Whilst I haven't spent quite as many years on this earth as Sir David Attenborough, although it does feel it sometimes, I too feel the deep sadness expressed in the new Netflix documentary, A Life on Our Planet. I am in my early 30's and I have grown up surrounded by the natural world and much like Sir David, I have felt a deep connection to the world around me through wildlife. I have also been privileged enough to see many wildlife spectacles in the UK and further afield. From a young age, I sought out places where there was a visible abundance of wildlife that I could enjoy and escape into the wild. It was also an opportunity for much-loved father & son time.
However, I had an early realisation that in fact what I was looking at was actually the product of human intervention and was a heavily depleted resource of what once was. For example, getting excited about seeing a skylark and viewing it as a scarce species when in fact, the population in the UK had declined by 75% between 1972 & 1996. This dark realisation happened for me in my early teens through my study of Geography and beginning to understand how the earth works. At first, I found it somewhat exhilarating and reassuring to think that there were forces stronger than us in the form of geomorphological processes and wind, water, air etc. But, as I delved deeper into the subject I realised that these forces too were governed by our collective actions. Humans are changing the very systems which govern all life on earth.
Undeterred by this I was spurred on to want to make a change in the world and try and help undo some of the damage which had been done. Thus I studied Geography at Undergraduate level and went on to study a Masters in Biodiversity and Conservation. Growing up in an era when education has been strongly promoted as providing relevant skills for a good career, both could be considered suitable degrees to understand and approach the challenges facing the natural world. At the age of 22 as a newly graduated master of science and with a heap of enthusiasm I landed my dream job working in wildlife conservation.
As much as I loved my job, and especially the motivated and dedicated people around me, it was only a matter of time before my next realisation that brought about about a deep anxiety. That was that science and facts do not make decisions and crucially, the majority of decisions are based on an anthropocentric world view. As someone who has always seen humans as part of the bigger picture and taken an evidence-based approach to things in life (my long-suffering partner will vouch for that) I became hugely discouraged that all the science in the world does not always save species and habitats.
After watching Sir David's newest programme, which succinctly pulls together how biodiversity, climate change and global health are all interlinked, it reminded me that it is not the loss of species and habitats in itself which terrifies me the most (which is a great deal and has certainly caused its fair share of depression and anxiety in my life) but that we live in a world that is no longer governed by an evidence-based approach. We live in a world where global leaders can make decisions however they wish, whilst lying to the public along of the way. We are asked to trust democracy whilst it seems that democratic decision making is becoming weaker and politics are becoming ever more polarised. We are asked to trust in government to help tackle the problems we all face but then when presented with overwhelming evidence of the importance of biodiversity and natural capital they themselves will make decisions counter to all the evidence. It is happening now with HS2 and the destruction of ancient trees and woodland, an irreplaceable and already hugely diminished habitat. It may be a cynical view but I cannot help but feel somewhat hard done by that I have invested so much of my energy, time and, let's face it, money (education and volunteering to gain relevant experience do come at a cost) in pursuing a position as a scientific adviser, only then to be ignored by decision-makers who were the ones who have always promoted a university education to become an expert.
What Sir David sets out as a vision for the future in A Life on Our Planet is simple. Admittedly not always straight forward to implement but is backed by evidence that shows that the whole of humankind depends on us all to make the right choices. I believe that as well as waking up to the evidence we must also accept the intrinsic value of nature and safeguard it at all costs. I hope for all our sakes we can change our ways.