Day 238 in the time of coronavirus and today my thoughts are with every individual on the planet presently suffering from Covid-19, for the families who have lost loved ones, in some cases more than one beloved person, for the people who have lost businesses and livelihoods and are beset with anxiety about their ability to provide and survive, for those suffering mental anguish as a result of losses and deprivations, for the current generation and for the babies coming into this world in the midst of a pandemic and a second formidable crisis, one of existential dimensions, that we cannot escape and cannot deny. Our very existence is threatened due to the warming of the planet, a situation we have accelerated with our plundering and exploiting of natural resources: oil, timber, minerals, fish, animals, land and water supplies. Perhaps the pandemic and global warming are linked. As yet scientists have been saying there is no known connection however the root causes of climate change may have increased the risk of pandemics.
Only this morning I read an article about the murder of all the farmed minks in Denmark who have contracted Covid-19, as a way of eliminating the new mutated form of the virus. Two million animals dead. They caught it from humans. We caught the virus from an animal, still they don’t know whether it was a bat, a pangolin… Looking for the source is like looking for a needle in a haystack apparently but one thing is sure the SARS virus is circulating. According to David Hayman, infectious diseases expert at Massey University, intensified farming is to blame for the mire we find ourselves in. It is also a result of man pushing into wild habitats, taking over land where, until recently, wildlife have been living in solitude and thus increasing the likelihood of viruses being passed from wild to domestic animals and then on to people. That we thought we could control our world, assumed we could take as much as we wanted for economic advantage while tipping the delicate balance of ecosystems everywhere and destroying much of what was pristine and wonderful about planet earth, how arrogant and short sighted are we.
My emotions were stirred by David Attenborough’s latest documentary, 'A Life On Our Planet.' In what is a reflective survey of his sixty years of studying and recording the wonders of the wild places of our world the great broadcaster and naturalist presents, with excerpts from a lifetime of documentary making, a graphic illustration of the rapid degradation of nature and its habitats through the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, overfishing, and exponential population growth. It is shocking to witness how quickly the damage has been wrought, six decades only, and how monumental is the scale of the destruction. From images of lush tangled jungles of Borneo where orangutang swing languidly from branch to vine, to stills of pillaged forests, scarified earth, and an illustration of a lone animal clutching onto a denuded tree amidst piles of massacred trunks the evidence is alarming. There are underwater sequences of oceans teeming with brilliant marine life followed by dead coral reefs empty of fish. Image upon image, past and present illustrating the catastrophe. From the once vast ice shelfs and towering icebergs in Antarctica to shrinking glaciers, from snowy white expanses the home of polar bears and sea lions to eroded shorelines and bays the decline is severe.
Attenborough’s film opens and closes on Chernobyl in the Ukraine, the site, on 26 April 1986, of the worst nuclear accident in history when a reactor exploded, sending clouds of deathly atomic radiation into the atmosphere. In a haunting series of wide angle tracking shots we view a deserted, poisoned city frozen in the moment of abandonment: offices, civic buildings, streets, squares, apartment blocks all empty of human habitation. The camera pans the interiors of what were people’s homes in disarray, strange scenes where there are beds and bedding still intact while floors are strewn with masonry and glass. There is desolation in fading, peeling wallpapers and so many books lying on the floor, their pages lifted by a breeze and rippling. These abandoned homes reminded me of scenes I saw in Christchurch after the earthquakes.
According to Attenborough what happened to Chernobyl serves as an emblem for the future of the planet. Over the years since the explosion in 1986, nature has revived and forests have arisen amongst the ruins. Chernobyl is now a place for wild animals to pass through, although not stay. In scenes of mesmerising cinematography we see wolves, foxes and wild horses moving in dream-like slow motion. Putting our time in context he explains that after each of the five extinctions — the last, the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction 66 million years ago probably caused by the impact of a massive comet or asteroid — Nature returned. The next extinction, this time wrought by humankind (he is sure of this) will wipe us out but like the time after Chernobyl Nature will continue.
Appearing tired and pensive there is a sense of finality about his address. The once vigorous naturalist and documentarian, passionate advocate for the wild places calls this film ‘his witness statement’. It is also his elegy to a beautiful world now dangerously in decline.
'A Life On Our Planet' was filmed before the onset of coronavirus and released on 17 April 2020 just as many countries, including our own, were experiencing their first lockdown. I wonder what Attenborough might have had to say about the pandemic? I doubt he would be surprised.
As for hope, he tells us if we act fast enough we might be able to make a difference. The last quarter of the film is devoted to highlighting efforts around the globe to increase sustainable renewable energy, to rescue and sustain the biodiversity of the planet, to recycle better, to live and farm sustainably… He tells us if we can halt world population growth, if we can replace our petrol powered cars with electric, if we can switch from eating meat and fish to a plant based diet we might have a future. The implementation of a no-fishing zone around the island of Palau in the western Pacific has had a dramatic impact on marine life. In a short space of time the fish have returned and the underwater sea vegetation has revived. It is possible. I take heart from this but the bigger message absorbed here is of the desperate imperative to reduce my own ecological footprint, while there is still time. If we all acted decisively, if our empowered Labour government with its clear mandate to govern could provide financial incentives to assist people to buy electric cars (it has been mentioned) and many another planet saving actions — continued efforts at reforestation, reducing waste, increasing the number of wind turbines and other natural sources of energy — then we might just manage to save our planet.
Note on photo: Stills from 'A Life on Our Planet' are copyright. Instead I have selected a photograph taken exactly a year ago while I was on the Karekare Writer's Residency. I do not know the reason for the gannet's death. It may have been from natural causes, or it may be a result of ingesting plastic in the ocean. Plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year.