On Sunday, acclaimed naturalist David Attenborough told President Obama that in order for humanity to get a handle on the numerous environmental problems ailing the planet, “what’s required is an understanding and a gut feeling that the natural world is part of your inheritance.”
What are the prospects for this blue marble that we live on in the middle of space?
As part of an interview recorded at the White House in May on the occasion of Attenborough’s 89th birthday, the British broadcaster drew from his 60-plus years as an environmental explorer and documentarian in responding to Obama’s questions. In a role reversal for the president, Obama — who said he grew up on some of Attenborough’s programming — asked the questions, which focused on addressing global environmental issues, including climate change, environmental degradation, and wildlife management.
“What are the prospects for this blue marble that we live on in the middle of space?” queried Obama for the BBC program. “Are we going to be able to get ahead of these problems?”
Attenborough, who has traveled the world extensively from the frozen reaches of the poles to the depths of the oceans, chose to steer away from political sticking points or international negotiations, and look at the bigger picture.
“Young people, they know and they care,” said Attenborough about the current environmental challenges. “They know this is the world they are going to grow up in and spend the rest of their lives in.”
The producer of some of the most popular nature programs in the last several decades, including Planet Earth, Blue Planet and Frozen Planet said he thinks it’s “more idealistic than that” and that today’s youth “actually believe that the human species has no right to destroy and despoil” the planet.
Obama agreed, saying that he finds his daughters are “much more environmentally aware” than some previous generations and that they “do not dispute the science around climate change.”
They don’t see a wild creature from dawn until dusk unless it’s a rat or a pigeon.
While it may be harder for young people to ignore the many stark ways that humans are impacting the environment — from stifling air pollution, to rising sea level, to the acidification of the oceans — Attenborough still worries about the disconnect with nature present in those growing up in the digital era.
“Some people are totally cutoff from nature,” he said. “They don’t see a wild creature from dawn until dusk unless it’s a rat or a pigeon.”
Attenborough found this disconcerting, because if today’s youth “don’t understand the workings of the natural world, they won’t take the trouble to protect it.”
“That’s one of the roles the media should have,” he said. “Maintaining a link between the population and the natural world.”
After a career of more than half a century in the business of naturalist filmmaking — a genre he pioneered — Attenborough continues to innovate, using the latest technology to capture ever-more stunning shots of nature at its most wondrous moments. He has experimented with extreme time lapse, 3D technology, and high definition imagery to bring the depths of the Great Barrier Reef and other remote areas to life in recent years.
He thinks technological revolutions will also play a significant role in steering the planet away from its current trajectory of catastrophic climate change and mass species extinction.
“We see what you did by saying we are going to put a man on the moon in ten years,” he told Obama, referring to United States’ role in the space race of the 1960s. “Supposing you said in ten years the United States will organize and energize the world to find a way of producing energy with no problems — that is to say, exploiting the sunshine and finding ways to store electricity.”
“If you did that, so many problems would be solved,” he said.
Obama agreed that more needs to be done.
“We’re not moving as fast as we need to and part of what I know from watching your programs, and all the great work you’ve done, is that these ecosystems are all interconnected. If just one country is doing the right thing but other countries are not then we’re not going to solve the problem, we’re going to have to have a global solution to this.”
The full episode is available online at BBC AMERICA.