just 40 years. Ships are now able to cross previously unnavigable waters as sea ice is melting, and this trend is on an upward scale.

By phasing out fossil fuels and turning to renewable energy, Attenborough explains, we can help restore Earth's biodiversity. We can instead use the renewable energy available from sunlight, wind, water, and geothermal. We can, and should, he stressed, make them our only source of energy. 

The benefits of renewables include more affordable energy, cities that are cleaner and quieter, and an end to the fear that we will run out of energy. So why wait?

2. Introduce no-fishing zones

Attenborough's 2001 Blue Planet, as well as A Life on our Planet explain a tremendous amount about our oceans, including the connections between what is above ground and what lies below the waters.

Around 90 percent of all large fishes have disappeared from the world's oceans in the past half century, the devastating result of industrial fishing. By eliminating these species, we are destroying the balance of Earth's oceans' needs in order to sustain themselves.

The wholesale decimation of species has a profound impact on the nutrient cycle and will lead to our oceans becoming barren — destroying a vital source of protein and nutrients for terrestrial life as well as aquatic life.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by A Life On Our Planet (@davidattenborough)

By introducing no-fishing zones, Attenborough explains that coral reefs and fish stock could recover. Even if just a third of our coastal seas become no-fishing zones, enough fish species would recover to rebalance our oceans, help combat climate change, and make more fish available for sustainable fishing. 

"Fishing is the world's greatest wild harvest, and if we do it right, we can continue because there is a win-win at play. The healthier the marine habitat, the more fish there will be and the more there will be to eat," he says.

3. Switching to plant-based diets

Living sustainably with the world around us means more than just cutting down on fossil fuels and placing no-fishing zones, it also means changing our diet. As Attenborough plainly puts it, we need to switch to a plant-based diet, as our planet simply cannot support billions of meat-eaters.

This mostly comes down to the fact that in order to breed and keep enough animals for us to eat, farmers use up more resources than they raise. Currently, livestock takes up nearly 80 percent of global agricultural land, yet produces less than 20 percent of the world’s supply of calories. Changing our diets to reduce or eliminate meat in favor of plant-based foods could allow land to be used far more efficiently, and provide enough calories for everyone.

Attenborough also suggests that if all humans switched to such a diet, we would only need half the amount of farmland we currently use, and we would increase its yield. This extra land could be used to restore forests, and ultimately Earth's biodiversity.

4. Stop deforestation and restore forests

We need our forests just as much as we need fish-filled and clean oceans. They are important centers of biodiversity and act as carbon sinks, locking away carbon and reducing the impact of CO2 emissions. Just as with our oceans, Attenborough explains the more diverse our forests are, the better. 

Sadly, deforestation has been taking place all around the world at a dizzying speed. In just twenty years, from the 1950s to the 1970s, Borneo's rainforest was reduced by half. These astonishing figures aren't just confined to what's happening in South East Asia —roughly half of the world's rainforests have already been cleared in the last 50 years.

Tree diversity is key to a healthy rainforest. In A Life on our Planet, Attenborough explains how just one small patch of rainforest has approximately 700 different species of plants. All of these species are integral to the health of the rainforest, its animal life, our environment, and ultimately, us.

These precious habitats house more than half of the species on land, and each one of these species has a role to play in the ecosystem. We are urged to stop deforestation now.

5. Replant native trees

Going hand in hand with deforestation is Attenborough's final point in the film: the importance of replanting native trees. All too often, forests are being ripped up to plant oil palms or other monoculture crops. These are dead habitats in comparison to the richness of a rainforest, and they drive species to relocate away from their natural habitats, or to tragically die off.

By replanting native trees, not only would natural habitats blossom once again, but climate change would slow down, as more carbon emissions would be absorbed.

These five suggestions are all entirely manageable and need immediate and widespread implementation. Even though Attenborough's A Life on our Planet did not address topics such as plastics or fast fashion, the same sentiment applies. 

One particular theme and quote stands out from this film, which is that, "Anything we can't do forever is by definition unsustainable." We are currently living unsustainably, and have been for years. As Attenborough points out, if we carry on living this way we will cease to exist. 

By following Attenborough's sage advice, and that of other experts and scientists, we may still have time to reverse or mitigate some of this damage, and create a better, more biodiverse, and more sustainable future.