David Attenborough’s work includes iconic productions, from the ground-breaking Zoo Quest series to landmarks including Life on Earth, The Living Planet, Planet Earth and Our Planet. His latest contribution is A Life on Our Planet, a feature documentary which he describes as his ‘witness statement’.
I am quite literally from another age. I was born during the Holocene- the name given to the 10,000-year period of climatic stability that allowed humans to settle, farm and create civilisations.
Those conditions fostered our unique minds, giving rise to international trade in ideas as well as goods, making us the globally-connected species we are today.
Multinational businesses, international co-operation and the striving for higher ideals are all possible because for millennia, on a global scale, nature has largely been predictable and stable.
This stable natural world abounded with a wonderous array of plants and animals. As Charles Darwin famously revealed, all species have evolved over time to best exploit the conditions in which they live. He further realised that these conditions are not simply those of geography and climate but also their relationship to other life that lives alongside.
From the delicate co-dependencies of bees and orchids to the dramatic connection between cheetah and gazelle….. all life on Earth is both product and contributor to its place in space and time.
Whilst Darwin’s insights explain how this web came about and why the Holocene had such abundance, over 200 years later we are still only beginning to understand its interconnections and which of these connections are most vital. Yet we are breaking those connections at ever greater speed.
Indeed whilst I am among a dwindling number of people who can say they were born in the Holocene, I will die in a quite different geological age. The Anthropocene -the Age when humans dominated the earth. The age when innumerable natural connections were broken.
In geological terms the Anthropocene epoch is signified by a change in what is laid down in the rocks. A clear dividing point where the markers of profound and global human impact can be identified.
But in human terms we are yet to discover what the Anthropocene will mean.
Whilst we have left the benign conditions of the Holocene it is not yet beyond us to create a new stable state. The Anthropocene could be the moment we achieve a balance with the rest of the natural world and become stewards of our planet.
Doing so will require systemic shifts in how we produce food, create energy, manage our oceans and use materials. But above all it will require a change in perspective. A change from viewing nature as something that’s optional or ‘nice to have’ to the single greatest ally we have in restoring balance to our world.
Rather than long for the Holocene our best tactic may be to embrace the Anthropocene. To recognise that if we have become powerful enough to change the entire planet then we are powerful enough to moderate our impact- to work with nature rather than against it.
The same unique brains and communication skills that fuelled the development of our civilisations now have access to technologies and institutions that allow all nations of the world to collaborate and cooperate should we choose to do so.
Under the auspices of the United Nations, representatives will soon negotiate agreements setting out each nation’s role in tackling climate change, enabling sustainable development and restoring biodiversity. If these noble aims are to succeed in fostering a stable Anthropocene we must view ourselves as a global species and be willing to cooperate.
That cooperation sometimes requires making allowances and coming to agreements. The time for pure national interests has passed, internationalism has to be our approach and in doing so bring about a greater equality between what nations take from the world and what they give back. The wealthier nations have taken a lot and the time has now come to give.