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Personal, Poignant, Profound: David Attenborough Fine Tunes His Life's Message in Netflix Documentary
October 3, 2020  | By Alex Strachan  | 3 comments

"In one human lifetime, wildlife populations have fallen by an average of 60%. The stability of nature can no longer be taken for granted." 
— David Attenborough, in the opening moments of Our Planet. 

Nearly 20 years ago to the day, when the world was less weary, and planet Earth still seemed filled with boundless possibilities, the late CBS newsman Ed Bradley asked David Attenborough during a profile on 60 Minutes why his films focus exclusively on nature's natural beauty, while seemingly skirting uncomfortable questions about human overpopulation, habitat loss, environmental ruin, and a looming species extinction.

No one sitting at home, Attenborough replied, wants to be told the world is going to pieces, "and it's all your fault."

Now in his early 90s, he has, if not changed his tune exactly, fine-tuned it. The climate emergency, burning wildfires, and catastrophic flooding, coupled with a "storm of the century" seemingly every six months, have altered his thinking and reshaped his life's message. He admitted once to his close personal friend and fellow environmental crusader Jane Goodall that he was depressed and wanted to step away, disappear from public life.

No, Goodall replied, in the gentle yet firm voice that has become her calling card: You mustn't do that. Nature is resilient, and it can endure — eventually — but for now, the world needs your voice as an advocate for nature's beauty. Your voice alone can reach millions — billions — of people and cut across generations and cultures.

Re-energized, Attenborough vowed to continue the fight.

This was before climate change became a crisis, and then an emergency. Before the northern white rhino in East Africa was whittled down to just two remaining animals, both females. Before Greta Thunberg, and before the greatest loss of sea ice in the polar regions in human memory. Attenborough, 94, looked at Thunberg, 16, and his heart broke.

And so, the poignant, personal, profound Netflix documentary, David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet(available Sunday, October 4), is different. It is part autobiography, part allegory.

His biography is familiar enough to anyone who has followed his landmark programs over the decades: Planet EarthLife, Blue PlanetSeven Worlds One PlanetLife on Earth — almost too many to count.

It's the allegory part that drives him now, though. His thinking has changed. We can no longer afford to be complacent. We no longer have the moral luxury of being able to look away. Future generations are at stake. Not just the Siberian tigers, Amur leopards, and Javan rhinoceroses he loves and cares so much about, but our children and grandchildren, and their children. This is serious, and the time for idle distractions — no matter how well-intended — has passed.

Enter Netflix.

Two years ago, Netflix backed the docuseries Our Planet against all reason and financial advice. The maker was disaffected nature-program producer Alastair Fothergill, who was instrumental in making Planet EarthBlue Planet, and Frozen Earth for BBC.

Disheartened with being told by BBC executives that he couldn't talk about climate change or humans' impact on planet Earth, Fothergill took his passion project about climate change and species extinction to Netflix.

Fothergill and other filmmakers had expressed growing unease — irritation, even — at having to make the nature programs they want to make with one hand tied behind their backs. Fothergill has said broadcasters need to be brave to tell disquieting stories of environmental loss as they are much harder conservation stories to tell. Stories without context don't inspire us to change, after all. They encourage us instead to continue living our lives in a comfortable bubble, content to believe that someone else, somewhere else, will do something about it, and that all is well with the world.

Our Planet seemed an unlikely fit for a streaming service that had made its bones on solid, entertaining entertainment programs like House of CardsStranger Things, and Orange Is the New Black. And yet, somehow, it worked.
Our Planet needed a narrator, and Fothergill, with the program already filmed and edited by this point, turned to his old friend and former colleague Attenborough, assuming he would say no. Attenborough said yes.

And a remarkable thing happened. Jane Goodall was right. It's possible that, with a different narrator, Our Planet would still have been seen by those already converted to the cause.

With Attenborough, though, Our Planet became a cause célèbre, a global talking point, thanks to Netflix's worldwide reach. Netflix has since made Our Planet available in its entirety on YouTube, where anyone can see it.

Now, Attenborough has turned to the semi-autobiographical A Life on Our Planet, an exquisitely personal view of how our home planet has changed in the seven decades he has made nature programs, viewed through the prism of his own life, and through the cycle of life of all living beings on the planet.

To that end, for A Life on Our Planet, Attenborough journeyed to coral reefs to witness the deleterious effects of coral bleaching caused by global heating; to palm oil plantations in Borneo and the devastating effects those plantations are having on Southeast Asia's critically endangered orangutan populations; to the site of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in Ukraine, and the strange, dark forest that has taken root around the long-since abandoned industrial landscape; to the boreal forests in Russia's remote, northern Pacific Coast, home to the last remnant population of Siberian tigers; to high-tech food production farms in the Netherlands and a solar farm in Morocco, to highlight the energy waves of the future; and to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, to bear witness to the annual wildebeest migration, one of nature's remaining, most abiding natural glories.

This time he's there in person, not just a narrator but our moral and spiritual guide to the planet as it is, not a romanticized version of what we want it to be. A Life on Our Planet is Attenborough's personal witness statement for the natural world, and it is not to be missed. At age 94, he doesn't have too many left.

"I've had the most extraordinary life," he says simply, early in the film. "It's only now that I appreciate how extraordinary."

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