Our Planet: When Lily Cole met David Attenborough

The actress and environmentalist quizzes Sir David on the fate of the planet, his carbon footprint — and why he has joined Netflix for new series Our Planet

David Attenborough and Lily Cole (Ray Burmiston for Radio Times)

Sir David, you’re narrating Our Planet, an eight-part natural history series starting on Netflix – why did you want to be part of it? 

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I did it because it’s a worthwhile series and I’ve been working with the people behind it for most of my life. I’ve known [executive producers] Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey for 20 to 30 years, from our time at the BBC Natural History Unit. They have been friends ever since and we share the same ideals, so it’s been a joy.

The environmental message presented in Our Planet feels more overt than anything that you’ve worked on before. Was that a conscious decision? 

The Natural History Unit is an admirable unit, something the BBC should be very proud of, and it gave me all sorts of opportunities to go to all sorts of places and say all sorts of things. But 40 years ago the notion that we would exterminate an animal or a species was fairly far out. There were examples of course, like the dodo, but by and large it was regarded as being exceptional. So I couldn’t really come out with a great message.

At the time I’m talking about, the BBC was a monopoly, and if you have control over a source of information you have to be responsible – and quite right too. You can’t allow people to start belting out propaganda just because they happen to feel a certain way. You have to be responsible, and the BBC, I think, thought, “Maybe it’s important, we’ll let them say little bits at the end.” But the idea that the basis of an entire series should be predicated on the proposition that you were actually axe-grinding was not acceptable.

So, has that now changed? 

It’s now become perfectly clear to all who respect responsible scientific opinion that the Earth is in trouble, that humanity is having a major effect upon the Earth, and that this is a major issue. It has gone past being controversial. We now recognise that the whole future of the planet is in question. And the fact that I was asked to speak at COP24 [the UN climate change conference last December] and at the World Economic Forum in Davos is indicative of the fact that the community of nations has accepted this and is doing something about it. That gives you more authority to be able to say what you want to say.

The imagery in Our Planet is so positive and beautiful. Do you feel that enabling people to fall in love with nature is an important part of encouraging people to care?

It’s a truism and a cliché but the fact is people won’t care for something they don’t love or don’t know anything about. There is a paradox at the moment. Never before in our history have so many people been divorced from nature; the United Nations says that more than 50 per cent of people are urbanised. That means that over half the human population is cut off from the planet to a greater or lesser degree. And yet, they are better informed than they ever were.

Television has brought the natural world into everybody’s living rooms. We have a universal language that everybody understands, which is visual images, and this picture of our planet will, because of Netflix’s global reach, be broadcast on one date simultaneously, all around the world. There’s obviously something very important about that.

Do you think it’s important to reflect the more sinister side of life as well as its beauty?

We probably haven’t shown enough. The thing about the natural world is its interdependence. It’s a complex organism with many, many parts and you have to understand how it works to understand why we have a responsibility towards every tiny part of it. Every species is interdependent and relies on the food chain above and below it – but we have profound reactions to seeing pain. How can you, unless you’re mentally unbalanced, get pleasure from seeing pain? Of course you can’t.

People say to me, “I saw that little rabbit being attacked by a carnivore. Why weren’t you concerned?” The answer is, of course you’re concerned, that’s what you’re programmed to do – evolution depends upon you caring for small things with big eyes and snub noses. But that doesn’t mean that you aren’t sufficiently aware to realise that the carnivore has to eat to survive.

The Crown - Matt Smith, Peter Morgan, Claire Foy - Writer/Creator Peter Morgan with Matt Smith (Prince Philip) and Claire Foy (Queen Elizabeth II) (Netflix, TL)

I watched Our Planet with my three-and-a-half-year old daughter and it was really interesting to see her reaction: there was a scene where a jaguar kills a crocodile, and she was on the jaguar’s side. I was worried she might be upset by it, but she seemed to understand it was hungry…

Yes, we do project our own reactions on to our children all too easily. We’re all born with this fascination for the natural world and, as we get older, we become fascinated with other things. But if you lose your wonder in the natural world, you’ve lost a huge source of contentment and joy.

Now that we are becoming more aware of the destruction we are causing to the planet, do you have any recommendations of what we as individuals can do to help solve the problem?

Above all, we have to bear one thing in mind – every single mouthful of food and every breath of air we take is dependent on a healthy planet. And the one thing we can all do is to stop waste. Don’t waste food. Don’t waste power. They are precious and we can’t live without them. We are all consumers of these things and we must act responsibly. And perhaps by doing that, we can undo the damage that we’re doing.

Lily Cole and David Attenborough (Ray Burmiston for Radio Times)
Lily Cole and David Attenborough (Ray Burmiston for Radio Times)

What do you think about the rise of veganism and the argument that people should reduce their meat consumption?

Well, we can’t go on eating meat at the rate we have been. I haven’t been a doctrinaire vegetarian or vegan, but I no longer have the same appetite for meat. Why? I’m not sure. I think subconsciously maybe it’s because of the state of the planet. Although, I’ve never really been one for eating enormous meals and I’m not particularly a gourmet either, so I can’t pretend that I’m feeling deprived in any way or that it’s cost me all that much.

If I was a guest somewhere and meat was put in front of me, I’d eat it, just as on trips to foreign places and cultures, I’ve drunk the most appalling drinks I wouldn’t have wished to! But you do it because there’s a certain courtesy in human relationships. Overall though, I suppose, I’ve been more conscious of not being overindulgent with food and not wasting energy – turning off the heat.

Gentoo penguins in Our Planet (Netflix)
Gentoo penguins in Our Planet (Netflix)

Do you think there’s a paradox with travel? It helps us experience nature, but there’s also the carbon footprint you’re leaving, especially in the making of shows like Our Planet. How do you square that?

There’s a carbon impact, of course, in everything we do. I have already expelled carbon dioxide just by breathing and talking. The mere fact that we’re alive means that we’re making demands on the ecosystems of the world, but that’s part of the deal and that in itself isn’t evil. What is evil is squandering it.

Our Planet (Netflix)
Our Planet (Netflix)

Population growth is also a big concern – do you believe that can be addressed through the education of women around the world?

The only really positive comment I can make on this is, as you have said, the emancipation of women – politically, financially, medically and culturally. Wherever that is a reality, the birth rate falls. The birth rate is not the same as the population growth however. There’s quite a number of factors that feed into that, one of which is that we’re all living longer – including people like me! If we all live until we’re 92, as I’m doing, then the population is going to grow. But that effect will diminish because we’re not immortal, not yet. So, that will level out.

The fact is though, the population is growing very fast in places like Africa and Asia. The decision has to be taken by the people living there to do something about that problem.

What is the role of politics in finding a solution in that case?

The reality is that the problems we’re facing won’t be solved by people using paper bags instead of plastic ones. That all helps, but the really important things can only be hit by those who wield great power, which in most countries is politicians. They have to be convinced that this is a serious problem. And while it’s easy enough for me to grind my axe, they’ve also got to worry about their votes – at least in a democracy. So, you have to convince not only politicians, but the electorate too.

Are there any particular policies that you hope politicians will put into place?

There has been one very significant advance, and that was the Paris climate change conference in 2015, which I was at. There, they adopted a policy – the Paris Agreement – on what could be tolerated in terms of global temperature rise. And they took the steps to do something about it.

Not, I dare say, as much as one would’ve wished, and maybe not even as much as they promised, but afterwards Sir David King [the UK’s special representative for climate change] was walking on air. He was less delighted, of course, as people started retracting… But nonetheless, gradus ad Parnassum. You can’t hope for everything, but it’s moving in the right direction and that’s something.

Are you worried that the USA subsequently pulled out of the Paris Agreement?

Yes, of course. How could you say it doesn’t matter? Of course it matters. It is a hugely powerful nation, and certainly other less advanced nations will be saying, “Well, if the United States doesn’t then why should we?” So, it’s a blow. We just have to hope that it won’t last for ever.

Cameraman Barrie Britton filming a wandering albatross parent, as it returns to feed its chick (Our Planet/Netflix)
Cameraman Barrie Britton filming a wandering albatross parent, as it returns to feed its chick (Our Planet/Netflix)

I read the agreement and it was the most utopian document…

Yes – we were in effect saying that we must get energy which does not cost a great deal, if anything, in terms of carbon. And we must stop using fossil fuel. We must depend upon renewables. But to achieve that you have to change not only the source, you have to change the way you store it and the way you transmit it. We can get all our energy from the Sahara if we actually solve those problems. That would change the economics of the whole world. As we came out from the conference though, I couldn’t help thinking, “Yes, this is wonderful, we’ve got this mammoth agreement, and we’re going to coordinate our scientific research internationally to try and tackle the remaining problems,” but supposing you have unlimited power at negligible cost, do we have the wisdom to handle it? How would we deal with all that power in our hands? Could we not squander it or use it in ways that knock down still more of the Amazon rainforest? Of course, you can’t know the answer to that question until it happens, so for now I just need to be grateful that we’ve taken the first step.

Do you like the human species?

Of course I like the human race. People always ask me, “What is your favourite animal?” And I nearly always reply, with total honesty, a two-and-a-half-year-old human child. They are the most astounding and wonderful little organism of all. The rate at which they learn, the rate at which they invent things – it’s enough to brings tears to the eyes. And, of course, human beings are capable of immense lunacy and selfishness but they’re also capable of great things.

Lily Cole and David Attenborough (Ray Burmiston for Radio Times)
Lily Cole and David Attenborough (Ray Burmiston for Radio Times)

Do you feel optimistic about the future of the planet and that of your grandchildren and future generations?

We’ll survive, but I don’t think we’ll survive with the natural splendours that I saw when I was 12. I saw a healthy countryside. I grew up in Leicestershire, where the hedgerows were full of life. People were still living in villages, they weren’t all in great conurbations. As far as I know, crime was not very high. Of course, when you’re 12 you have a limited vision, and I wasn’t aware of what was going on elsewhere in the world, and can’t pretend I was.

But it seemed to me that the world was by and large generously disposed towards one another and towards the natural world. Mind you, we didn’t have the power in our hands to do the things that we did by the time we got into the 1950s…

After all you’ve seen and done, do you still find wonder in the world?

If I didn’t then I wouldn’t bother making any more programmes. Last year I worked on a documentary for a friend of mine, another natural history producer, who was born in India and put together a film about a particular state in India to show a picture of its wildlife. I wrote the commentary and there was a sequence with peacocks. Now, we all know peacocks, we’ve seen them on lawns in country houses. But how many people have seen peacocks in flight? How many people have actually seen a lek of competing males? I’ve never seen it on film. And yet there it was and it was absolutely mind-blowing.

What do you hope that people will take from watching the series?

A sense of responsibility for our planet and an appreciation of the complexity and the interdependence of everything living on it. We share the world. Human history has always been about war, about battles, arguments, power, conquests, rape and pillage. But the time for that is now passed. History has got to take a new turn. Our history has got to be about collaboration, for the first time ever.

Are you optimistic that that can happen?

I think it’s going to be very difficult, but one hopes that there is enough sense of reality and clear-sightedness to see what the damage is and what needs to be done, to bring us together and make us sink our differences. The scientific community talks the same language and is now in agreement, but to actually get Tibetan lamas agreeing with Californian millionaires – that’s the challenge.

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Our Planet will be released on Friday 5th April 2019 on Netflix