David Attenborough and our disconnect from nature

December 26, 2011 § 1 Comment

The future of the planet is at risk because people living in cities have lost a sense of responsibility towards the natural world, according to Sir David Attenborough.

Speaking before this week’s international climate negotiations in South Africa, Sir David said that many people were unwilling to support efforts to curb emissions because they felt no personal connection to nature.

“We have a huge moral responsibility towards the rest of the planet,” he told The Times. “A hundred years ago people certainly had that … They were aware of the seasons and aware of what they were doing to the land and animals around them.”

However, citing UN figures, he said that since beginning work as a broadcaster in the 1950s, rapid urbanisation meant that more than 50 per cent of the world’s population now lived in towns and cities.

“So over 50 per cent is to some degree out of touch with the natural world and don’t even see an animal from one day to the next unless it’s a rat or a pigeon,” he said. “That means that people are getting out of touch with the realities of the natural world, of which we are in fact a part.”

By making natural history programmes he hopes to reconnect people with wildlife and the Earth’s changing climate, he said. “I think that my programmes have a value. When politicians say, ‘Look, this is important and we’re going to have to spend some of your hard-earned money in taxes to do something that you won’t see the immediate value of’, they [people] will understand and they will support it,” he said. “To some extent natural history programmes are not just a diversion, they are conveying important information.”

In the final episode of his Frozen Planet series, which is broadcast next Wednesday, Sir David speaks more directly about the impact of climate change on the Earth than in any previous work. The programme, scripted by Attenborough, documents the rapid melting of the Arctic ice cap, Greenland and Antarctica and suggests that changes taking place at the poles as a result of man-made emissions will lead to drastic consequences across the globe.

It has already sparked controversy, with climate scientists criticising a decision not to air the episode in the US, where the public is far more sceptical, and sceptics criticising it for taking a partial stance on climate change. However, Sir David said that the programme merely laid out the evidence of what is happening to the poles. “It’s not a proselytising programme, it’s an informative programme,” he said.

It was the first time that Sir David had visited the North Pole and he said he was struck by the scale and speed of the melting of the ice. “The sort of thing that came as a surprise to me was that these things can suddenly accelerate,” he said.

The episode will be broadcast during the final week of this year’s climate talks in Durban, which are already showing signs of heading towards deadlock.

Yesterday the EU and environmental groups including Greenpeace, Oxfam and WWF criticised America for becoming a “major obstacle” to negotiations after the US said in its opening address that it would not consider signing up to legally binding carbon emissions cuts.

However, Sir David said that while the UN negotiations were frustrating and slow, they remained the best prospect for tackling climate change at a global level. “It’s a huge problem to get people to agree because they all have different agendas. I’m not surprised we haven’t suddenly got a great accord, but there isn’t any alternative,” he said.

He also praised British political leaders for passing the Climate Change Act, which requires emissions to be reduced by 80 per cent by 2050 compared with 1990 levels.

He said: “It’s very tempting for politicians not to put money into things that don’t have an effect before the next election. It’s cynical but it’s true, and that they do put money in is to their credit.”

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