For those of us who grew up on David Attenborough, it’s a big leap to think of him as the Voice of the Apocalypse. This is the broadcaster who cuddled gorillas and held forth at length on the mating habits of aphids.
And yet now here he is telling us, more or less, that a terrible future awaits unless we take immediate and radical action in a one-off documentary as shocking as it is riveting.
Extinction: The Facts (BBC One, Sunday) is by definition extraordinarily bleak. Animals are becoming extinct at 100 times the natural rate. One quarter of all plants risk dying out. Ten per cent of insects are similarly jeopardised. And we all know who is to blame. Yes, it’s us – we’re the baddies.
The result, as Attenborough and a Greek chorus of depressed scientists point out, is that environmental destruction is no longer a problem for our grandchildren. It’s happening here and now and in the most awful ways. The clearest example, Attenborough explains, is Covid-19, a consequence of civilisation encroaching ever further upon the natural world.
Is it right that so much devastation should go down so smoothly? The uncomfortable yet undeniable truth is that if you were to choose anyone in this world to relay bad news it would be Attenborough. He may have recently turned 94 but his voice is as silkily irresistible as ever.
You could listen to him reading a Nandos menu – or, indeed, enumerating all of the ways in which mankind risks permanently destabilising the planet.
Restoration of habitat
Perhaps that’s just personal bias.
As a precocious – the correct word is “annoying” – six-year-old, I discovered an error in one of his books and wrote to him. He replied with a generous hand-penned letter, explaining that the mistake – a Hypsilophodon was incorrectly identified as a Deinonychus – had occurred at the proofing stage.
This was at the height of his Life on Earth fame and still he took the time to scribble to an irritating child on the northside of Cork city.
That human touch endures here and it feels significant that Extinction: The Facts concludes on an optimistic note. Amid footage of mistreated pangolins and depressed rhinos (you’d be glum if you were the last of your species) Attenborough revisits his famous Life On Earth encounter with a thoughtful family of Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda.
In 1979, when he called upon them, the gorillas’ native forests were being ravaged by land-clearance and over-farming. However, decades of careful conservation has restored their habitat to the point where the population is stable.
Change, in other words is possible. The question this chilling film asks is whether we are prepared to come together and prevent the further devastation of the natural world. It will be a struggle. But it may be the only way to save ourselves.