A Life on our Planet

Anna Grummitt reflects on David Attenborough’s new film, and the way humans respond to disasters.

There’s a story about an ancient king of Israel I’ve been thinking about recently. In it, the prophet Isaiah delivers what sounds like a devastating message to King Hezekiah: a time is coming when everything in his palace (including his descendants!) will be carried off to Babylon.

But Hezekiah doesn’t seem fazed by this news. The reason? It won’t happen immediately, so it won’t affect him personally. There will be “peace and security” in his lifetime.

His reaction is jarring to read. But it’s also understandable. If something terrible is about to happen *right now*, we do whatever we can to avoid it. Just think of the rapid and extreme measures enacted to halt the spread of COVID-19. But when a disaster is further off, or approaching gradually, immediate and drastic action seems too inconvenient.

This appears to be Australia’s attitude – and that of much of the world – when it comes to slowing climate change and protecting ecosystems. But some key voices are challenging this approach. Enter David Attenborough, and his new (and likely final) documentary A Life on our Planet. The film is a confronting and sobering overview of how much the natural world has changed in his own lifetime because of human activity (including deforestation and the destruction of natural spaces) – and how bad things could get if we don’t act now.

At 94, Attenborough won’t live to see the worst effects of climate change and biodiversity loss. But unlike Hezekiah, he cares enough about future generations to use the time he has left to fight for urgent action. As the Greek proverb goes, “a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”