What makes Our Planet different from other natural history shows that you’ve worked on?
Alastair Fothergill: Having completed Planet Earth, Blue Planet and Frozen Planet, the time was right to do a series that dealt with our planet’s environmental and ecological challenges. If there’s any chance of preserving biodiversity, what are the ‘must-saves’?
Keith Scholey: In the grasslands episode, for example, it’s about space. Most of the great migrations have disappeared because we took that space away. We say, “If you want to make space for grasslands, this is what you have to do.”
It’s actually quite simple – it’s all about the food we eat. If people change their diet or we change the way we produce food, we can have a huge amount more space for nature. This is the principle of the whole series.
Then, within each show, we highlight individual animals. Like the orangutans in the jungles of Borneo: if we carry on the way we are, this will be the last generation of wild orangutans. That’s about space.
You’ve explored the natural world more than most, but you’ve also witnessed its destruction first hand. From that, what have you learned that we should know?
David Attenborough: Everybody should realise that this is not just because I like dicky birds. You, me and the rest of the human species are critically dependent on the health of the natural world.
If the seas stop producing oxygen we would be unable to breathe, and there is no food that we can digest that doesn’t originate from the natural world. If we damage the natural world, we damage ourselves.
KS: Most people think there’s nothing we can do, it’s just lots of tiny problems. But there are some very big, simple things that you need to sort quickly, which can fix so much of this.
The ocean is a classic example. The open ocean is going down the tube, largely because of overfishing. But there are only about four or five nations who fish the open ocean, and it has to be subsidised because it’s so unprofitable. So why not just stop doing it?
The open ocean is probably the biggest carbon sump – one of our biggest weapons in dealing with climate change.
AF: When we started, conservation was about preserving pandas and national parks. I think the big change is the recognition that things are beginning to break down globally because we’ve lost so much biodiversity. If the planet is going to recover, the main thing it needs for that recovery is biodiversity.
KS: There was a very alarming report about the loss of insects. Insects are the fabric of the world. They pollinate. You can’t have soil without insects. Nature is no longer just nice to have, it’s essential.
You’ve been back to the same places to film, decades apart. What’s changed?
AF: I worked in Antarctica for a series called Life In The Freezer and then Frozen Planet.
Different penguins in Antarctica are adapted to different amounts of ice. The Adélie penguin feeds around and under ice in the Antarctic peninsula, which is this long arm that sticks north and has been most affected by climate change.
The Adélie penguin has now become much rarer, and is only found in the deep south, and it’s been replaced by the gentoo penguin, which breeds on the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.
KS: In the 1960s in Kenya, everywhere you drove there was wildlife – cheetahs, lions, just off the main roads. Now, it’s completely confined to national parks. The vast majority of wildlife outside has gone, and that’s a staggering change in just 50 years.
Listen to the full interview with David Attenborough, Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey on the Science Focus Podcast.
Is there one natural phenomenon you especially want your great-grandchildren to be able to see?
DA: The Great Barrier Reef, easy answer. I can’t think of a moment that had more effect on me than the first time I dived with an aqualung on the Barrier Reef. It was 1956, the gear we had was clunky, and my skills were almost non-existent.
Diving is a transforming feeling. Suddenly you’re no longer anchored to the ground, and when you look down there are 500 different species of creatures, just there, and you’ve never seen anything like it ever before. They’re the most wonderful colours. Some of them are fish but others – you have no idea what they are!
And they’re all absolutely preoccupied with their own things, they take very little notice of you. That is an experience you’ll never forget!
KS: Coral reefs are the most incredible things you can ever witness, and future generations might not be able to experience them.
This is an ecosystem that has taken hundreds of millions of years to come about: it’s the most exquisite, beautiful and complex thing that nature has ever created, but it can go in a couple of centuries.
And the big migrations of Africa: seeing big animals roam, and lions jump on buffalo, and cheetahs chase gazelles. To be able to see nature as it was, existing with nothing to do with us, is another thing that we have to keep.
AF: You look into the eyes of a chimpanzee and you know that it’s an intelligent, thinking being.
And polar bears. There’s a good chance that polar bears will basically go extinct within 40 years. There may be a few relic populations, but to think the largest land carnivore on our planet would be gone, that’s heart-breaking.
Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the natural world?
DA: I feel that the world is more aware of what the problems are than it has been for most of my career. Fifty years ago people didn’t think there was a problem – and there wasn’t a problem that’s commensurate with the problem we have now. But the problem has got bigger, that’s the difficulty.
There’s a big responsibility that natural history filmmakers have. I’d love to spend the whole time saying, “Look at these wonderful things, aren’t they lovely?” But you have a responsibility for pointing out that unless we change our ways, they’re not going to be here for ever.
KS: I’m optimistic, as long as we can motivate people to do things quickly. Time has gone. We have to motivate change.
The penny is dropping, and lots of big businesses and governments are prepared to start to change. But the race against time is acute. If we prevaricate, for even a few more years, we have lost the game.
AF: The human species is extremely clever. We’re very good at fixing things, and there’s absolutely no doubt that there is technology out there to solve almost all of our problems.
I agree with Keith that, optimistically, it’s within grasp. Politically, it’s more challenging. What we do in the next 20 years is vital.
What are the main things that are stopping these solutions?
KS: There’s a failure to realise the scale of the problem. Climate change is a massive beast that’s going to bite everyone very badly. If it runs out of control, it’s far more dangerous than anything else you could ever face.
We have to recognise what the biggest problem is, then invest in solving it. We’ve got the resources we need.
AF: Global economies are based too much on short-term gain rather than long-term sustainability. Davos was such an amazing opportunity for us, because it’s a forum of economists and business leaders who are beginning to realise that if you want a sustainable business, you have to have a sustainable resource.
They’re all based on a resource in the natural world, none of them can escape that. There is no political problem that mankind has ever faced that’s as important as the one we’re now facing.
DA: It has to be done with international agreements. But it’s not easy, and it has never really been done, except for the whaling agreement.
With the whaling agreement, for the first time, seagoing nations around the world got together, saw the danger and said, “Right, we’ll stop whaling.” If we can achieve that, we can achieve other things too.
All we can do is find the people who have fingers on the right levers, and make sure they hear our message. Whatever you say about Davos, there were a lot of people there with their fingers on some very big levers.
What governs the way they think? Their own conscience, I suppose. So you go and say: these are the problems. If you’ve got the opportunity to do that, you’d better bloody well do it.
There are some politicians, Donald Trump, for example, with fingers on big levers who aren’t working for the good of the environment. What would you say to them?
DA: I would do the same as I do to anybody else – I would say, these are the facts. But there are some people who are never going to change their opinion, and it could well be that Mr Trump is one of them.
If you’re in a democratic society, you convince the electorate that you’re right, and try to put people in power who see the truth.
AF: When Donald Trump pulled out of Paris, a lot of conservationists thought it was a disaster. Ironically, green issues have never been more powerful in the States.
The governor of California – the ninth biggest economy on the planet – said that Donald Trump can say what he likes, we are going to be the most green economy we can.
You could argue that people like him encourage environmentalism. Look at the new president of Brazil; never has protection of the Amazon been more talked about.
KS: Most politicians now have to think very carefully about whether they want to end up on the wrong side of history. Can you look your grandchildren in the eye and say, “I ignored this, I did nothing.”?
AF: The other thing that will [create] change is men and women in the street who say, “I’m not going to buy a computer that’s not green. I’m not going to eat as much meat.”
Our ambition [with Our Planet] is to communicate to a billion people, and that isn’t over-optimistic. We have immense power.
Take the example of plastics in Blue Planet II – within a month, government was changing policy. We have a voice, and together we can really put pressure on politicians.
Did you feel, at Davos, like the politicians were listening?
DA: It would be naive to think suddenly that you can say something, and these enormously powerful men and organisations are going to change overnight. The world doesn’t work like that. But there are groundswells; there are these great sea changes that are difficult to plot, but they do happen. It’s up to us to bring that about. Whether we will succeed is almost neither here nor there – you simply have this obligation to try.
This article was first published on BBC Science Focus in April 2019 – subscribe here