Although he was a founding member of the World Wildlife Fund in the 1960s, filmmaker and environmentalist Sir David Attenborough has long focused mainly on the beauties and mysteries of nature rather than its destruction, conveying his own genuine wonderment with a dash of wry wit to entice viewers to love and conserve the planet. But in a 60 Minutes interview that aired on Sunday, Attenborough talked about his concerns for the planet, the destruction he’s witnessed, and how we need to act quickly to save the natural world — and ourselves.
Last fall, Attenborough released a Netflix documentary and a book both called A Life on Our Planet, which stress the risk of climate change and destruction of the natural environment as much as they celebrate it. Attenborough calls the documentary his “witness testimony,” which interviewer Anderson Cooper pointed out sounds like a crime has been committed. “Yeah, well, a crime has been committed, and it so happens that I’m of such an age that I was able to see it beginning,” Attenborough said.
He’s had decades of access to the farthest reaches of the natural world for nearly 70 years, from Zoo Quest, which premiered in 1954, to his popular Life on Earth series that launched in 1979, to the mega-successful Planet Earth (2006), an early opportunity for audiences to see nature on TV in high definition. Throughout his career, Attenborough has witnessed the fallout of the climate crisis firsthand, including on filming trips in recent years. “We went on this reef, which I knew, and it was like a cemetery, because all the corals had died. They died because of a rise in temperature and acidity,” he said. “We live in a finite world. Ultimately, we depend upon the natural world for every mouthful of food that we eat and indeed every lungful of air that we breathe.”
In the interview, Attenborough says he hopes the way Covid-19 has isolated people and forced them to reduce the pace of daily living has helped them recognize the value of nature. “In the course of this particular pandemic that we’re going through, I think people are discovering that they need the natural world for their very sanity,” he said. “People who have never listened to a bird song are suddenly thrilled, excited, supported, inspired by the natural world. And they realize they’re not apart from it. They are part of it.”
Attenborough sees no choice but to remain optimistic about our ability to work together globally to reverse some environmental damage we’ve wrought. “Repopulation of the oceans can happen like that, in a decade, if we had the will to do it,” he said. “But we require everybody to agree to that.”
He notes we must most urgently unite around ditching fossil fuels — fast. “We know ways in which we can get, from the sun up there, just a tiny fraction of the amount of energy that sprays on this Earth 24 hours a day…for nothing. If we can solve the problems of storage and transmission, the world is ours,” he said. “We have all the power we need. Why should we go on poisoning life on earth?”
As billionaires vie for a chance to take a rocket ride into space — with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announcing Monday he will be onboard his rocket company Blue Origin’s first human spaceflight in July — Attenborough thinks ambitions to populate other planets are interesting, but really only in theory. “Why would I want to go and live on the moon when I’ve got this world of badgers and thrushes and jellyfish and corals?” he said. “Because there’s nothing else there but dust. I’d say, ‘Well, thank you very much, I’ll stay where I am and watch hummingbirds.’”