A Life on Our Planet is an accessible and compelling statement on the risks to the human race from the world’s most elder ecological statesmen.
It is, quite simply, a must-read for everyone and should be adopted by school’s worldwide.
This book should come with a warning label; liable to trigger anxiety, depression and dread. Certainly for the first half.
Attenborough is an excellent narrator as he guides us skillfully through the complex world of environmental science. His use of facts and data is simple but hard-hitting; it is so effective that readers descend into a hopeless depression. Luckily, the final third has a profound message.
We can solve this. We have a plan and we will solve this. If we can stop bickering.
In the first few chapters we are introduced to the concept of biodiversity, carbon-stores and the rampant exploitation of the planet. Each chapter introduces a new habitat or concept and layers on the understanding you have gained previously.
It is a remarkable book, distilling hard scientific ideas into concise and understandable paragraphs. Readers are introduced to mind-boggling truths such as
By the end of the 20th Century mankind had removed 90 per cent of the large fish from the oceans of the world
We are extracting 80 million tonnes of seafood from the ocean each year and have reduced 30 per cent of fish stocks to critical levels
90% of all fish populations are already overfished or fished to capacity
A single river in the world, the Mekong, supplies 25% of all freshwater fish caught around the globe
Which explains why every fish product I see in UK supermarkets says product of Vietnam
That in itself must be unsustainable. Flying fish all the way around the world only to drive it across the UK to sit atop ice in my local Tesco.
The world of mammals and meat consumption not spared scrutiny.
Brazil dedicates an area seven times the size of the United Kingdom to cattle pasture. Much of that area was previously rainforest. A similar amount of land is used to grow soy.
Over 70 per cent of soy is used to feed livestock being raised for meat consumption
In 1700 we farmed 1 billion hectares of land. Today it is 5 billion hectares, an area of land equivalent to NA, SA and Australia combined.
80% of all farmland is used for meat and dairy production but surprisingly it has little no animals in it. It is dedicated to crops like soy for feeding the livestock. Wealthy nations may raise the cattle but the feed comes from poorer nations whose rainforests are destroyed.
What the readers learn is that we have a highly unsustainable food pyramid. In the wild, herbivores extract the maximum amount of energy from plants and then carnivores eat a small percentage of the herbivores and extract the maximum amount of energy from them. Each level takes what it needs.
Our pyramid is upside down.
We take minimal energy requirements from meat (beef is 2% of our calories) and dedicate 40% of the planet to raising and feeding that livestock. It is an ecological disaster. The majority of farmland is dedicated specifically to beef.
And, it is not just beef.
70% of all birds on earth are domesticated, the majority are chickens. We eat 50 billion chickens per year, many are fed on soy
The irony of clearing rainforest for livestock pasture and soy is that it leads to less rainfall and ultimately droughts over the very land that was supposed to be used for farming and, ultimately, starves the megacities of South America for water and food.
We are encouraged to be a little more like India which eats 4KG of meat per person per year compared to the USA which eats 120KG.
The most alarming sections are saved for carbon though.
Over the last 70 years all of our social, economic and political institutions have adopted one overriding goal – ever-increasing growth in each nation measured by GDP.
The net result is that we have returned millions of years worth of carbon back into the atmosphere in a matter of decades and we have breached four of the 9 boundaries that will lead to human extinction.
We are, quite literally, eating and building our way out of a habitat and into a tipping point of unstoppable destruction.
The reader is regaled with mind-altering facts such as
96% of all mammals on earth are humans and the animals raised for humans to eat; wild animals are just 4% of the earth.
It is animal documentaries encouraging us to believe otherwise. The Blue Planet team spent four years attempting to film blue whales due to their rarity. Four years. However audiences did not know that. It looks like the oceans are teeming with life instead of the vast lifeless deserts they are becoming.
To sum it up, we have become accustomed to an impoverished planet.
Only 3 nations secure 100% of their electricity from renewable sources; Paraguay, Albania and Iceland.
If this seems depressing, well, it is. A better word might be sobering.
However, the remainder of the book carries a message of hope.
Attenborough talks at length about the solutions and the path to sustainability. How changes in education, in diet, in attitude and in equal rights can play a part. Wealth inequality will have to be tackled.
If you are reading this, you are likely one of the individuals that has to change, as am I.
50% of humanity’s impact on the living world is attributable to the richest 16% of the human population
If you live in the UK or the USA, that is you.
It is not the Kenyan subsistence farmer that has to change. Or the Chinese labourer tending rice paddies. It is the Las Vegas party-goer, the online gamer, bloggers like me and diesel car owners. It is the fast-food eaters, the Amazon shoppers and the long-haul flighters. It is the plastic toy buyers at Christmas.
Right now, 1.3 trillion plastic items have merged into a great garbage patch in the Pacific and other patches are forming around the globe. No beach in the world is free of plastic pollution.
One of the great lies we have told ourselves is the myth of the buy -use-discard cycle.
On a single planet, there is no such thing as away when you discard it. It goes somewhere and impact something.
Sustainability in all things should be our species philosophy
An absolute must-read. 10/10.