I have just watched the new film “A Life On Our Planet” with my family and found it incredibly moving, writes Rob Marsden.David Attenborough was a childhood hero of mine – I was nine years old when I first watched the Life on Earth series and got the book for my birthday. I was captivated and inspired by his presentation of the magnificent beauty of the natural world.
Now, as a very old man, Attenborough looks back on the world he has known, and thoroughly explored, and the changes he has seen wrought upon it. This is his last testament – part inspiration, part warning but also a call to action.
He starts by looking at the loss of biodiversity and the devastation of the natural world- something often overshadowed and overlooked by a focus on carbon-driven climate change – and it is a depressing picture. We are well into a mass extinction event, it is accelerating and unlike previous such events it is driven by human action upon the natural world.However, he is clear that the devastation caused by human beings can be reversed by human beings and he puts forward a few broad-brush solutions.
It is increasingly becoming accepted that any future world that is to avoid catastrophic climate change and biodegradation will have to do so on the basis of a drastic reduction in reliance on meat and dairy products. Long term sustainable agriculture to feed the current human population must necessarily be largely plant (and possibly fish) based.
More controversially, for those of us on the left taught to fear the spectre of Malthus, he raises the question of population. However, he does not put a number on the optimum number of people the planet can comfortably feed (and house and clothe) but suggests that population will eventually peak and level off and says that the sooner this happens the better.
Crucially, he does not advocate coercive government action to limit population but observes (using the example of post-war Japan) that rising affluence, increased availability of health care and education- particularly of girls- all have the effect of decreasing the rate of population growth. Surely these are the sort of policies socialists would seek to advance in any case.
He further argues that the technologies we need to achieve this- solar and wind power – already exist and what ‘we’ lack is simply the will to implement them on a mass scale and to rapidly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels to zero.(As an aside, the framing device of the film, starting and ending in the ruins of Chernobyl where an unnatural disaster has led to a city which once housed 50,000 people being reclaimed by wilderness, leads me to think he has little time for nuclear power as an alternative!)
Of course, the elephant in the room is the economic system under which the environmental crisis continues to grow.Whilst human beings have moulded and changed the natural world to varying degrees for millennia, it is rapacious and expansive capitalism, built on fossil fuels, which drives the current crisis and which resists any measures which would curtail its profits.
As a widely respected ‘national (and international) treasure’ Attenborough has a platform which means he is able to shine a spotlight on capitalism without naming it as such.
As socialists it is our job to mobilise a truly mass, global, movement to force governments – all governments – to act in the here and now. We need to work at all levels, within existing movements such as XR, and advance immediate concrete solutions to the crisis. However, at the same time, we must make the case, and win the argument, that to safeguard the future of the planet we have to uproot and destroy capitalism and replace it with a global ecosocialist system.