This awful summer:
We've only ourselves to blame...
Nick Harding interviews
Sir David Attenborough
A reassuring voice in British life for over half a century describes his fears for the future.
In times of national crisis people naturally turn to authority figures for solutions, which is why recently Sir David Attenborough is being asked about the weather. He's being asked about it a lot. "This preoccupation with the weather is an English disease," he says. "We are always talking about the weather."
Sir David believes the washout summer may be down to climate change. As a credible explanation he points to research by the University of Sheffield which suggests melting Arctic ice has slowed the jet stream, causing it to break into loops which have ushered to the UK unseasonably cold and wet weather systems. And he is convinced humans are the main cause of this.
"There is no question that climate change is happening; the only arguable point is what part humans are playing in it. I would be absolutely astounded if population growth and industrialisation and all the stuff we are pumping into the atmosphere hadn't changed the climatic balance. Of course it has. There is no valid argument for denial."
Over the 60 years Sir David has been a broadcaster, he has seen the planet change at a staggering rate. Wildlife paradises he visited in his early career have been decimated and he views the future with pessimism:
"I'm not optimistic. The climate, the economic situation, rising birth rates; none of these things give me a lot of hope or reason to be optimistic."
The one ray of hope and possible solution Sir David does offer is a global slowdown in birth rate. At 86, he has become an unlikely poster boy for the population control movement. "Population is one of my concerns. I'm not planning to contribute to it any more, but it is an interest." During his lengthy career, the naturalist has watched humanity more than double from 2.5 billion in 1950 to nearly seven billion. He believes the profound effects of this rapid growth on humans and the environment are unsustainable and that the matter needs to be addressed urgently before nature takes its own action.
"We cannot continue to deny the problem. People have pushed aside the question of population sustainability and not considered it because it is too awkward, embarrassing and difficult. But we have to talk about it. The only ray of hope I can see – and it's not much – is that wherever women are put in control of their lives, both politically and socially; where medical facilities allow them to deal with birth control and where their husbands allow them to make those decisions, birth rate falls. Women don't want to have 12 kids, of whom nine will die."
He does not, however, advocate implementing population policies similar to China's controversial one child edict:
"Draconian measures making it illegal to bear children with horrible punishments for infringement are not going to work. You have to convince the population that it is in their interests and make it possible for them to do something. The fact is, if we don't do something, nature will. Quite simply, we will run out of food. People talk about doom-laden scenarios happening in the future: they are happening in Africa now. You can see it perfectly clearly. Periodic famines are due to too many people living on land that can't sustain them."
For this reason, he explains, growing crops to create green biofuels is a waste of valuable resources:
"Biofuels may be palliative in the short term in terms of greener energy. But in the long term we are going to run out of space to grow food, which is more important than finding alternative ways to power Rolls-Royces and superjets."
Few presenters can boast Sir David's breadth of experience. He is not keen on the phrase "national treasure", but it is an apt description of the man who began his career in 1952 as a producer in the factual department of the BBC's fledgling television department. In 1965 he became controller of BBC2 and commissioned The Old Grey Whistle Test and Monty Python's Flying Circus. His interest in natural history led him to resign the post to return to full-time programme making. His seminal Life series, which began with Life on Earth in 1979, set the benchmark for all other natural history TV documentaries.
He has produced 10 Queen's Christmas Broadcasts and has seen television evolve from black and white to colour, high definition and, most recently, – 3D a format in which his latest series, Kingdom of Plants, was shot. The three-part documentary, now available on 3D Blu-ray, uses the latest 3D technology and time-lapse filming to bring the plant world to life.
Sir David admits that 3D television has limitations. Cameras are cumbersome, and one of the reasons plants were chosen as subjects for the series was because "they can't run away when you lumber towards them with a camera".
His next project will also be a 3D series produced by Atlantic and is set in the Galapagos Islands where Sir David was reunited with Lonesome George, the last known Pinta giant tortoise which died last month soon after the film crew left. "It was almost the last shot we got," says Sir David. "I crawled up alongside him and he looked at me. He was very old and creaky, just like me. I said a few words to him, he didn't reply. He was, in a scientific sense, already dead because a lonely male without a female has no future."
Sir David, a grandfather, lost his wife, Jane, in 1997 and lives alone in the family home they shared in Richmond, Surrey. He admits he's in touch with his own mortality. "You can't ignore it when you have knees like mine."
Attenborough in brief
David Attenborough has been given 29 honorary degrees by British universities, more than any other person. He has been made Honorary Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, the Zoological Society of London, the Linnean Society & the Institute of Biology. He was named as the most trusted celebrity in Britain in a 2006 Reader's Digest poll, & in 2007 won The Culture Show Living Icon Award. He was named among the 100 Greatest Britons in a 2002 BBC poll and is one of the top ten "Heroes of Our Time" according to New Statesman magazine. He has the distinction of having a number of newly discovered species and fossils being named in his honour. His programmes have often included references to the impact of human society on the natural world. The last episode of The Living Planet, for example, focuses almost entirely on humans' destruction of the environment and ways that it could be stopped or reversed. His closing message from State of the Planet was forthright:
The future of life on earth depends on our ability to take action. Many individuals are doing what they can, but real success can only come if there's a change in our societies and our economics and in our politics. I've been lucky in my lifetime to see some of the greatest spectacles that the natural world has to offer. Surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy, inhabitable by all species.
Attenborough has repeatedly said that he considers human overpopulation to be the root cause of many environmental problems. In The Life of Mammals, he made a plea for humans to curb population growth so that other species will not be crowded out. In 2009, he became a patron of Population Matters, a charity advocating sustainable human populations. He has also written and spoken publicly about the fact that he believes the Earth's climate is warming in a way that is cause for concern, and that this can likely be attributed to human activity. He summed up his thoughts at the end of his 2006 documentary Can We Save Planet Earth? as follows:
In the past, we didn't understand the effect of our actions. Unknowingly, we sowed the wind and now, literally, we are reaping the whirlwind. But we no longer have that excuse: now we do recognise the consequences of our behaviour. Now surely, we must act to reform it — individually and collectively, nationally and internationally — or we doom future generations to catastrophe.
In a 2005 interview Attenborough said he considered George W. Bush to be the era's top "environmental villain". In 2007, he further elaborated on the USA's consumption of energy in relation to its population. When asked if he thought America to be "the villain of the piece", he responded:
I don't think whole populations are villainous, but Americans are just extraordinarily unaware of all kinds of things. If you live in the middle of that vast continent, with apparently everything your heart could wish for just because you were born there, then why worry? ... If people lose knowledge, sympathy and understanding of the natural world, they're going to mistreat it and will not ask their politicians to care for it.
In 2009, the BBC broadcast an Attenborough one-hour special, Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life. In reference to the programme, he stated:
People write to me that evolution is only a theory. Well, it is not a theory. Evolution is as solid a historical fact as you could conceive. Evidence from every quarter. What is a theory is whether natural selection is the mechanism and the only mechanism. That is a theory. But the historical reality that dinosaurs led to birds and mammals produced whales, that's not theory.