We Talked to David Attenborough About the Pandemic and Why He Still Has Hope for the Planet

Nature’s most famous voice is back. We asked him about palm oil, conservation and COVID (plus other interesting stuff).

Jan 6 2021, 3:25am

Like many of us, television’s most famous naturalist David Attenborough has been staying home during the pandemic. But that hasn’t stopped him from doing what he does best: observing the state of the world.

The 94-year-old British presenter recently wrapped up production on the five-part science series “A Perfect Planet.” Filmed across 31 countries in places like Indonesia and China, it confronts harsh environmental realities while showing how the forces of nature drive, shape and support the planet’s diverse wildlife. 

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Attenborough’s new show comes at a crucial time when our treatment of the planet and animals has provoked deep reflection, as trafficked wildlife may have been the source of the coronavirus pandemic. 

We asked him about coping during the pandemic, what he thinks about capitalism (and if it’s necessarily bad for the environment) and whether he is optimistic for the planet’s future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE World News: Tell us about your new nature documentary that’s being released amid the pandemic, which from the looks of it, feels quite apocalyptic. 

David Attenborough: Very little of “A Perfect Planet” was actually filmed during the pandemic. The main bulk was actually completed last year before COVID-19 hit and has been in post-production since. 

Brown bears fishing for salmon in Russia, golden snub-nosed monkeys in China, swinging Gibbons in rainforests across Southeast Asia and flamingo colonies beneath the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano in East Africa.

Traditionally we would be flying around the world with our directors.

We had to continue filming so our solution has been to use local crews to solve that problem.

So you did your recordings from home?

Normally, as you can imagine, I would go into the studio and do my recordings there. But we weren’t able to do that [this time] because of the virus. 

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My dining room [in London] faces a garden and I was able to enact a makeshift sound system, whereby my microphone sits in the dining room with blankets around the walls to reduce noise and echoes. There was also a professional sound recordist who sat in my little shed with his recording machine. He was able to listen to me and see me through my window and we were able to signal to each other. This process went down to our operations in Bristol where the production team are based, so they could see what I was doing and they sent out pictures from the films for me to do my commentary.

The entire process was all linked together and it did feel like we were all in the same room. It was quite remarkable. All my commentaries were recorded that way. Our executive producer Alastair Fothergill was quite rightly, very concerned about the quality. But after the first recording, the opinion was that you couldn’t tell the difference, that it wasn’t recorded in normal broadcasting circumstances. 

PHOTO COURTESY OF SILVERBACK FILMS

There’s been a lot of talk about climate change lately, given the incoming change in the U.S. administration. Are you hopeful for positive change and the future of the planet? 

Well, we are coming up to a very crucial time in the history of humanity, are we not?

We are rapidly approaching disaster and if we are to deal with [issues like climate change] properly and solve them, it’s going to require effort from all the nations of the world. Everyone has to come together.

But I’m optimistic that we can communicate this now through this universal language of pictures and television; that is of greatest importance and it is up to us as broadcasters to take advantage of that. 

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I want to get your thoughts on capitalism. Do you think some form of buy-in from big companies, in Southeast Asia’s thriving palm oil industry for example, will help boost conservation in the region?

I’ve actually been very surprised really that the popular idea is that big companies are only there to make a profit and that they don’t care about what happens to the environment and [ignore] the social consequences of their activities. 

I find that that was the old view, and I dare say it is inaccurate [today]. 

Our environment is in the hands of big and enormously powerful companies. I have spoken to some of them and do know that they are certainly well-aware of the responsibilities that rest on their shoulders. We have demonized palm oil companies, for example. This was the obvious case 30 to 50 years ago. My own view, seeing big multinationals as demons, has been changing too.

PHOTO COURTESY OF SILVERBACK FILMS

It was in the 1920s and 30s when they were establishing themselves. But actually, some of them saw the writing on the wall long before the general public did. BP, for example, had a very forward-looking chairman who actually realized the business of oil and said that it was his job to change the dependency on oil and do something about it, that would not inflict so much damage to the environment. 

They are now so powerful that they see that future success depends upon the success of the people they are serving. And they are changing their policies and so they should continue to do so. It is so important that these big companies are aware of their huge power.

Other oil companies have been equally progressive. The same applies to a lot of the food companies who are seeing that it’s time that they change a lot of what they are producing. 

I speak with these companies, though not often enough and I think we ought to do more to ensure they are leading and producing more products that are friendlier to the environment than they used to be. 

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With everything that’s been going on with the virus, there’s a lot of talk about nature having time to heal. What’s your opinion on that?

It’s mixed actually. In London, we have cleaner air and we’ve noticed more urban animals like foxes and badgers around. There’s also been more songbirds during the summer and that’s been good. 

The negative lies with places that depend on eco-tourism and tourists. Suddenly that income has stopped and poaching has become a bigger problem in Africa especially because of that. So there are plus points and negatives. 

What do developed nations have to recognize when it comes to poorer countries and their environmental contributions? 

I think that the environmental problems we are facing are global and that world nations have to all get together and come to an agreement about a solution.

By and large, developed countries are talking to undeveloped countries, which have been providing for the health of the world, which we have taken for granted. And these nations are quite right in saying, “Look, if we are going to keep our rainforests and jungles, we should actually be rewarded in some way. Our contribution to the health of the world should be recognized and how are you going to do that?”

It should be give and take on both sides. 

PHOTO COURTESY OF SILVERBACK FILMS

We have to go in with the notion that we are all together, as one world, which is what I hope to emphasize in the new series: that we all have a problem to solve and we are all in it together.

A Perfect Planet premieres express from the U.K. on Jan. 4, 12pm on BBC Player and Jan. 11 in Asia. 

Tagged:

Science, climate change, David Attenborough, planet, worldnews, world climate

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