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
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
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
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
'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
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,'
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
'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
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
'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
'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
How very English. Let me guess: all that flying around
the world emitting greenhouse gases makes you feel guilty
'Yep, I feel guilty about that. And if I can 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
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
'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
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,
'Now,' he says, 'I'm feeling guilty again.'