David Attenborough on saving our planet

Graphic featuring David Attenborough's book and a quote

Long read

Did you tune in to watch new BBC miniseries Attenborough’s Life in Colour on Sunday night? I’m still picturing the lime green-mouthed mating dance of the so-called wonderful bird-of-paradise…

This new project comes as David Attenborough approaches his 95th birthday in May. Ninety-five years on Earth! His life and career have been almost entirely devoted to understanding (and helping us to understand) the world around us — and yesterday I finished perhaps one of his greatest achievements.

That is I finished reading his 2020 book, A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future. In it he provides witness testimony to the decline of planet Earth and its biodiversity as a result of the mistakes of humankind. It is incredibly stirring and powerful, as is his vision for how we can put right our many wrongs. And there can be no more delay.

As Attenborough himself said in this UN speech last week, ‘The climate crisis is the biggest security threat that modern humans have ever faced. If we continue on our current path, we will face the collapse of everything that gives us our security: food production, access to fresh water, habitable ambient temperature and ocean food chains. And if the natural world can no longer support the most basic of our needs, then much of the rest of civilisation will quickly break down.’

That speech and this book feature some of his starkest warnings yet about the immediacy of the climate change threat, and his latest book is equally as eye-opening, fascinating, galvanising. He doesn’t focus only on what has gone wrong, but what we could do, what we need to do, what we absolutely must do in order to survive on this planet and save planet Earth.

This book has taught me more than I could have imagined it would before starting it. It was the cause, consequence and also the hope for the future all in one that I’d been missing. A world away from ‘doom-scrolling’ and opinion-based narratives. Over the next four chapters of this post, I want to share some of the most powerful threats, lessons and solutions that struck me most from reading the book. I also want to share a bunch of recommended reads with you too.

Whether you have come across this book, the accompanying documentary on Netflix, know a lot already or none of the above, I hope that what you read will galvanise you further into wanting to take a more active role in these issues — whether that’s simply becoming more informed or taking direct action to make change.

Chapter one — if we do nothing

Pictured: Deforestation in Indonesia / courtesy Josh Estey & AusAID and Barrier Reef bleached coral / courtesy Oregon State University. Both via Wikimedia.

In such a future, we will bring about nothing less than the collapse of the living world, the very thing that our civilisation relies upon.

David Attenborough

Eight pages in the book spell out what could happen to the planet and to us as humans, if we don’t radically change course now. Here are a few of the predicted consequences:

2030s

  • The Amazon Rainforest would be on course to be reduced in size by 75%, which may be the tipping point towards what’s called forest dieback, where a lack of moisture from a diminished canopy eventually turns the land to open savannah. Thirty million people across the Amazon watershed would likely need to move and there would be water shortages, including (ironically) a drought on the new farmland created by deforestation. More and more wildfires would lead to a greater quickening of global warming, with less and less carbon able to be stored away, the more the rainforest disappears.
  • It’s predicted that the Arctic Ocean may have its first entirely ice-free summer. This would lead to an even greater quickening of global warming, because less ice = less surface on the earth to reflect heat back to the sun.

2040s

  • The next tipping point is predicted to occur in the tundra of Alaska, Russia and Northern Canada. The melting of the ice in the permafrost of the tundra would release an estimated 1,400 gigatonnes of carbon (4 x more than humankind has emitted in the last 200 years combined) and would turn the region into a mud bath. Local communities, oil and gas workers and wildlife — all would be displaced.

2050s

  • This combination of wildfires and thaws would send the carbon count in the atmosphere into a great acceleration by this decade. Surface water would take higher and higher amounts of carbon, which would turn into carbonic acid. This acidification would lead to a bigger decline of our oceans, continuing the bleaching of coral reefs. Some scientists predict that 90% of the Earth’s coral reef systems could be destroyed a few years into this decade.

We are only just beginning to understand that there is an association between the rise of emergent viruses and the planet’s demise. An estimated 1.7 million viruses of potential threat to humans hide within populations of mammals and birds. The more we continue fracturing the wild with deforestation, farmland expansion and practice the illegal wildlife trade, the more likely it is that another pandemic will arise.

David Attenborough

2080s

  • Looking further ahead, global food production is expected to be at a crisis point with pesticide use, habitat removal and the spread of diseases potentially affecting 3/4 of all our food crops by this decade. More harvests will keep failing and tonnes of lost topsoil could enter rivers and increase flooding of nearby towns and cities.

2100s

  • Sea levels could rise by 0.9 metres which would be enough to destroy ports and land vulnerable to floods, already under severe strain now.
  • Our planet may be 4°C warmer by this point if the above plays out, which means a quarter of the world’s population would live in places with an average temperature of 29°C or above — currently only the Sahara has those kinds of average temperatures.
  • Farming would be impossible, migration to cooler climes would increase and future generations who live to see the 2100s could witness the largest event of enforced human migration in history and a staggering humanitarian crisis.

Chapter two — 8 powerful lessons I learned

Graphic wordcloud

On what we eat…

In the US, the average person today eats 120kg of meat each year, Europe 60-80kg, Kenya 16kg and India 4kg. We’re all going to need to be closer to India’s intake each year.

An area as large as North and South America, 80% of the world’s farmland is used for meat and dairy production. It won’t surprise anyone who has watched the Cowpiracy documentary to know that beef is the most damaging meat to produce. It’s a quarter of all the meat we consume, only 2% of our calories (turns out the grass they eat doesn’t do much for us), but it uses 60% of the world’s farmland!

That’s 15 x more land needed for beef than for pork or chicken. Factor in population growth and some simple maths will tell you that we can’t go on producing or consuming that much beef.

A lot of that space isn’t devoted to the animals themselves but to their feed. Even meat bought locally may have been raised on feed from countries destroying their forests and grasslands to grow feed crops. In November 2020, Indonesia’s environment ministry ruled that protected forests could be cleared to make way for farmland.

The present habit of throwing everything away, even though, on a finite planet there is of course no such thing as ‘away’, is a relatively new thing.

David Attenborough

On food and material waste…

Waste on Thilafushi Island in the Maldives / courtesy Dying Regime and food waste in New York / courtesy petrr. Both via Wikimedia

Globally, food prices are expensive and many struggle to afford a healthy diet. And yet we waste and we lose about one third of all the food we produce. Think of all those wasted production hours and emissions to produce food we don’t even consume.

It’s larger than supermarkets discarding ‘imperfect looking’ fruit and veg or people throwing away too much food in developed nations; in poorer countries, weaker infrastructures mean higher waste before the food reaches shops or markets, including harvest losses and poor storage.

Beyond just food waste, The World Bank estimates that the total amount of municipal solid waste (aka rubbish) we produce each year amounts to 2.01 billion tonnes a year, an average of 0.74kg per person, per day. Of this waste, at least 33% (likely much higher) is not managed in environmentally safe conditions. One of the most infamous of these environments is Thilafushi (trash) Island in the Maldives.

When humankind as a whole is in a position to give back to nature at least as much as we take, and repay some of our debt, we will all be able to lead more balanced lives.

David Attenborough

On how we get our energy…

Smog in a forest
Courtesy Arif Meletli for the European Environment Agency, via Wikimedia

Over a matter of decades, we have returned millions of years-worth of carbon back into the atmosphere. This carbon overload seems to be replicating the changes that led to the greatest ever mass extinction (of the five we’ve had so far) that took place at the end of the Permian, about 251 million years ago — except we are bringing about these changes at a much faster rate.

So we are at a massive disadvantage: we have no option but to change the ways we’ve learned to gain power and energy from the planet, but we have almost no time in which to find the solutions.

In 2019, fossil fuels provided 85% of our global energy. Hydropower (low carbon but location-limited and capable of environmental damage) provided 7%. Nuclear power (also low carbon, but not without risks, just ask Chernobyl) provided just over 4%. Where does that leave renewable energy – the harnessing of energy from the sun, wind, waves, tides and heat from the earth’s crust – the energy we should be using more of? It’s still only 4% of the energy provided around the world. And how long have we realistically got to switch from fossils to clean energy?

Less than a decade.

This is because we have already heated the planet by 1°C in the past 200 years. We have to limit further increase to 1.5°C meaning we only have so much in our carbon budget, and at the rate we’re going we’ll max out that budget within a decade.

What’s in our way?

We already know how to generate electricity from the Sun, wind, the natural heat of the earth and from water — but there remain the obstacles of storage, efficiency, cost and vested interests to overcome.

Six of the ten largest companies in the world are oil and gas companies. Plus, almost every large company, government and place of heavy industry use fossil fuels for power, production and distribution. Even large banks in control of your pension funds invest heavily in fossil fuels.

On the significance of Earth Overshoot Day…

Earth Overshoot Day graphic

Have you heard of Earth Overshoot Day? If not, you might still have seen the news of us reaching this day earlier and earlier each year.

I was born on 6th September 1987, just before the first Earth Overshoot Day was announced on 23rd October that year. This was the day in the year by which it was estimated that humankind’s consumption had exceeded the Earth’s capacity to regenerate the resources we’d taken from it. The Earth could not replenish what we were taking from it fast enough.

Fast forward 32 years and in 2019 we reached Earth Overshoot Day on 29th July. This means that at present, each year humankind uses up to 1.7 x what the Earth can produce in a year.

Our excessive and unsustainable demand on nature is clear.

To restore stability to our planet… we must restore its biodiversity, the very thing we have removed. We must rewild our world!

David Attenborough

On biodiversity loss…

IUCN Red List categories

‘We are causing a rate of biodiversity loss that is 100 times the average, and only matched in the fossil record during a mass extinction event’.

If you add up the amount of carbon found in the world’s land plants and soil, you’ll find it contains as much carbon as there is in the atmosphere. We have unleashed 2/3 of this historically-stored carbon to date so far, by burning our forests and tearing down its trees, ploughing and removing grasslands, dredging wetlands. A terrible betrayal of our wild landscapes around the world, which endangers all life forms.

There are approximately 41,415 species listed on the IUCN Red List, of which 16,306 are classed as ‘endangered species threatened with extinction’.

Overfishing of cod
Courtesy Asc1733 via Wikimedia

To focus on the sea for a moment.

90% of fish populations are either overfished or fished to capacity, and since the 1990s we’ve been unable globally to fish more than 84 million tonnes of fish from the ocean. That might sound like an awful lot, but Fish farming (aquaculture) has has to plug the gap between demand and availability, and we get 82 million tonnes of fish that way too.

Which means fishing malpractice comes from two sides of the industry — many countries pay their trawlers to fish 24/7 all through the year, giving them subsidies even when they are catching barely anything, such is the level of exhaustion of wild fish stocks. They are literally paying money to exacerbate ocean depletion.

Fish farming meanwhile can lead to water pollution and species loss. In 2007, China’s shrimp fisheries created 43 billion tonnes of effluents, which created huge agal blooms in the sea that drained the waters of much-needed oxygen. And non-native species frequently escape farms around the globe, harming the fragile ecosystems around them. 

On the space we take up…

Farming in a wheat field

As humans have expanded on Earth, the conversion of wild habitat to farmland is the single greatest cause of biodiversity loss. And, as you’d expect by now, it’s largely happened in very recent human history.

In 1700, humans farmed around 1 billion hectares of the land surface (1/12th of the total land surface). Today, it has increased to 5 billion hectares, an area equivalent to North America, South America and Australia combined.

The suggestion is that we need to get our farmland down to about the size of North America, closer to 1 billion again.

On ecosystem failure…

Planetary Boundaries Model

Earth system scientists have studied the resilience of our ecosystems across the globe, looking at the elements that have enabled each ecosystem to function and using computer models to test the point at which each ecosystem would start to fail.

What they produced is the above Planetary Boundaries Model which gives us a tangible measure. If we keep our impact within the thresholds shown, we’ll occupy a sustainable existence. If, however, we push our demands to such an extent that we breach a boundary, we destabilise the ecosystem and permanently debilitate nature.

You don’t have to look too closely to see that we are already past the boundary threshold of four of the boundaries — climate change, fertiliser use, land conversion, biodiversity loss. Further data will tell if two further boundaries (chemical and air pollution) surpass the model’s thresholds too.

‘People, quite rightly, talk a lot about climate change. But it is now clear that manmade global warming is one of a number of crises at play. The work of the Earth scientists has revealed that, today, four warning lights are flashing on the dashboard. We are already living beyond the safe operating space of Earth. Humankind’s Great Acceleration, like any explosion, is about to generate fallout… a Great Decline.’

Yikes.

We all need to align and work hard to give everyone a fair and decent standard of living as soon as possible.

David Attenborough

On reaching ‘Peak Human’…

Image of a Model of Demographic Transition

Stick with me on this one!

Reducing farmland by 4 billion hectares is one thing, but human population growth has to be addressed too.

While the world’s population is growing at the slowest rate since the 1950s, the UN predicts that by 2100 there will be between 9.4 – 12.7 billion people on the planet. That’s 7-10 billion more people than when Attenborough was a boy in the 1930s.

The balance of nature features what’s called carrying capacity, which is to say that species of plants and animal will increase slightly, then decrease slightly, increase, decrease. It is a balance that their habitats are able to sustain.

As humans we seem not to have reached our own human carrying capacity ceiling, instead inventing new ways to use the environment to cater for our growing population — while environmental catastrophe unfolds around us and our use of the Earth’s resources grows towards greater and greater unsustainability.

The above graph shows what’s called demographic transition: the four stages each country’s population growth goes through, during its economic development. It goes from pre-industrialisation high birth and death rates then high birthrate but low death rate once industrialisation occurs, to a dwindling of the population boom as birth rates drop, finally allowing (by stage four) for steady population growth and the achievement of what’s called peak human.

Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo

For planet Earth as a whole, population growth peaked around 1962 and since then has broadly dropped year by year – implying that the transition from stage 2 to stage 3 happened at this point. The average family size has halved in this time. But we haven’t yet reached peak human.

Demographers who study population are looking for the time we reach this fourth stage — the moment our population stops growing and remains stable for the first time since farming began 10,000 years ago. It will be a huge milestone.

Sounds fantastic, but we’re further than you might think from settling into stage four and our peak human status. The reason is down to people like David Attenborough.

Extended life expectancy.

Just look at Japan’s ageing population — forecasters predict 1 in 3 people will be over 65 by 2030. It is predicted that by 2050 there will be more than twice as many people aged over 65 as there are children under five. It creates a population momentum that means that perhaps only future generations will see us reach this population stability in the 2100s.

Or, we might reach this vital peak sooner, as well as address all of the issues raised above.

Read on to find out how.

Chapter three — what can be done?

Girls cycling in rural india
Courtesy Mann Deshi Foundation

The task could hardly be more daunting and we have to support it in every way we can. We have to urge our politicians, locally, nationally and internationally, to come to some agreement and sometimes [forego] our national interest in support of the bigger and wider benefit. The future of humanity depends upon the success of these meetings.

David Attenborough

What follows are just some of the many recommended solutions posed by scientists, conservationists and advocates that feature in Attenborough’s book. I’m sure you’ll be familiar with some of them as I was, but others may be a surprise.

How to eat more kindly…

Unpackaged fresh fruit and vegetables in a supermarket
Courtesy Scwede

I mentioned earlier that average annual meat consumption in India is 4kg, compared to 60-80kg in Europe and 120kg in America. Surveys like this one from 2018 indicate that 33% of Britons have reduced meat consumption or cut it out, while 39% of Americans say they are trying to eat more plant-based food. These percentages will surely have grown since.

Adopting vegetarianism, veganism, flexitarianism is all helping cut down on meat consumption, particularly beef. I for one decided off the back of reading this book to take being flexitarian to a more committed level, and only have beef as a treat.

For those of us keen on meat alternatives, alt-protein products like Beyond Burgers are easily found in supermarkets now, and clean meat – meat grown from cells that requires 99% less land – may be coming to a table near you soon.

And when you do eat meat? Quality over quantity is the answer in my opinion – and in this Cornish butcher’s opinion too. (Fast forward to 47:40).

Dairy alternatives are now incredibly commonplace too, though still pricier than cow’s milk; I spend £1.50 a week on a carton of Oatly instead of 56p on a pint of semi skimmed. I do worry how farmers’ livelihoods will fare as a result of the trend away from meat and dairy — though trying to censor how plant-based non-dairy products can refer to themselves may not be the avenue to go down I would say.

Increasing renewables…

Morocco's Noor Solar Power Plant

I mentioned the obstacles earlier. They are many.

Attenborough points to the need to ‘bridge our shortcomings’ and partner renewable energy with nuclear, hydropower and natural gas until we can solve the problems of storage and efficiency.

Even bioenergy runs into requiring huge amounts of land. Meanwhile, hybrid, fully electric and hydrogen planes are in development but large scale production is a way off (especially given the hit on aviation in this pandemic) and so carbon-offsetting remains the plaster over the cracks for now.

Regarding the relative cost of renewable energy, progress is more positive; The scaling up of solar and wind power means prices already outcompete coal, hydropower and nuclear energy — soon they will outcompete oil and gas on price too.

And those sinister vested interests in fossil fuels?

Reading the book has made me want to know more about what investments and interests my local council and banks have. It’s a bit fiddly but one place to start is this tool on divest.org.uk which exposes how much pension fund money local authorities invest into fossil fuel investments and information on contacting your local councillors to raise concerns.

And you can find out how much your bank invests on fossilbanks.org. (Warning: it’s not pretty.)

We shouldn’t lose sight of what’s already possible though.

What seems like a fantasy at the moment – a new, clean, carbon-free world run on renewable energy – doesn’t have to be. Iceland, Albania and Paraguay already generate all their electricity without using fossil fuels and eight other nations use coal, oil and gas for less than 10% of their electricity needs.

Morocco is a great example, stopping its huge reliance on imported oil and gas and instead becoming home to the world’s largest solar power plant, Noor, pictured above. From a network of renewable power plants, Morocco generates 40% of its energy needs at home. A figure that will surely grow.

Forging ahead with renewables is what we hope will happen sooner rather later, but Attenborough outlines a very useful interim measure: carbon tax. Sweden has put a tax on carbon emitters since the 1990s —it would be great if more countries made the break with fossil fuels and followed suit.

Global companies cannot survive in the future without transitioning towards a circular economy. That is a really exciting future.

H&M

Reducing waste in a circular economy…

This video from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a fantastic (and very brief) introduction to how a circular economy could work and why it’s so important for the future.

As with so many things in life, nature is already giving us a demonstration of how we can reduce our waste. In nature the waste from one process becomes food for the next and all materials are reused in cycles, involves lots of different species. Almost everything is biodegradable.

We can bring this logic into a circular economy of our own, but it will require a change in mindset, away from take-make-use-discard mentality. In reality, we’re looking at two cycles — a biological cycle for food, wood and clothes made from natural fibres that biodegrade, and a technical cycle for materials such as plastic, metal and synthetics that don’t.

What’s needed to crack the circular economy system are smart ways to ensure materials in the technical cycle can be reused, like nutrients. And in the biological cycle, addressing the damage of food production and food waste from deforestation, pesticide and fertiliser use and fossil fuels for transportation is key.

It can seem overwhelming to consider just how big a problem waste is to tackle. However, as with so many issues, we can do our bit to help from home.

Rewild, rewild, rewild!

Storks at Knepp
Courtesy Brad Albrecht for Knepp

When Attenborough was a boy, the estimated remaining wilderness around the world stood at 66%. Now, that figure is a lonely 35%. Attenborough devotes a lot of his book to the importance of rewilding as a way of increasing biodiversity.

If you’re familiar with the concept of rewilding or wilding, one place in the UK that might leap to mind first is the Knepp Estate. It is a 1,400-hectare farm in West Sussex that went from commercial, ‘traditional’ agricultural techniques that were running at a loss, to a biodiversity explosion over the past 15 years, since they began rewilding their land. You might have seen back in May last year that the first white stork chicks to be born in the UK in over 600 years hatched at Knepp.

In a Royal Geographical Society talk last January, Knepp co-owner Isabella Tree discussed the work they’re doing to encourage other farmers across the country to consider rewilding techniques, from allowing cows and horses to roam the land together (mimicking how ancient breeds roamed Britain, increasing plant diversity) to installing animal corridors between farms and privately owned land.

Knepp isn’t alone.

Other rewilding success stories include the Ennerdale project in the Lake District, run in a partnership between The National Trust, Forestry England and others; there is the American Prairie Reserve initiative in the U.S., aiming to create the largest nature reserve across the country’s lower 48 states (excluding Alaska); and various projects across Europe that are supported by Rewilding Europe, including 580,000 hectares of wetland wilderness in the Danube Delta.

Regarding wildlife specifically, the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 is a runaway success story that shows how much biodiversity within an ecosystem can flourish when one crucial keystone species is reintroduced.

Here in the UK we’re seeing similar success with the careful reintroduction of beavers in pockets across the UK since 2009. In the second episode of his Cornwall series, Simon Reeve met one beaver-mad farmer, and saw the introduction of the fabulously named Sigourney Beaver to a neighbouring farm.

The high seas would become the world’s greatest wildlife reserve, a place owned by no one would become a place cared for by everyone.

David Attenborough
Fish underwater in the waters around Palau

Rewilding the landscapes we live around, as well as those we’ve exhausted for resources, is crucial, as is rewilding the sea and other water systems.

To encourage sea stocks to rebound, give some balance back to marine ecosystems and help us to fish sustainably, we have to have more Marine Protected Areas and more ‘no fish’ zones.

A gigantically-sized candidate in the ocean for such zones would be the high seas.

As international waters they belong to no nation, which has meant that in the past they’ve been extremely over-fished. New rules are being touted for the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea, though sadly updates were delayed from being made last year due to the pandemic.

The waters around the archipelago islands of Palau (pictured above) show what’s possible when you introduce no-fish zones.

The ancient rule of bul (‘prohibition’) exists, whereby reefs can become no-fish zones overnight and won’t be lifted until neighbouring waters are teeming again with fish from those reefs. With a growth in population and tourism, drastic decisions to close more and more reefs were made, to protect the ecosystem and fish stocks. Even more admirably, Palau’s four-time president Tommy Remengesau Jr. announced radical plans to reduce the amount of fish they would export, focusing on fishing in order to feed the population (and its tourists) and take only what they needed.

Palau’s success means that neighbouring nations benefit from greater abundance of fish. We just need the rest of the world to be more like Palau…

But radically encouraging fish stocks to increase wouldn’t be enough to feed the still-growing global population — which is where responsible and sustainable sea farming comes in. We can do our bit to encourage the growth of sustainable wild fishing and fish farming every time we shop; look for farmed seafood with the ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council) label or for wild-caught seafood with the MSC label, approved by the Marine Stewardship Council.

Kelp forest off Cape Peninsula, South Africa
Kelp forest off Cape Peninsula, South AfricaCourtesy Peter Southwood via Wikimedia

And a type of farming called ocean foresting may hold the answer too.

Kelp is so fast-growing that its fronds grow a staggering half a metre every day, forming vast forests that feature a remarkable level of biodiversity. As well as being a great home for invertebrates and fish and a foodstuff for animals and humans, kelp captures vast quantities of carbon and, sustainably harvested, it could be used as bioenergy or in biochemicals.

Unlike bioenergy crops on land, kelp doesn’t compete with us or with wilderness for space. It is its own underwater wilderness!

As for other water areas, I was staggered to learn that even in their depleted state, the world’s saltmarshes, mangroves and seagrass meadows alone remove the equivalent of half of all our transport emissions from the air. Protect and expand these areas and the knock on effect will be huge.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that [in 2040], with the current rate of improvements in farming efficiency alone… we may stop taking up more space on Earth, for the first time since we invented farming 10,000 years ago.

David Attenborough

How to farm better with less space

Soil on a farm

The Netherlands, one of the world’s most densely populated countries, is leading the way when it comes to the question of how to get more food from less land, and the approaches of some of their farmers could be the key to reducing our farmland from 5 billion down to 1-2 billion hectares.

When a new generation of farmers took over around the millennium, they turned their backs on diesel and chemicals and turned towards renewable energy, climate controlling their greenhouses and using nutrient-rich water instead of soil and natural predators such as pollinating bees, instead of pesticides. Outdoors, they measured every metre of land for its water and nutrient content and made their own fertilisers as well as crop packaging from stems and dead leaves left over after harvests.

The result? High yield and low impact. The downside? It is expensive.

For smaller-scale and subsistence farmers, the answer may instead lie with regenerative farming — the practice of keeping the topsoil in place and using a cycle of crops that each require different nutrients from the soil, so as to avoid exhausting the land.

Approaches such as this will eventually remove the need for fertilisers and lock away an estimated 20 billion tonnes of carbon too. Score.

Wherever women have the vote, wherever girls stay in school for longer, wherever women are in charge of their own lives and not dictated to by men, wherever they have access to good healthcare and contraception, wherever they are free to take any job and their aspirations for life are raised, the birth rate falls.

David Attenborough

Reaching peak human faster while ensuring a just society for all

The Doughnut Model

Chief among the ways we achieve the human peak and stabilise the Earth’s population is (massive drumroll): empowerment of women.

Empowerment brings freedom of choice and the choice is often to have fewer children. The faster women are empowered across the world, the faster all countries move from stage three and onto stage four of transitional development and the quicker we achieve population stability.

One example of empowerment that really stood out to me in the book related to the trend in rural India of only 40% of school girls staying in school past the age of 14. The distance to travel to high school was often much greater than primary and middle school, and household tasks couldn’t be balanced with this extra commute time.

The solution? State governments and charity projects provided hundreds of thousands of free bicycles which radically improved attendance. It’s now common to see groups of school girls cycling through fields to finish their education.

If a multinational effort to raise standards of education across the world were successful, and the poorest country’s systems improved as quickly as the fastest developing nations such as Taiwan did last century, Austria’s Wittgenstein Centre forecasts that we could fast-track our way to a peak human / stage four global population by 2060. That’s 50 years earlier than current models predict, and could happen in our lifetimes! This means the population would stabilise at the lower estimate of around 8.9 billion.

I don’t know if I’ve been writing this post for too long, but that potential for it to happen in my lifetime blows my mind. I want to be a part of it happening.

I’ll give Attenborough the final word on the matter:

‘It’s a wonderful win-win solution, and this is a repeating theme on the path to sustainability. The things we have to do to rewild the world tend to be things that we ought to be doing regardless.’

Chapter four — recommended reads

I cannot recommend David Attenborough’s book A Life on Our Planet highly enough, especially as my post has only skimmed the surface of what is covered.

If, like me, you are always on the look out for more to read, here’s a small list I’ve put together of other book titles, websites and newsletters I’d recommend. Most I’ve read or am reading, others come highly recommended.

Books

**A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future by David Attenborough**

Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist by Kate Raworth (Attenborough refers to her Doughnut Model and the Planetary Boundaries Model it’s based on quite a lot in his book.)

Wilding by Isabella Tree (of the wonderful Knepp Estate.)

Wonderland by Brett Westwood & Stephen Moss (designed to be read once a day for a year and full of wonderful insights – today’s entry was ‘primroses’ and yesterday’s ‘urban buzzards’.)

Thinking on My Feet: The small joy of putting one foot in front of the other by Kate Humble, (who makes a delightful reading companion.)

The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland by John Lewis-Stempel (a favourite book of my mum’s, who has recommended it with great enthusiasm. He writes beautifully about his project to take a farmed field and rewild it, with stunning results.)

Rewild Yourself by Simon Barnes (top tips for finding nature all around you, wherever you are. Like sitting down in a wood or near some trees for 20 minutes and watching nature appear in abundance.)

Websites and newsletters

The Inkcap Journal from environmental journalist Sophie Yeo (a twice weekly newsletter dedicated to journalism about the British environment.)

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation website has more on the possibilities of, and research into, a circular economy.

Our World in Data is a fascinating fall down a rabbit hole of facts, figures and glorious graphs.

Gapminder.org lets guess your way into challenging your misconceptions about the world with a series of quizzes.

Published by Kateonhertravels

An insatiable appetite for travel.

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