Features & Reports
Comment & Opinion
Interviews & more
  About Paul
  Links and Campaigns

Strife on Earth

An interview with Sir David Attenborough, Britain's most famous naturalist.

The Ecologist, April 2001

There are two roads in Richmond with the same name. One of them is where Sir David Attenborough has lived for the last 40 years. The other is where I turn up, at the appointed time, to meet him. They are a substantial jog apart.

'Not again,' says the weary-looking woman who answers the door. 'This happens about once a month. You go to the end of the road, turn left, cross the river...'

Arriving hot, sweaty, embarrassed and 25 minutes late to interview the most famous naturalist in Britain is not a promising start. But David Attenborough seems to be as unflappable in the flesh as on the screen. For a man who has waded barefoot through piles of diseased rats, smuggled sacks of armadillos into hotel bedrooms and woken up with a wild lion sitting on his chest, this is probably not, after all, a serious inconvenience.

'Come and sit down,' he says, in response to my apologetic gasps. 'You look like you could do with a glass of water.'

David Attenborough is a national institution. He doesn't like being reminded of the fact, but there it is. Virtually anyone under the age of 60 in Britain has grown up with him. He invented the modern television wildlife programme virtually single-handedly, and he has what may be the most instantly recognisable voice in the kingdom. His groundbreaking BBC documentaries have, over the last 50 years, explained, explored and exposed virtually every facet of life on planet Earth. From the classic, The Living Planet, Life on Earth - to the specific, Life of Birds, Life in the Freezer, The Private Life of Plants and the rest. Think natural history and you think David Attenborough. There must be vast numbers of people in Britain who have learnt everything they know about wildlife from him. It's an awesome position to be in.

'You know, it is a terrible thing to appear on television,' he says, 'because people think that you actually know what you're talking about.' He pours himself a cup of coffee, and looks concerned. 'Seriously, it is a real problem. People think "he's got a hotline to God" or "he knows all the facts". And I'm just a guy...'

State of the Planet
Even national institutions can be wrong. David Attenborough is not 'just a guy', whatever he might like to think, Or, if he is, he is a massively influential one. In his time, he has been controller of BBC2 (he oversaw the introduction of colour television), an award-winning writer (books and scripts), a knight of the realm, trustee, president and/or fellow of a long and very worthy list of wildlife and conservation organisations. Oh, and the pioneer of the first generation of wildlife film makers. Today, at the age of 75 (he only looks about 50), he bestrides the BBC Natural History Unit like a mild-mannered colossus. You can't help thinking that if he wanted to make a 13-part series about nematode worms, the BBG would clear the schedules and write him a cheque without blinking. Nice work if you can get it.

All this makes Attenborough more than interesting. But what is really fascinating about him now, in the twilight of his career, is the most recent series he made for the BBC, which was screened at the end of last year. State off he Planet was a three-parter designed to examine just that. In what marked a radical departure for the BBC's Natural History Unit, it turned its gaze away from the micro, (lovely landscapes, bizarre species, animals eating each other in inventive ways), to the macro; the world as a whole. For the first time it addressed, on prime-time television, the issue that the environmental movement has been banging on about for the last few decades - humanity's impact on the planet.
And the message from the BBC? Simple: we are in the midst of a global environmental crisis, and if we don't do something substantial about it, it's going to get a lot worse.

We live in a time, the series explained, in which more species exist on Earth than at probably any other period in its existence. We don't even know how many - it is likely to be anything between 1.5 million and 100 million. And one highly successful and adaptive species, homo sapiens sapiens, is destroying others, and their habitats, at a speed and on a scale that is equally unprecedented. The destruction we are inflicting is so great that some senior biologists featured in the programmes say that we may be on the brink of a new mass extinction which could wipe out up to 50 per cent of all life on Earth.

Strong stuff from the traditionally cautious BBC. And State of the Planet, though not exactly a radical call to arms, was clear about the need to change the way society operates if we are to have any chance of tackling the problems we have created. The end of the final episode sees Attenborough standing alone amongst the vast, abandoned statues of Easter Island. When the first Polynesian settlers landed there 1,500 years ago they found, in Attenborough's words, 'a rich fertile world in miniature'. By the time the first Europeans arrived, on Easter Sunday 1722, it had become 'a barren desert'. For once, the Europeans didn't have to destroy an isolated, Pacific society -- it had destroyed itself. Forest destruction, competition for resources, warfare and overpopulation had reduced an advanced civilisation to starving remnants living in a denuded world.

It is a deliberately powerful metaphor, which Attenborough uses to good effect. It is, he says, simply, 'a warning of what the future could hold' for the whole planet. And he is clear, too, in his understated way, about the nature of the challenge. 'Many individuals,' he says, at the very end of the programme, 'are doing what they can. But real success can only come if there is a change in our societies and in our economics and in our politics.'

'I'm a very old BBC hand'
Even if none of this is surprising in itself -- dire warnings of environmental doom not being exactly news to the viewing public -- what made State of the Planet so effective can be summed up in one word: Attenborough. The reason, ironically, is that he's not really known for this sort of thing. Unlike some of his fellow conservationists, David Attenborough has always remained, if not quite apolitical, then certainly above the fray. He does gorillas, birds of paradise, cute baby moles; he doesn't do preaching, politics or 'messages'. So when he does stand up and announce that the planet is in big trouble it is all the more effective.

Partly, he explains, his famous objectivity is historical. 'I'm a very old BBC hand,' he says, 'and in the old days... it was a basic cardinal fact that its producers didn't have opinions. When I was producing natural history programmes I didn't use them as vehicles for my own opinion. They were factual programmes.' But it's also a deliberate choice; it's part of the image he has constructed for himself. While he's keen to stress that he's always been involved in active conservation -- he was involved in setting up the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), and he's been president of the Royal Society for Nature Conservation and other such august pressure groups -- his studied 'objectivity' is his greatest asset. And he knows it.

'I do an awful lot of appearances,' he says, by way of explanation, 'and to have one person always grinding the same axe would not be a good idea. People are not going to care about animal conservation unless they think that animals are worthwhile.' And they will only think that if 'they think "the person on that box is telling us the truth; he is showing us what they are and not telling us too much what to think about them"'.

He is undoubtedly right. But maintaining a neutral, professorial public image for professional reasons is one thing. Actually having no opinions is quite another. The question is, then, what does David Attenborough really think about the state of the planet? What does he think needs to be done? And is he going to talk about it?

'Crying wolf is a real danger'
In the past, Attenborough has said remarkably little in public about the root causes of environmental problems. Even in interviews, he has tended towards the cautious. Asked about the possibilities of dramatic climate change, for example, or mass extinction, he always talks about the inevitability of change. The one thing the world has never been, he always says, is static.

I wonder, now, whether State of the Planet has changed his mind?
'I think that anybody with any sense of perspective -- geological or evolutionary -- will recognise that the one thing the world has never ever been is static,' he says.

Right. But come on -- after everything he said back there on Easter Island. He's not going to suggest, surely, that all the changes we are seeing are somehow 'natural'?
'I think there will be radical changes,' he says. 'But I don't actually think that within the next 100 years the natural world will be reduced to rats and cockroaches, nor do I think that the plant world will be reduced to some kind of desert. Things change... I don't think we should regard change as a disaster. For example, I get Indian ring-necked parakeets in my garden every morning. There's a big colony living wild down the road. There might be some out there now.' We both squint out of the patio doors. Nothing, though I have to take his word for it. I wouldn't know a ring-necked parakeet from a woodpigeon.

But there's something going on here, I think. And it's more than simply the fact that he claims to be a natural optimist ('by nature, I tend to think a bottle's half full'). I think that David Attenborough is holding back. I think he's erring on the side of caution because the one thing he doesn't want to be associated with, above all else, is that bane of the entire environmental movement: the scaremonger.
Bring up the subject, and he sits forward suddenly in his chair. For the first time since I arrived, his eyes flash.

'Precisely!' he says. 'We have said some terrible things! When I say we, I mean I identify myself with environmentalists and ecologists. We have said terrible things, like "in 10 years there will be no rainforest left", and "do you realise that every minute an area the size of Luxembourg or France or something is felled?" And people out there say: "What, again? It seems alright to me". And so crying wolf is a real danger.'

So, what about those who don't cry wolf? There are a lot of very clear-headed warnings out there about environmental degradation. Now, Attenborough, through State of the Planet, has issued one himself. Does he think it will make any difference?

'I think that the justification for what I do is that in the end you will only get a real change, a real shift in people's behaviour, if it has political backing. Here we are with even the most obvious things like a fishing policy or a transport policy -- we know what the consequences are, and yet the people who have got personal stakes in it say "what am I going to do if I can't put my boats out fishing? I'm going to get cod even if it's the end of it". You can only get really unpopular decisions through if the electorate is convinced of the value of the environment. That's what natural history programmes should be for.'

'Right, we'd better have a bloody revolution'
But what I really want to know is how David Attenborough is going to follow up on the parting shot he delivered on Easter Island - the one about changing our societies, our economics and our politics in order to protect the planet. What did he really mean by it?
'That means that the electorate should be saying to political parties "yes, all very well, but you have only given us lip service so far. You haven't actually done anything, for example, about the roads or fuel policy or other matters of environmental concern."'

Roads and fuel come up a lot in his conversation. Attenborough was refreshingly dismissive of the fuel protests last year, and he doesn't drive himself ('I don't run a car, have never run a car. I could say that this is because I have this extremely tender environmentalist conscience, but the fact is I hate driving. I loathe the damn thing.'). But on this issue, too, he comes back to public persuasion. 'The only way Prescott is going to get through something to do with transport policy,' he says, 'is if the public think there are too many damn things on the road, and use the railways.'

This still hasn't really answered the question, though. Persuading governments to pass environmental legislation doesn't amount to the sort of sea change he seemed to be talking about. Take economics. The rise of multinational corporations, and the change in the global economic landscape to accommodate their interests, has been blamed for a whole tranche of contemporary ills - and environmental degradation is certainly one of them. Does he see that as a problem?

'I think it's been like that for a long time,' he says. 'It's been like that since the Hanseatic League, whenever that was. And yep, that's right, it's the nature of capitalism. I suppose you could say, "right, we'd better have a bloody revolution", but by and large it doesn't seem to be a good idea. So OK, what do you do? It's very easy to say everything is outrageous. But if you have an oil company that's setting up its own environmental department, for example, what do you do? Do you spit in its eye, or do you make sure that what they do actually has some substance?'

One thing that really bothers him, he says, is how modern economics defines 'wealth'. The fact that most of the world's natural wonders simply don't show up on any balance sheets, he believes, is an urgent economic problem.

'Changing the way we measure things,' is vital. So is decompartmentalising society - making sure that economics and politics are not divorced from other crucial areas of life... 'That's why - well, for example... I'm afraid I'm not a practising Christian, but it seems to me to be absolutely correct that the Archbishop of Canterbury should be a political force. And the people who say "we're not having religion coming into politics, thank you very much" - I mean, what the hell are they talking about? Well, what else is it?'

'Being in touch with the natural world is crucial'
State of the Planet looked at the question of valuing nature. It used examples of local communities in the Pacific and Papua New Guinea, who make a living from sustainably harvesting butterflies and sea horses, which they export for sale on the world markets. Presumably the viewer was supposed to see such examples as ways out of a much bigger problem: economics versus the environment. Personally, I wasn't convinced, but then, what do I know? Mention it, though, and Attenborough's nose wrinkles slightly; he waves his hand vaguely. It doesn't seem he was convinced either.

'Oh, I am convinced to a degree, but I mean they are so piddling really.'
Well, I mumble, I didn't like to say so...
'I don't want to knock my own programme, you know, and...'
Suddenly his eyes are elsewhere.
'Look,' he says, pointing across the room. 'There are those parakeets!'
'In that tree - the one with the bare branches. Go over to the window.' I do, slowly, and there they are - two bright green birds that look like they should be somewhere much hotter than England in February. 1 can now tell any future grandchildren that I have been personally tutored in ornithology by Sir David Attenborough. Sort of.

'Pretty, aren't they?' he says, doing that lopsided half-smile that several million people are familiar with. 'But getting back to those examples... they were a nice, as it were, closed case - you know, we could say yes, they were about to exterminate sea horses and now they aren't... But it isn't a solution to the world's problems.'

And here we are again - solutions to the world's problems. Attenborough seems to believe that global capitalism can be enormously damaging to the natural world. He believes that modern economics doesn't put a true value on the environment. Would he agree with another of the claims of the environmental movement - that localising economics and politics could help to tackle some of these problems?

It could certainly, he says, help bring people closer to nature - and 'being in touch with the natural world is crucially important - absolutely, totally. I'm especially involved, for example, in the Richmond Environmental Centre. That's one of those things you can hardly say no to.' He looks briefly pained, and runs his hands through his silver hair.

'But I'm only here for about eight days at a time, and I feel guilty about that. Oh, my capacity for guilt is enormous.' He grins, almost apologetically.
'I'm all the time thinking I'm not doing the things I should be doing, not doing enough of it, or I said I'd be vice-president of something or other, and what I have I done? Nothing.'
Well, I say, you've done more than most people to change things. No need to feel guilty about that, surely.
'Well, I'm having a good time. Which makes me feel guilty too.'
How very English. Let me guess: all that flying around the world emitting greenhouse gases makes you feel guilty too?
'Yep, I feel guilty about that. And if I can bicycle, I bicycle.'
So, even national institutions get angst-ridden. Somehow, this is oddly refreshing.

'I'm by and large against centralisation'
But back to that localisation argument, because things were just getting interesting. He seems to be in favour of some form of localisation. So what does he think of the proliferation of global and regional a institutions in recent years? What does he think, for example, of the European Union, and Britain's future within it?

'I'm by and large against centralisation,' he says, simply. 'Not so much for ideological reasons but for practical ones. I once had aspirations to be an anthropologist, and I know from anthropology that people will not accept difficult political instructions or governmental decisions from somebody who is totally divorced from them. If it doesn't speak the same language, it's no good.' He emphasises the word 'totally'. He's leaning forward in his chair again, that Mission To Explain coursing through his veins.

'We're seeing examples of it now, people coming along saying "Germany says you will have to close your car factories because they want to put them somewhere else". People won't tolerate this. And it is extraordinary that at the same time people say we have all got to join Europe for reasons which even the economists themselves aren't clear on - at the same time we're saying, well yes of course Scotland has got to be independent. And why don't we make Wales independent too? And the north of England.' Those eyes are flashing again.

'I'm against this huge globalisation on the basis of economic advantage,' he says, determinedly. 'Marginal advantage...' He sits back and drums his fingers on the chair arm. I try to imagine the ruckus that would have been caused if he'd delivered this message at the end of State of the Planet instead.

'There are perfectly good independent small nations,' he says, as if it were an obvious point he'd already explained five times to a particularly dim child or government minister. 'And since when has Finland been a rotten place to live in?'
I don't know, I say, I've never been there.
'Well, neither have I, but you get the point.'
Loud and clear, Sir David. Loud and clear.

'The fundamental issue is the moral issue'
So, here we are, There is a crisis, and it's going to affect us all. We've talked about some of the ways we could tackle it. But will we get the chance? One of the more miserable predictions made in State of the Planet is that, by the end of this century, over half of all the species on Earth are likely to be seriously endangered or even extinct. Do we have enough time to turn it around?

'I don't think "turned around" is necessarily the right verb. It's like steering an aircraft carrier: you have to put the thing on the tiller and then you have to wait for 15 miles before the thing actually shifts. All we can hope for is that the thing is going to slowly and imperceptibly shift. All I can say is that 50 years ago there were no such thing as environmental policies. There is a shift... whether there will be some 180 [degrees] turn - I don't think there can possibly be. But I think that we might move away from some of the appalling materialist considerations which have governed politics for a long time.'

When David Attenborough talks, he talks seriously. When he offers you an opinion, you know he means it. And you know that, after more than 50 years in the business, he is still driven by something - something that you can see in his eyes. Something that fires him up. It's an obvious question, but I'm going to ask it anyway: what makes him do what he does? Where does his passion for nature come from?
'We've all got it.' He waves at me. 'You've got it.'
But I know people who haven't.
'You don't know any kids who haven't. There are some people who have had it beaten out of them in whatever social circumstances they've been brought up - but you don't meet many five-year-olds who are not interested in a hedgehog or a stickleback.'

Does that mean that a love of nature is something ingrained within us? Might that be why the idea of extinction, for example, bothers people so much?
'Yes... I have never said that the reason we have got to preserve the tiger or the seahorse or whatever is because if we don't there will be some eco-disaster. Neither have I said we have got to do this because of some pharmaceutical advantage there may or may not be. The fundamental issue is the moral issue - and I've always said that. The moral issue is that we should not impoverish this world.' Take, for example, the "we must preserve the Amazon because the cure for cancer might be in there somewhere" school of thought: 'I mean, it's not really the point is it? There might be a cure there, but the overwhelming reason [for preserving it] is Man's imaginative health... it would be a grave impoverishment of our imaginational world.'

'I'm coming towards the end of the shelf'
So how, as he approaches the end of his career, does David Attenborough want to be seen? What mark does he want to leave? Would he like to be seen, for example, as a prophet of some kind?

'No... because, I don't know... I'm lost in admiration for people like Teddy [Goldsmith, the founder of The Ecologist], for example - he has the answer to everything, you know. I don't know how, but he does, and I believe every word he says. But I find that very hard, and that's why I'm not in politics... No, I would like my legacy to be a set of DVDs on a shelf which people can point to and say - well, there's the evolutionary history of life. That's ecology, that's birds, that's mammals, that's plants, that's fossils. If you wanted to know anything about aggressive behaviour, if you wanted to know anything about birds of paradise, anything about marsupials - there's a 50-minute thing which would give you the outline. That's what I would like... and I've still got a bit to go, but I'm coming towards the end of the shelf.'

That, I say, will be a hell of a legacy.
'Well, that's why I'm here. That's why it's such a delight and joy, so self indulgent.' He looks around furtively, and grins.
'Now,' he says, 'I'm feeling guilty again.'