Yesterday, Sir David Attenborough turned 90. To celebrate this iconic naturalist’s birthday, a documentary highlighting his life and career was created. The upcoming programme, aptly titled Attenborough at 90, will give us a glimpse of his illustrious work, including the inspiring people he has met, curious critters he has encoutered and astonishing journeys he has embarked on. Ahead of this programme, Attenborough shares with us about his views of the impact of technology on documentary-filming, the future of our planet, and space travel.
It was mentioned that you are doing Planet Earth II. Did you have any qualms about that? Do you ever think that there’s nothing more to do?
Of course. Every time you do it, unless you’ve got some great new incredible thing. What I’m doing at the moment is looking at bio-degradable assets, which is mind blowing. I know that 70% of this is something that you’ll never have seen before.
When we say we are going to come up with a new series, we have researchers come up with extraordinary things.
We showed a clip with a puffer-fish which lives in a bay in Japan and creates a rosette which is bigger than its tail. It builds this thing for 4 days, and nobody had ever seen it before. There were amateur divers and scientists who had never seen it before. There was also another clip where an expert from Southern Australia managed to film the courtship of the beautiful peacock spider.
A lot of this is driven by the technology – isn’t it?
It is true but the technology invention is levelling out now. In my time it was the acquisition of colour, of high speed camera, of filming in the dark etc. I doubt there is much more to be acquired.
What about virtual reality?
The exciting thing about virtual reality is that it is the exact opposite of TV programme. It takes the viewer to an extraordinary place and then allows the viewer to explore it. And that is not what you do if you’re making a TV programme. It’s like writing a sentence, you need it to have a subject, an object, a verb etc.
But in virtual reality I’ve taken people to the battle of the scene in the barrier reef but also back to the Cambrian period 500 million years ago to a cave in Borneo. What’s exciting about virtual reality is you sit there and wonder, and that’s the fun of it. But it’s very, very different from TV. You’re immersed in this world. The difficulty is moving about because you can’t, but I can see a possibility that there might be something you could press in the future.
The extraordinary nature of tech is that there is a danger of de-mystifying nature – we see so much of it we stop wondering why it is so incredible.
Yes that is true but we do that all the time. It’s our job as natural history makers to show viewers that the natural world is amazing, and there is a lot of material out there which enables us to do this job.
The paradox is that when talking about human beings now, half the world is now urbanised. We are out of touch as we do not spend time with these animals and yet we know more about what they do and what they are. We are dependent on the natural world and yet we are wrecking it, so we are endangering ourselves. People have to change their behaviour, but they won’t understand that unless they know what goes on in the natural world. And that’s what television can do – bring awareness to this.
How do you maintain this wonderful enthusiasm for your work? You still have this incredible passion! Do you ever want to just put your feet up?
Putting my feet up is all well and good but it’s all very boring. I can think of an awful lot of people who get a job for 10 or 20 years and think they’ve had enough of it but they’re stuck with it because that’s what their career was, and when they get to 65 they’re counting the years off.
I’m fantastically lucky to be able to say ‘I think I’ll go to the amazon next year’. I’m just grateful that people still want me to do things.
Does the world seem smaller and less mysterious than it did when you started out?
It is the experiences you have that teach you how amazing and unpredictable things can be. When you’re young you learn things about animals like elephants etc. and think you know what’s going to happen but in fact you don’t. You only have a tiny portion knowledge of the complexity.
What do you think the planet will look like in another 90 years?
What alarms me would be the size of the human population. Whatever we do it’s not going to go down, it’s going to go on climbing. People will eventually say if you want to know what a particular animal is, you’ll have to go back to the films that were made 90 years ago to know what it even looked like.
Does that thought depress you? Is there any cause for optimism?
The only optimism is something called the Global Apollo Programme (a campaign group which supports renewable energy). We presented in Paris at the UN climate conference, with the idea being that if we could hatch 1 / 5000th part of the energy that comes from the sun that hits the planet every day, we could meet all the demands of humanity and we don’t even need fundamental scientific research to do that. If we could improve the means of collecting/transmitting global energy, we could actually make it cheaper than it is in carbon.
Does it surprise you how resilient life itself actually is?
Oh yes. I’m desperately trying to think how I could do a series on microscopic bugs including tardigrades (although tardigrades aren’t actually microscopic but macroscopic). They are so small but have massive mouths and prowl around in mud. It’s fascinating.
Is there anywhere you still have a yearning to go to?
I would really like to go to the centre of the Gobi desert. But there’s nothing there except fossils, and everyone I’ve spoken to has asked “Why on earth would you go there?” So I think it’s a non-starter really.
Do you think there is more to explore in the ocean?
Definitely. We know less about the bottom of the ocean than we do about the surface of the moon. Every time someone goes deep into the ocean they come back with something we’ve never seen before. One of the most thrilling discoveries of my time were the plates of the earth. The continental plates are approximately 3000 to 4000 feet below and there are creatures there that are still unknown to us.
What about the Giant Squid? Do you want to see one?
When you get to that depth you’re in submersible water, and what you see is exactly what they (researchers) see. I did a commentary with NHK World, and they are very inventive with those things. They caught this giant squid in the most genius way. There are fabulous pictures of the giant squid but the one problem is that they are huge animals with tentacles, and hence, rather dangerous.
Is going to space that something you would have liked to do?
No. Maybe if you landed on the moon and you were going to see new flowers etc. or a worm or something but it’s just dust and it’s taken you 6 months to get there! And you can’t get back for a cup of tea! Astronauts love the new technology but I can barely work a mobile phone so I would be hopeless in space!
Do you think there is life out there?
There must be something out there because that’s the mathematical concept, but there is the matter of how long human beings live, and if you said something way out there that would take you 150 years to get there then there’s no point! It’s an interesting theoretical concept but it’s not as interesting to me as compared to something like a new species of hummingbird.
Are you aware of the number of different groups that try and get you to promote their cause e.g. conservation etc.?
I certainly embrace conservation causes but I suppose part of my problem as a BBC broadcaster is that the one thing that you do as a TV producer is not impose your views of any kind. So when I, by accident, found myself in front of the camera I still kept that stance. I wasn’t there to put out opinion and scientific facts, and for that reason I was somewhat behind on the business of climate change. I didn’t come out with my views on climate change until a while later because I’m not a climate scientist. My job as a good broadcaster was to put the climate scientist on television and make sure he got a proper say.
Do you feel more outspoken now?
Yes on a number of things. You have to be very dogmatic and closed minded not to see the overwhelming evidence that there is about climate change. I, where possible, turn to a real scientist who knows first-hand what the facts are rather than try and just parrot opinions. But time does come when you have to look at the evidence and listen to authorities.
Attenborough at 90 will be premiering on BBC Earth on 15th May at 5.55 p.m.