Our planet is facing an unprecedented challenge. As I warned last week, we are living in the shadow of a disaster – and it is one of our own making.
Just like the people who lived by the doomed nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, we are on the verge of destruction.
By regarding the Earth as our planet, run by humankind for humankind, we have already wrought untold damage.
Humans have destroyed half of the rainforests, replaced wilderness with settlements and farmland and caused an apocalyptic decline in plant, animal and insect species.
Ninety per cent of fish populations are either over-fished or fished to capacity. But this can be fixed with a global effort to create a network of no-fishing zones throughout coastal waters where fish can grow older and produce more offspring. They then repopulate neighbouring waters
We are polluting our air, draining our rivers, warming the oceans and making them more acidic. We have depleted the ozone layer and brought about potentially disastrous climate change.
Humankind, in other words, has set a course for a devastating future, not just for the natural world but for itself. And if we continue, we will, like the people who once lived in the shadow of Chernobyl, risk sleepwalking into global catastrophe.
What faces us today is nothing less than the collapse of the living world. Yet there is still time to change course, to find a better way of living.
We can, and must, begin to put things right. And at the heart of this global effort must lie respect for biodiversity – the very thing we are destroying.
It is no accident that the stability of our planet’s climate is wavering at the very moment the extraordinary richness of life on our fragile planet is in sharp decline. The two things are bound together.
Restoring biodiversity on Earth is the only way out of the crisis we have created. And that, in turn, means ‘rewilding’ the world, re-establishing the balance between the human world and the rest of nature, step by step, as I set out below.
I don’t pretend it will be easy, yet this blueprint for survival is not merely possible but essential if we are to have any hope of saving our civilisation.
Prioritise people and the planet over profit
What has brought us to this moment of desperation? I believe it is our hunger for perpetual economic growth.
This one goal has dominated social, economic and political institutions for the past 70 years. And the result is that we are enslaved to crude measurements of our gross domestic product (GDP).
Yet the price paid by the living world is not accounted for.
There are those who hope for a future in which humankind focuses upon a new, sustainable measure of success.
The Happy Planet Index, created by the New Economics Foundation, attempts to do just that, combining a nation’s ecological footprint with elements of human wellbeing, such as life expectancy, average levels of happiness and a measure of equality.
In 2019, New Zealand made the bold step of formally dropping GDP as its primary measure of economic success and created its own index based upon its most pressing national concerns.
In this single act, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shifted the priorities of her whole country away from pure growth and towards something that better reflects the aspirations many of us have.
What has brought us to this moment of desperation? I believe it is our hunger for perpetual economic growth
Ditch oil and embrace renewable energy
In 2019, fossil fuels provided 85 per cent of our global energy, but the carbon they release into the atmosphere warms the Earth and increases the acidity of the oceans, with disastrous consequences.
Now we need to make the transition to renewable energy at lightning speed.
A carbon tax penalising all emitters would radically speed up the process. The Swedish government introduced such a tax in the 1990s and it worked.
As the new, clean, carbon-free world comes online, people everywhere will start to feel the benefits. Life will be less noisy. Our air and water will be cleaner, with fewer premature deaths from poor air quality.
At least three nations – Iceland, Albania and Paraguay – already generate all their electricity without fossil fuels. A further eight use coal, oil and gas for less than ten per cent of their electricity. Of these nations, five are African and three are in Latin America.
Profound change can happen in a short period of time. This is starting to happen with fossil fuels.
We may yet pull off a miracle and move to a clean energy world by the middle of this century.
Rewild the Oceans with huge no-fishing zones
The ocean covers two-thirds of the surface of the planet, which means there is a special role for it in our revolution to rewild the world.
By helping the marine world to recover, we can simultaneously capture carbon, raise biodiversity and supply more food.
It starts with the industry that is causing most damage to the ocean – fishing. Ninety per cent of fish populations are either over-fished or fished to capacity.
But this can be fixed with a global effort to create a network of no-fishing zones throughout coastal waters where fish can grow older and produce more offspring. They then repopulate neighbouring waters.
We need no-fishing zones to encompass at least a third of our ocean to enable fish stocks to recover.
International waters – the high seas – are owned by no one, so all states are free to fish as much as they wish. The worst-offending nations pay billions of dollars in subsidies to keep their fleets fishing, even when there are too few fish left for it to be profitable.
But if all international waters were designated a no-fishing zone, we would transform the open ocean from a place exhausted by our relentless pursuit to a flourishing wilderness that would seed our coastal waters with more fish and help us all in our efforts to capture carbon.
The high seas would become the world’s greatest wildlife reserve.
Commercial fish farming, which often pollutes the seas, must be made more sustainable.
More radically, we can reforest the ocean. Kelp is the fastest-growing seaweed, forming vast submerged forests that boast remarkable levels of biodiversity. But even this wonder plant needs healthy seas. The forests are prone to attacks from sea urchins and, where we have eliminated animals such as sea otters that eat the urchins, entire kelp forests have been devoured.
Learn to get more food from less land
The conversion of wild habitat to farmland has been the single greatest direct cause of biodiversity loss during our time on Earth.
In 1700, we farmed about one billion hectares. Today, our farms cover just under five billion hectares, more than half of all the habitable land on the planet.
If we are to farm less land, we must eat much less meat, especially red meat, and especially beef, which, when including the grain fed to cows, consumes 60 per cent of our farmland
To gain those extra four billion hectares, we have torn down seasonal forests, rainforests, woodland and scrub, drained wetlands and fenced in grasslands, destroying biodiversity and releasing carbon stored in their plants and soils. Removing the wild has cost us dearly.
How can we cease the expansion of industrial farmland while feeding our growing populations?
In short, can we get more food from less land – as we must do?
There are some inspiring farmers in the Netherlands who have turned away from fertilisers, machinery, pesticides and herbicides and erected wind turbines.
They have dug geothermal wells to heat their greenhouses with renewable energy, collected rainwater from their own greenhouse roofs and planted their crops not in soil but in gutters filled with nutrient-rich water to minimise input and loss. They use home-grown bee colonies to pollinate crops. These innovative farms are now among the highest-yielding and lowest-impact food producers on Earth.
For smaller-scale and subsistence farmers, there is an inexpensive low-tech approach: regenerative farming. Herbicide and pesticide use are reduced, crops are rotated to rest soils, and organic matter rich in carbon is brought back into the topsoil, storing carbon.
But these improvements will only get us so far. If we are to farm less land, we must eat much less meat, especially red meat, and especially beef, which, when including the grain fed to cows, consumes 60 per cent of our farmland.
Instead, we must change to a diet that is largely plant-based, which will reduce the space we need for farming and reduce greenhouse gases.
Estimates suggest that by changing our habits, humankind could feed itself on just half of the land that we currently farm.
Save our forests and rewild the Land
Much of the developed world cut down its forests long ago, putting most of the current deforestation pressure on the poorer parts of the world, especially in the tropics.
There the rich tree cover is still being destroyed to provide the beef, palm oil and hardwood that wealthier nations consume.
And it is the deepest, darkest and wildest forests of all – the tropical rainforests – that are disappearing. If this continues, the loss of carbon to the air, and species to the history books, would be catastrophic for the whole world. We must halt all deforestation now.
By directing our trade and investment, we can support those nations to reap the benefits of these resources without losing them.
We must find ways to make wilderness valuable to those who own and live in it, without reducing its biodiversity or its ability to capture carbon.
Reduce family size and slow population growth
When I was born, there were fewer than two billion people on the planet. Today there are almost four times that number.
When I was born, there were fewer than two billion people on the planet. Today there are almost four times that number [File photo]
The world’s population is continuing to grow, albeit at a slower pace than at any time since 1950.
At current UN projections, there will be between 9.4 and 12.7 billion people by 2100. Largely due to the demand from wealthy countries, our consumption is exceeding the Earth’s capacity to regenerate its resources.
We want everyone on Earth to have a fair share, and that means we need to both lower consumption and find ways to stabilise our population growth.
The fairest way to stabilise the global population is to help poorer nations to develop. When this happens, diet and healthcare improve, child mortality decreases and families have fewer children.
It is also true that wherever women have the vote, wherever girls stay in school for longer and wherever women are free to follow their aspirations, the birth rate falls.
Raising people out of poverty and empowering women is the fairest way to bring this period of rapid population growth to an end.
Live sustainably to revive the natural world
Before farming began, a few million humans across the globe were living as hunter-gatherers, working in balance with the natural world. With the advent of farming, our relationship with nature changed.
We came to regard the wild world as something to tame, to subdue and use. We moved from being a part of nature to being apart from nature.
All these years later, we need to reverse that transition.
But there are now billions of us. We can’t possibly return to our hunter-gatherer ways. Nor would we want to. But there is plenty that we can and must do.
We must halt and reverse the conversion of wild spaces to farmland, plantations and other developments. We must end our overuse of fertilisers. We must reduce our use of freshwater. We must immediately halt and preferably start to reverse climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
If we do all those things, biodiversity loss will begin to slow to a halt, and then start itself to reverse.
Our greatest opportunity is now
We humans have come as far as we have because we are the cleverest creatures to have ever lived on Earth.
But if we are to continue to exist, we will require more than intelligence. We will require wisdom.
Homo sapiens, the wise human being, must now learn from its mistakes and live up to its name. We who are alive today have the formidable task of making sure that our species does so. We must not give up hope.
We can yet make amends, change direction and once again become a species in harmony with nature. All we require is the will.
The next few decades represent a final chance to build a stable home for ourselves and restore the rich, healthy and wonderful world that we inherited from our distant ancestors. Our future on the planet is at stake.
© David Attenborough, 2020
Adapted from A Life On Our Planet, by David Attenborough, published by Ebury Press on October 1 at £20. To pre-order a copy for £17, with free delivery, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 by September 27.
David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet will premiere in cinemas on September 28, featuring an exclusive conversation with Sir David Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin. The film will then launch on Netflix this autumn.