Naturalist Attenborough is a man with a mission – to switch us on to our amazing environment – and the damages we are causing, now! Henricus Peters
David Attenborough may have lived the perfect life, travelling the world and seeing its wonders before tourism ravaged them. He talks to The Observer’s Robin McKie about his early regrets, battles with climate-change deniers, and his favourite place on Earth
It is hard to believe that David Attenborough has ever mistreated a single animal in his life. This is a man for whom the natural world is sacred, after all. Yet midway through our interview, organised to promote his new television series Attenborough: 60 Years in the Wild, a crestfallen look crosses the great naturalist’s features when I ask if he has any regrets about his career.
“Jumping on animals. I regret that,” he states. I blink in disbelief. It is as if Judi Dench had admitted to glue-sniffing. Attenborough explains. “Fifty years ago, I used to go along, chase a giant anteater and pull it by the tail so we could film it. I am sorry about that sort of thing. But those were different days.”
Then there was the time he and his crew were stuck in Borneo and strapped for something to film. “I found a little crocodile and we did a cod sequence with it. We filmed it close up so that it looked like a really big crocodile. I then took off my shirt and jumped on it. Everyone thought I had a fight with a full-sized crocodile. ‘God you were brave,’ they told me. I wish I hadn’t done that.”
And as for eating turtle eggs, he pulls a face. “They were horrible, salty. I wished I hadn’t done that either.”
As crimes against nature, these are minor transactions, it must be admitted. Yet they are informative – for it is easy to forget how attitudes to wildlife have changed since Attenborough began his career in 1952 on programmes such as The Pattern of Animals and, later, Zoo Quest. Wild creatures were still viewed from a Victorian perspective in those days. They were there to be tracked, captured, tied up and brought back to Britain to be goggled at. Attenborough was no different from other naturalists at the time, he admits.
Zoo Quest was certainly made in that mould, he believes. For the nine years it aired, Attenborough would travel with staff from London Zoo to a tropical country to capture an animal for the zoo’s collection, a practice that was considered to be perfectly acceptable at the time. Attenborough’s first assignment was to track down a white-necked Picathartes in Sierra Leone on the grounds that no other zoo in Europe had one or even knew what it looked like. “I thought: ‘Oooh, a bird that no one has ever even seen. I must become the first European to get one.’ It was very childish really.”
Today Attenborough, like the rest of us, has a far more respectful attitude to animals, as the new series makes clear. Indeed, ifAttenborough: 60 Years in the Wild has a theme it is that of transition. How attitudes to the natural world have changed and how knowledge of living things has been transformed by modern science. Not to mention the leap that has taken place in the film technology bringing the wonders of the world into our front rooms, from clockwork, wind-up cameras to stop-frame photography and thermal imaging.
An example of these technological changes is provided in the living room of Attenborough’s own elegant west London home. It is dominated, not by images of wildlife or native art, as you might expect, but by a giant 50in 3D television. Now Attenborough is certainly no geek – he can’t drive and has trouble answering his mobile phone, he says – but he has pioneered a recent series of 3D programmes for Sky. He is clearly in thrall to the technology and keen to demonstrate its wonders.
Attenborough bustles round the set, pulling out discs from a Blu-ray player, and flicking through scenes. The tasks involve a great deal of kneeling and bending over, which Attenborough accomplishes with no hint of stiffness or back pain that would leave many younger men groaning. Dressed in an open-neck light-blue shirt, chino slacks and loafers – an Attenborough uniform to judge from other interviews – he could easily pass for a man 20 years younger and is clearly determined to keep up with the latest developments in his profession.
“I began my career in broadcasting on the old 405 line, black-and-white TV that was broadcast from Crystal Palace,” he adds. “I wasn’t going to say no to doing a programme in 3D that would be displayed on huge colour screens when I was offered the chance.
“On the other hand, as a medium, 3D TV is certainly not perfect. You are limited to what you photograph. You cannot use long focal lenses because of problems with background. And the cameras require two or three men to carry them. But oh, when you see time-lapse photography of plants flowering in 3D, the results are absolutely mesmeric.”
However, the real change in our perspective of the natural world is not due to improvements in TV technology but has been achieved through scientific revolutions, particularly in the fields of biology and geology. These have been the real game changers, Attenborough believes. “We forget what we have learned in the last 60 years. At university I once asked one of my lecturers why he was not talking to us about continental drift and I was told, sneeringly, that if I could I prove there was a force that could move continents, then he might think about it. The idea was moonshine, I was informed.”
Yet we now know that continental drift explains a vast amount about the variation in the planet’s plants and animals – for example the presence of similar families of earthworms in central Africa and in central South America – continents which were once attached to each other. Continental drift featured strongly in Life on Earth, Attenborough’s first great series on the natural world, in 1979. What his old lecturer made of the programme is not recorded.
Since then a host of great scientific visionaries have been interviewed by Attenborough, with Konrad Lorenz providing an unforgettable early start. Lorenz won a Nobel prize for physiology for his work on animal behaviourand had an astonishing affinity with many species, in particular greylag geese. Would he like to appear on TV and demonstrate that empathy on the air, Attenborough asked.
Lorenz agreed and was filmed clutching a goose provided by London Zoo. “Komm, komm, mein Liebchen,” he murmured to the unhappy animal which, as Attenborough relates, eventually squirted a jet of green dung straight at the great scientist, covering his trousers. Lorenz released the goose, wiped his clothes with his handkerchief before absent-mindedly blowing his nose with it. He completed his interview, on camera, with a green smear down his face.
Other stars to receive homage in 60 Years in the Wild include Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey for their ape-observation work, Francis Crick and Jim Watson for their discovery of the structure of DNA, and Richard Dawkins for his ideas about the selfish gene. “These people have completely transformed our understanding of the animal world. We see the world very differently today thanks to them.”
Finding ways to film these scientific visions has taken Attenborough to every conceivable place on the planet. He donned a diving suit for underwater sequences filmed for The Trials of Life in 1990; has been lifted to the top of rainforests by cranes; spat at by cobras; flattened by a belligerent Scottish capercaillie; and, of course, been groomed by gorillas in that glorious sequence in Life on Earth.
So which spot on the planet would he recommend to give people a chance to enjoy living creatures at their best? The Galápagos with their iguanas? The Amazon rainforest? His answer comes as a surprise. “People say you cannot beat the rainforest. But that is simply not true. You go there and the first thing you think is: where the hell are the birds? Where are the animals? They are hiding in the trees, of course. No, if you want beauty and wildlife, you want a coral reef. Put on a mask and stick your head under the water. The sight is mind-blowing.
“And that, actually, is still a mystery: why are coral reefs so beautiful and colourful? It is not immediately obvious, though the wildlife is wonderful: shell-less molluscs, crustaceans and shoals of fish that do not give a damn whether you are there or not. Your first trip to a coral reef will be one of the most transforming moments of your life.”
There is, of course, a downside. Coral reefs are now being destroyed at a staggering rate. Some estimates suggest around 600 square miles are lost every year, a rate double that of rainforest destruction. Reefs are dying because ocean waters are being acidified as carbon dioxide levels rise in the atmosphere as a result of human industrial activity. At the same time, rainforests are being ploughed up for farmland.
And this takes us to the darker side of the changes that Attenborough has seen in 60 years. Just as we are learning more and more about the glories of the living world, and as new breath-taking visions are being brought into our homes, we are destroying these wonders at an accelerating rate. It is a simple question of numbers, says Attenborough. “There is no problem on Earth that could not be solved quite easily if you could reduce world population. The reason that oil palms are being planted all over the place is because there are so many mouths, so many people in the west offering to pay for these forests to be cut down and palms planted for margarine, for plastics.”
Plastic refuse turns out to be a particular concern for Attenborough, who is working on a film that will highlight the crises facing our oceans. “It is just tragic,” says Attenborough. “You have got an albatross that comes back to feed its young. In close-up, it regurgitates the stuff it has been collecting round the world’s oceans for 10 days to feed its chicks and what comes out? Bits of plastic. And then you see the chicks swallowing this plastic. If you warm the plastic, it gives off dioxins. And the litter of this stuff. You can only get rid of it if you can burn it – and then it gets worse.”
It is a grim picture, though Attenborough is not without some shred of optimism. “If I have to grasp for little threads of hope, one is that humans are going to be better informed about the state of the world than they have ever been in the planet’s history. Kids in Tibet are going to be talking to people in Patagonia about what is happening to the Earth and there is a chance that a worldwide, slow protest movement will grow with younger people wanting something to be done.”
Much of their awareness of the living world and the perils facing its wildlife will have come from Attenborough, of course. In the past, he was criticised for not making clear his position on global warming, and for not taking on those who deny that climate change is occurring. However, in the past few years, he has been far more explicit in his warnings about the dangers our planet faces as it warms up and the polar regions melt.
Not surprisingly, these attempts at enlightenment have brought him into conflict with those who reject the idea that the Earth is in peril. For example, in the final episode of his last major series, Frozen Planet, Attenborough highlighted the impact of global warming on the polar regions. He pointed out that summer sea ice cover has declined by more than 30% over the past few decades and is causing major disruptions to the wildlife.
Nigel Lawson, former chancellor and leading climate-change denier, was unamused. “Sir David’s alarmism is sheer speculation,” he claimed after the programme was transmitted last year. “When it comes to global warming, [Attenborough] seems to prefer sensation to objectivity.” Attenborough, said Lawson, should have acknowledged that although the extent of Arctic sea ice has been declining over the past 30 years, satellite observations have also shown that, at the other pole, Antarctic sea ice has been expanding over the same period.
Sensationalism is not an accusation that many have made about Attenborough in the past. He is a fellow of the Royal Society and was awarded the Order of Merit in 2005. He does not, generally, shoot his mouth off and many scientists were quick to jump to his defence. These included oceanographers who pointed out that yes, summer sea ice in Antarctica has increased over the past 30 years, but only slightly – by about 0.4 million square kilometres, an upward trend that may actually be no more than a reflection of year-to-year variability. By contrast summer sea ice in the Arctic has declined in extent by about 3 million square kilometres in the past 30 years: a vast decrease. Lawson was guilty of being economical with the truth, to put it mildly.
So what does Attenborough think about climate change deniers like Lawson? What should be done to counter their highly selective views about global warming?
“Well, it is difficult to know what to say except that people like him have to be allowed to make these claims so that others can assess them. Any idea of suppressing their views would be disastrous. We need to be able to see just how wrong-headed they are and how selective they are in picking data to support their ideas. They pinpoint examples to say global warming cannot be happening because it got colder in some area of the planet. That is the sort of thing they say. But, of course, that completely misunderstands the global nature of the crisis we are facing. We have to keep pointing that out. Certainly I think that most people would recognise that Lawson is up a gum tree.
“The truth is: the natural world is changing. And we are totally dependent on that world. It provides our food, water and air. It is the most precious thing we have and we need to defend it.”
Attenborough: 60 Years in the Wild begins on BBC2 on 16 November at 9pm
- CLIMATE CHANGE : David Attenborough: ‘US politicians avoid the issue due to cost’ (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- Attenborough’s treasured Lear bird prints reproduced for Folio Society (guardian.co.uk)
- VIDEO: Attenborough’s Edward Lear prints (bbc.co.uk)
- Life on Air: David Attenborough (milkandcookies.com)
- david attenborough penguins in 3D (thesun.co.uk)
- David Attenborough: force of nature (bfreenews.com)
- David Attenborough celebrates his own Diamond Jubilee with new BBC series 60 Years In The Wild (dailymail.co.uk)
- David Attenborough: ‘I used chameleon to deter potential car thieves’ (digitalspy.co.uk)
- Sir David Attenborough picks 10 animals he would take on his ark (telegraph.co.uk)
- David Attenborough: U.S. politicians duck climate change because of cost (grist.org)
Environmental education is about connecting children with nature…. getting them started on a lifetime of loving the world. Yes? Along the way, argues the August Orion Magazine, much of environmental education lost its magic. This is what NAEEUK is trying to work out too!
THE KIDS HAVE BEEN UP since seven-thirty playing computer games and watching cartoons. What a travesty for them to be inside on such a beautiful day, you harrumph to yourself. On the refrigerator, you notice the schedule of events from the nearby nature center. “Let’s Get Face to Face with Flowers,” it beckons. Just the thing!It’s a sparkly May morning. Buds are bursting. There’s a warm breeze full of the aromatic scent of the woods just waking up.
You trundle the kids into the minivan. They despondently consent. “Do we have to do a program? Programs are boring,” the older one complains. But as soon as you pull into the parking lot at Happy Hills Nature Center, their faces brighten. They fling the sliding door open and scamper down through the blossom-filled meadow to the shore of the pond. Ross, age seven, pulls off his sneakers and wades in, bent over searching for frogs. Amanda, age ten, plops down and starts making a dandelion tiara. What a good decision, you think to yourself.
Terri, the smiley naturalist wearing the official Happy Hills insigniaed staff shirt, saunters over. “Here for the flower program?” she chirps. “We’re meeting up in the Cozy Corner room to get started.”
Ross asks, “Can Freddie come too?” holding up the fat green frog he has befriended.
Terri’s bright face darkens a bit. “Sorry. Freddie needs to stay in the pond. Did you know the oils from your hands can make Freddie sick?”
In the darkened Cozy Corner room, Terri has prepared a PowerPoint of all the flowers you might see on the trail today. “Here are some spring beauties. They look just like little peppermint candies. But, of course, we can’t eat them. And here’s one of my favorites, Dutchman’s breeches. Why do you think we call them that?”
After about the seventh slide the kids start to squirm in their seats. “Daddy, I have to go pee,” complains Ross. After about the twenty-seventh slide, you too have to go pee.
“And now, let’s see how many we can find,” Terri says. It’s good to be back outside. Upon entering the woods, Amanda notices a red eft in a patch of moss. She takes a few steps off the trail and Terri chastises her: “Remember, Amanda, nature is fragile! When you walk off the trail, you crush all kinds of little creatures you can’t see.” Farther on Ross scampers up into the inviting branches of a tree that has fallen across the trail. “Sorry, Ross, no climbing, too dangerous, we wouldn’t want you to get hurt.” At each flower, Terri circles everyone around and tells them the Latin name, the herbal uses, the pollinator, the . . . Once in a while someone gets to touch the petals, only veeerrry gently. Picking flowers is strictly verboten.
Toward the end of the walk, the trail comes out by the pond, where Amanda finds her discarded dandelion tiara and slips it into her shirt, watching to make sure Terri doesn’t notice. On the ride home, no one talks.
“Well, that was fun,” you enthuse, trying to get the conversation going.
Amanda extracts her dandelion tiara and perches it on her head. “Picking flowers was fun. But we told you about programs, Daddy. Too many rules. It would’ve been fun if we could have just played all together in the meadow.” You find that you agree.
Contrast this experience with John Muir’s recollection of arriving at his family’s first American homestead in remote Fountain Lake, Wisconsin, when he was eleven. Within minutes, he and his brother were up in a tree observing a blue jay’s nest. From there they raced about to find a bluebird’s nest, then a woodpecker’s, and thus “began an acquaintance with the frogs and snakes and turtles in the creeks and springs.” The new world of untamed America was thrilling for John and his brother:
The sudden plash into pure wildness—baptism in Nature’s warm heart—how utterly happy it made us! Nature streaming into us, wooingly teaching her wonderful glowing lessons, so unlike the dismal grammar ashes and cinders so long thrashed into us. . . . Young hearts, young leaves, flowers, animals, the winds and the streams and the sparkling lake, all wildly, gladly rejoicing together!
This is the joy of children encountering the natural world on their own terms, and more and more it is becoming a lost idyll, no longer an integral part of growing up. There are many reasons for this loss—urbanization, the changing social structure of families, ticks and mosquito-borne illnesses, the fear of stranger danger. And perhaps even environmental education is one of the causes of children’s alienation from nature.
I know that’s a puzzling statement. You’re thinking: environmental education is supposed to connect children with nature, to get them started on a lifetime of loving and wanting to protect the natural world. Yes—that’s what is supposed to happen. But somewhere along the way, much of environmental education lost its magic, its “wildly, gladly rejoicing together.” Instead, it’s become didactic and staid, restrictive and rule bound. A creeping focus on cognition has replaced the goal of exhilaration that once motivated educators to take children outside.
Much of environmental education today has taken on a museum mentality, where nature is a composed exhibit on the other side of the glass. Children can look at it and study it, but they can’t do anything with it. The message is: Nature is fragile. Look, but don’t touch. Ironically, this “take only photographs, leave only footprints” mindset crops up in the policies and programs of many organizations trying to preserve the natural world and cultivate children’s relationships to it.
Published in the July/August 2012 issue of Orion magazine
The reduction in Arctic sea ice caused by climate change is playing a role in the UK’s recent colder and drier winter weather, according to the Met Office. The Guardian reports | Comment here or at Learn From Nature
Speaking to MPs on the influential environmental audit committee about the state of the warming Arctic, Julia Slingo, the chief scientist at the Met Office, said that decreasing amounts of ice in the far north was contributing to colder winters in the UK and northern Europe as well as to drought. But she stressed that while it was one factor and not the “dominant driver” in the UK.
The south-east and other parts of England are experiencing especially dry conditions after months of below-average rainfall, with some water companies pledging on Monday to introduce hosepipe bans to conserve water.
Recent years have seen a spate of cold winters, with 2009-10 being recorded as the coldest in 31 years. Recent studies have linked the gradual shrinking of Arctic sea ice to colder weather in the UK and the rest of Europe, as well as the US and China. However the Met Office has not spoken about the issue before. The hot, dry spring of 2011 has also been linked to melting sea ice by meteorologists.
Despite the colder winters, nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001, according to the Met Office’s temperature data. Such warming, driven to largely by man-made activities, is causing Arctic sea ice to melt at a rate of 12% a decade in summer.
Slingo told the MPs that there is “increasing evidence in the last few months of that depletion of ice, in particular in the Bering and Kara seas, can plausibly impact on our winter weather and lead to colder winters over northern Europe”.
She added that more cold winters mean less water, and could exacerbate future droughts. “The replenishment of aquifers generally happens in winter and spring … a wet summer does not replenish aquifers. So we are concerned if we have a sequence of cold winters that could be much more damaging,” she told the committee.
Last month the environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, warned farmers that drought might become “the new normal” for the UK, because of climate change.
Slingo also dismissed fears that the Arctic could be entirely free of sea ice in summer as soon as 2015. Between 2025 and 2030 would be the earliest date she would consider it possible, she said, and the Met Office’s latest models suggested 2040-60 as most likely. “Our expectation is certainly not in the next few years as you’ve heard from some evidence,” she said.
She also said that suggestions the volume of sea ice had already declined by 75% already were not credible. “We know there is something [happening on the thinning of sea ice] but it’s not as dramatic as those numbers suggest.”
The problem, she explained, was that researchers did not know the thickness of Arctic sea ice with any confidence. She hoped a new ice-monitoring satellite launched in 2010, Cryosat2, would help with more accurate measurements.
- March 15 News: Reduction In Arctic Sea Ice Fueling Europe’s Colder Weather, Says UK Met Office (thinkprogress.org)
- Climate Update : Science behind the big freeze: is climate change bringing the Arctic to Europe? (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- If a melting Arctic makes for freezing European winters… (junkscience.com)
- Declining Arctic sea-ice and record U.S. and European snowfalls: are they linked? (skepticalscience.com)
- Melting sea ice could trigger colder winters (newscientist.com)
- Snow White Takes a Walk In The Park (wattsupwiththat.com)
- Melting sea ice could trigger colder winters (newscientist.com)
Tell me here or at Learn From Nature
According to Richard Louv, you are part of the New Nature Movement if …
- You want to reconnect with real life in a virtual age.
- You’re a student who’s decided to build a career connecting people to nature.
- You’re an entrepreneur who wants to build a business connecting people to nature.
- You’re a parent, child or therapist who believes that the family that plays in nature together stays together.
- You’re a biologist, landscape architect or policymaker dedicated to transforming cities into engines of biodiversity and human health.
- You’re someone who understands that all spiritual life begins with a sense of wonder, and that nature is a window into that wonder.
- You hunger for authenticity; you believe in nature’s power to create a deeper sense of personal and regional identity.
- You can be of any race or culture, you can live in an inner-city, suburb or small town, and you see your connection to nature as a birthright.
- You’re a biophilic architect on the cutting edge of green design.
- You’re a nature-smart developer who creates or rebuilds neighborhoods that connect people to nature.
- You’re an urban planner or public health official who believes that creating more nearby nature builds better health, tighter social bonds and a smarter workforce.
- You’re an employer using biophilic design to create a more productive workplace.
- You’re a nature-smart homeowner determined to create a healthier, happier, restorative home, yard and garden.
- You’re a pediatrician or other health care professional who prescribes nature for your young patients and their families.
- You’re helping a hospital, children’s mental health center, nursing home or other health facility encourage healing through nature.
- You’re an ecopsychologist, wilderness therapy professional, nature therapist, camp counselor, docent, or park ranger working as a “park health paraprofessional.”
- You’re a “new agrarian” — an organic farmer or rancher or urban gardener.
- You’re a locavore, dedicated to consuming locally grown food.
- You want to reignite all your senses.
- You’re a nature-smart teacher who takes your students outside because you understand the power of nature to help them learn.
- You’re an artist, writer, photographer or musician who knows the power of nature to stimulate creativity, and you use your talents to reconnect people to nature.
- You’re an outdoor recreationist who restores nature.
- You’re a citizen naturalist.
- You care about the human relationship with nature, whether you’re liberal, conservative…or other.
- You’re a law enforcement official who believes nature can play a role in crime prevention and prison recidivism.
- You’re an attorney who protects the forgotten human right to our connection to nature and the responsibilities that come with that right.
- You’re a mayor or county official or business leader looking for a new way to envision your region’s future.
- You’re done with despair; you want to create a newer world.
- You’re ….
- Source :
- A Few Words About the Children and Nature Network (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)
- EVERY CHILD NEEDS NATURE: 12 Questions About Equity & Capacity (naeeuk.wordpress.com)
- What’s Natural about the Natural?: A Curious 10-Year-Old and a Confused 45-Year Old Want to Know (bigthink.com)