David Attenborough on Planet Earth II, Brexit and the future of humanity

The legendary presenter talks to Emily Maitlis about everything from Mars to Jeremy Clarkson

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Perhaps I should have guessed that a man who has spent a lifetime hiding stealthily in undergrowth should be able to enter a room without anyone seeing.

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But the first time I’m aware that David Attenborough is behind me is when he observes, “It’s the small eyes – too close together – and the length of the nose. The rat is never going to make it.”

He has found me in the middle of a conversation about what makes some animals lovable to humans and some repellent. It is, of course, his home turf. Not just the understanding of the animals themselves. But of how we – the humans – respond to them.

He leads me off to a more private room to continue our chat, making his own coffee on the way. I confess to him that I’m still having dreams about a particularly vivid scene from the first episode of his new series, Planet Earth II, where a newly hatched marine iguana has to escape a medusa-like string of snakes as it runs to the sea to find food.

It’s my first warning – spoiler alert – that not every animal in the series makes it out of there alive. And from Attenborough, it elicits a gentle rebuke to my way of thinking. “We are very, very strange that we think every child has got to survive. There are very few creatures in the world like that.”

It will be a theme he develops later – he’s passionate about population control, and realistic in the part we should play in it.

He looks 60, perhaps, not 90. A head full of silver hair, a playful face that crinkles easily into laughter. Maybe it’s the youthfulness of a man who can say he has spent a lifetime doing what he adores. Or maybe – my eyes wander to the stash of KitKats on the table before him – he’s fuelling his old age with the right stuff.

Either way, it appears to be working. He’s taken to the skies in a hot air balloon for this series, and seems shocked when I admit I’ve never tried it.

“One of the best things is that suddenly you will hear much nicer things. You hear church bells, you hear clocks strike, you hear distant conversations… there’s nothing between you and 150 feet of silence.”

There is poetry even in this thrown-away prose. If I shut my eyes I can imagine his voice narrating the lift-off.

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I’m curious to know if he experiences what astronauts call “the blue spot effect” – looking back on the planet with a whole different understanding of our place in it. Not from there, he corrects, but he understands the phenomenon well from his travels.

“You’ve got no business thinking Africa has got nothing to do with you. I mean, you can just see the whole thing – realise that you’re finite, that you’re cheek by jowl with one another, all in the same boat.”

I wonder if this intrepid explorer ever thinks about another planet: does all the talk of water on Jupiter or life on Mars rouse his curiosity even further? His answer is refreshingly direct.

“No… I know it’s not the right thing to say in many ways, but really I think it’s irrelevant. We’re light years away – it would probably take 150 years to get anywhere. I’m not going to spend the next 150 years hoping I’m going to land somewhere and live in a space suit.” They are the words of a man who clearly hasn’t nearly finished with this planet yet.

Planet Earth II revisits a series first made ten years ago – the camerawork more breathtaking, the landscapes more extreme. They are films he makes with obvious joy, but also with a sense of ecological concern. The original series ended with him reminding the viewer that “We can destroy or we can cherish – the choice is ours”.

Ten years on, he muses on this verbal ticking-off. “I would love not to say it at all. I would love to say, ‘Just look at that, this is your heritage, this is where you belong… isn’t it wonderful?’, instead of saying, ‘You do realise that because of CFCs [ozone-damaging carbon emissions] we are all doomed…’ No, it’s horrid to say it, but it’s also an obligation.” 

Does he worry, then, that the beauty is somehow too seductive, that it makes everything seem fine? Why, I ask, in this day and age, doesn’t he show the reality of fish eating plastic bags?

“Er, I do,” he jumps in. “I’ve just finished a film on them. An albatross chick waiting five weeks for its parents to come back with food, and when the baby opens up its mouth and the mother regurgitates the contents every single thing that comes out is plastic. Everything. Everything.”

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The new series also includes an episode on cities and the wildlife that inhabits them. Is he concerned that our cities have grown too big, that we are destroying wildlife habitats through encroachment?

“We are going to be on their turf and there’s nothing you or I or anybody else can do about it. Population growth is terrifying. It’s no good saying you shouldn’t be there, what are all these people going to do? It wasn’t their fault they were born.”

I remind him that China has just ended its one child policy and want to know what he advocates. He says population growth is the most fundamental of the world’s problems.

He is against “interfering with the basic human right, which is having children… but we should use every argument we have, and every persuasion we can get, to convince people [not to]. Why is there urban violence? Why are there these problems with immigration, why are we running short of food and polluting? Every single one of those comes down to… because there are more people.”

We might, I suggest, soon have a man in charge of America who believes climate change is a Chinese hoax (I’m referring to a Twitter comment made by Donald Trump in 2012).

Attenborough’s head is in his hands but his response is curiously phlegmatic. Or perhaps pragmatic. “Yes, I know. Well, we lived through that with earlier presidents – they’ve been equally guilty… But what alternative do we have? Do we have any control or influence over the American elections? Of course we don’t. [sotto voce] We could shoot him,” he jokes. “It’s not a bad idea…” He catches my eye and giggles.

Talk of Trump takes him onto populism. “There’s confusion, isn’t there, between populism and parliamentary democracy. I mean, that’s why we’re in the mess we are with Brexit, is it not?”

He cites Ken Clarke’s new book in which the veteran politician states that if people were asked whether they’d like a National Gallery or a funfair they’d say a funfair.

“Do we really want to live by this kind of referendum? What we mean by parliamentary democracy is surely that we find someone we respect who we think is probably wiser than we are, who is prepared to take the responsibility of pondering difficult things and then trust him – or her – to vote on our behalf.”

That depends, I suggest, on us believing our politicians are wiser. He agrees. “That’s why politicians getting up and saying, ‘We’ve had enough of experts’ is so catastrophic.” He’s quoting Michael Gove from the Brexit campaign, before moving seamlessly from politics to anthropology.

“I can see the arguments. I mean, I’ve said for years that I don’t think any human society is prepared to make decisions which they may not like if they’re made by people who don’t speak the same language.”

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It’s funny to hear Brexit portrayed as a sort of survival call from an endangered species. I should have guessed. Attenborough isn’t scared to call it xenophobia. But he recognises it as truly primordial fear.

“It’s very easy, as we all know, to be very tolerant of minorities until they become majorities and you find yourself a minority. It’s easy to say [he dips into an imitation of middle-class liberalism], ‘Oh yes, these lovely people – I love the way they wear such interesting costumes…’ [he giggles].

“That’s fine until some day you find that they’re actually telling you what to do and that they’ve actually taken over the town council and what you thought was your home isn’t. I’m not supporting it, I’m saying it’s what it is.”

And perhaps the rise of Trump has made him even more aware of the value of facts. He is passionate about using scientific evidence to explain climate change, and says he refuses to be drawn by people who ask him to “prove it” using things he’s seen first hand.

“I know if I say, ‘I’ve seen a glacier in South Georgia, I was there ten years ago and it’s shrunk’, they will say, ‘Well, I know a place in Greenland where in fact the glacier is bigger…’ You don’t want to be lured into the question of specifics because you will lose. You have to go to science.”

I have heard somewhere an argument that if Industrial Revolution-style economic development had started in Africa rather than Europe, then sun and wave technology would now be at the forefront, not the old fossil fuels. Does he agree?

 His answer knocks me sideways. “Yes, yes, absolutely. But a little voice inside says to me, ‘Why are you going on about this?’ Because it could actually happen. And then will humanity have the sense to deal with unlimited cheap power? What are they going to do? Are they going to say, ‘Whoopee, we can now level mountains! We can exterminate forests!’ I mean, it’s Prometheus stuff. Once you get infinite power, there are consequences. How are you going to use it?”

I am open-mouthed with the way he’s taken a tangible commodity and made it the stuff of Greek hubris, so I have to think about it properly for the first time. He sees my confusion and continues to explain, adopting the voice of a greedy developer.

“Yes, why don’t we melt the Antarctic, you know there must be stuff under there, under the glacier where you could build houses…” “So…” I attempt, “running out of power may not be such a bad thing?” “No,” he says.

It falls quietly between us. Silence.

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I suddenly realise why David Attenborough is the giant he is. It’s not just his geographic curiosity, not just his anthropological understanding, not just his gift for narration that simultaneously calms the soul and inspires the mind. It’s that behind it all there is a deep thinker. A man who, in his own words, doesn’t aspire to “the philosophy of Buddhist Nirvana”, but who recognises the finite nature of the individual and the remarkably small part we play in something much, much larger.

It’s hard, though, to reconcile this adventurer with a man who spent eight years behind a desk, as it were, in BBC management, as controller of BBC2. I’m surprised it didn’t kill him. But he insists that for a programme-maker it was “the most fantastic job you can imagine.

“When I joined there was this absurd mystique that somehow there’s magic about making programmes and only the BBC knew how… as if we gave it to the nation.” He laughs at the pomposity.

Well, I say, perhaps that isn’t completely over. Look at Bake Off. That was “gifted to the nation”. Was the BBC right not to renew the deal?

“Oh, absolutely right! To say to them, ‘If you want another million, go ahead, we’ve got plenty more ideas where that came from.’”

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What about that other figure we “gifted to the nation”? Was the BBC wrong to fire Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson? “Well, yes, I regret letting Clarkson go, because it’s very good to have a voice that’s anti-establishment, or so profoundly anti-establishment.” Even though he doesn’t mind running over mice? Attenborough shrugs.

And I’m reminded of how we started. The rat with the too-close together eyes and the pointy nose that no one really likes.

There is a knock on the door, and his salvation comes in the form of someone offering to shoo me away. So I throw out one last thought. What, in his 91st year, are the things that bring him joy?

“People,” he says simply. And his eye flashes down to the one stick of KitKat that remains uneaten on the desk in front of him. “Oh, and chocolate. It goes without question.”

And I leave feeling, somehow, like I have been up in that hot air balloon – uplifted, and calmer. Life feels a bit richer, a bit bigger, a bit more exotic for having had one extraordinary hour to myself with David Attenborough.

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Planet Earth II is on 8pm tonight, BBC1