“Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right”
In the outstanding film “A life on our planet”, Sir David Attenborough tells us which actions we need to implement to avoid a future catastrophe. His plan is feasible and affordable: we already have all the knowledge and technology required to implement each action. There are no insurmountable technical obstacles. But there is an obstacle that could be very hard to overcome: people’s reluctance. To implement the plan, people must be able to overcome deeply rooted prejudices, rethink the idea of nature and countryside, debunk myths and break taboos. Are people able to do this? Examples from the past indicate they are not.
By Lucia Tamburino
“A Film The World Needs To See ”. “The greatest movie of all time ”. “A masterpiece for the ages”. These are just some of the cheering reviews that you can find on IMDb of the film David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet. The film is really outstanding. Many people talk about climate change and other environmental issues, but Sir David is a step ahead of all. He doesn’t just look at the single pieces of the puzzle, but puts all the pieces together, giving us the bigger picture. So, we learn that greenhouse emissions are only a part — albeit important — of a more general and deeper problem: an invasive species increased beyond any limit and altering all the world’s habitats, converting “wild into tame” and breaking the fundamental equilibria of the planet. Starting from this, it is clear what we need to do: “We must rewild the world” (h 0.55).
The problem here is that space on our planet is limited and wild nature competes with agriculture and other human land uses. There are already 5 billion cultivated hectares globally and all of them are at the expense of natural ecosystems. Agricultural expansion is estimated to be the proximate driver for around 80% of deforestation worldwide: commercial agriculture in Latin America, subsistence agriculture in Africa and tropical and sub-tropical Asia . In the future, there is a strong risk of a further agriculture expansion, in order to satisfy rapidly increasing food demands . Feeding humanity and at the same time protecting and restoring wild nature is hence a big challenge. We can, however, succeed in this challenge according to Attenborough. At 0.56 h of the film, he says: “I’m going to tell you how”.
- Stop population growth (h 0.57).
- Energy from renewable sources (h 1.00). Note: he indicates “sunlight, wind, water and geothermal“, not biofuel! Most biofuels require soil to be cultivated, subtracting space from natural ecosystems.
- Create large no-fishing zones in the oceans (h 1.02)
- “Radically reduce the area we use to farm“, to make space for returning wilderness. This can be achieved through the following actions:
- switch to a mainly plant-based diet (h 1.05);
- high yield farming, i.e., “much more food from much less land” (h 1.07).
- Immediately halt deforestation and do reforestation on a massive scale (h 1.09).
Alone, none of these actions is sufficient, but all are necessary. If implemented together, they can act in synergy reinforcing each other. For example, the more we reduce population and switch to a plant-based diet, the less crop land we need and, as a consequence, the more space we have for rewilding and reforestation, absorbing more carbon emissions. The plan might work. And it is feasible: we already have all the knowledge and technology required to implement each action. In some cases, it is not especially difficult nor expensive. There are no particular obstacles. But there is an obstacle that could be the hardest to overcome: people’s reluctance.
Almost everybody claims to be a nature-lover, but many people have a wrong idea about what nature is. They say “nature”, but they think “countryside”. Traditional farming systems are perceived as nature, in contrast with modern agriculture.
Instead, Sir David teaches us that the real contraposition is not traditional vs. modern agriculture, but agriculture vs. wilderness. And he tells us that modern high-yield farming is our valuable ally because it is able to produce more food in less space, hence releasing land for nature (the true wild nature, not countryside!) .
Talking about future agriculture, Attenborough does not show a rural landscape: he shows the highly mechanized, hi-tech, indoor farming practiced in the Netherlands, vertical agriculture, and kelp farming (see Fig. 1). While many people argue that returning to nature means that people must return on the land, Attenborough explains that we should cultivate food in new spaces (e.g. “indoors, within cities”) to allow wild nature to take back the land.
This clearly implies a big change, in our minds and on the landscape. Rural and semi-rural landscapes might be replaced by forests, in place of lawns and grazing sheep we could see trees and wild animals. This is already happening in some parts of Europe due to farmland abandonment.
Farmland abandonment is a great opportunity for rewilding Europe, but people do not seem to appreciate it. Indeed, several measures and laws have been implemented to do exactly the opposite. As part of the European Common Agriculture Policy, “Less Favoured Areas” (areas where agricultural use is less profitable) were designated mainly to prevent rural abandonment and to maintain rural landscapes. The largest amounts of funding for biodiversity conservation are available through agri-environmental schemes aimed at preserving traditional farming systems and reversing abandonment trends . Not only farmers and policy makers, but also many environmentalists and ecologists consider land abandonment something bad that must be countered.
Actually, it’s true that farmland abandonment may have negative consequences in the short term. For example, uncontrolled shrub development can lead to an increased risk of fires and to reduced biodiversity [5, 6]. However, after a transition phase, abandoned areas can become self-sustaining wild areas, providing a wide variety of ecosystem services, e.g. flood prevention, soil protection, removal of air pollutants and water supply [7, 8]. Moreover, “the return of the trees would absorb” a large amount of carbon emissions, as Sir David highlights (h 1.10).
Biodiversity can increase too, especially when large connected areas are rewilded, allowing the return of animals who need large ranges, like top predators. Wolves, for instance, are key species for the functioning of natural ecosystems, and keep herbivores under control. After being persecuted for centuries and eradicated from most of Europe, they are finally coming back in many European countries. Farmers and hunters want to eradicate them again, as they are seen as a threat to cattle.
Yet, rangeland farmers are still seen as bio-maintainers, high-yield farming is regarded with suspicion, and rural landscapes are considered locations of high natural and cultural values, which must be maintained at any cost. The attachment to the past risks prevailing over the need for change, undermining humanity’s future.
A further reluctance – Population
Unfortunately, there are further reluctances and resistances against Attenborough’s recipe. One of these has already emerged in many criticisms against the film and concerns population.
Even if many people insist that “only overconsumption is the problem, not overpopulation”, it is clear that a large population exacerbates the burden exerted on our planet [9, 10]. Voluntary rights-based family planning programs would reduce this ecological burden and improve people’s lives, especially in developing countries and especially among women.
Don’t forget that lots of women have many children not because of their free choice: they are forced to marry very young, sometimes as little girls, or do not have sufficient access to contraception . Family planning programs would improve their condition through prolonging female education and increasing access to contraception.
Moreover, in many regions in Africa, having a lot of children is a matter of pride for men. As a consequence, men want to have many children even if they are not able to give them the happy and prosperous life that should be the right of any child. Instead of being considered as creatures to love, children are seen as a tool to increase men’s status and sometimes as a source of livelihood for their family, as they are forced to work in the fields or in the factory. By combating this mentality, family planning programs would improve children’s lives [12, 13].
A question arises spontaneously, and it is the same question that Sir David asks at h 0.58 of this new film: “Why wouldn’t we want to do these things?”
Rationally, this question is impossible to answer. There are however several irrational reasons why people refuse the idea of stopping population growth.
One reason is that limiting the number of children is immoral to many people, for instance many religious leaders, and giving life to more humans seems to override all other considerations. A second reason is that admitting that overpopulation is a problem implies recognizing that developing countries also have responsibilities for dealing with global environmental and social problems. Many people object to this, believing that any blame for these problems must be placed only on rich countries. So these people sometimes oppose family planning programs in developing countries, even though such programs would help many people rise out of poverty .
“Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right” quipped Isaac Asimov many years ago. Unfortunately, a confused sense of morals rooted in strong and deep prejudices risks prevailing over the need for change, undermining our future.
A failure foretold
“Go to vegan!” “Phase out fossil fuels!” “Reduce consumption!” People shout their slogans. All seem to know the perfect solution of global issues, but most of the times, they only have a narrow view, focusing just on a part of the problem. Attenborough’s look instead embraces the whole planet.
He tells us that all actions are important and it’s important to implement all of them. This implies that we all need to change ourselves, in one way or another. We need to change diet and behaviour, but also our mind. We need to overcome prejudices, to rethink the idea of nature and countryside, to debunk the myth of the wise old peasant and to break the population taboo.
Unfortunately, changing mind is not the strong side of human beings. We are a social species whose social cohesion depends on believing what those around us believe, and not rocking the boat. Cultural change happens incrementally, but can it happen fast enough? Morevoer, we evolved in a relatively stable environment, where rapid adaptations were generally not required. Our environment is not stable any more but our brain is still rigid. That is why we are likely going to fail and collapse, as has already happened to several past civilizations . This time, the collapse risks to be global.
I am sorry that I cannot be more positive. But I’ll be glad if you prove me wrong.
 FAO. The future of food and agriculture trends and challenges. Report, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2017.
 Deepak K Ray, Nathaniel D Mueller, Paul C West, and Jonathan A Foley. Yield trends are insufficient to double global crop production by 2050. PloS one, 8(6):e66428, 2013.
 Andrew Balmford, Tatsuya Amano, Harriet Bartlett, Dave Chadwick, Adrian Collins, David Edwards, Rob Field, Philip Garnsworthy, Rhys Green, Pete Smith, et al. The environmental costs and benefits of high-yield farming. Nature Sustainability, 1(9):477–485, 2018.
 Cibele Queiroz, Ruth Beilin, Carl Folke, and Regina Lindborg. Farmland abandonment: threat or opportunity for biodiversity conservation? A global review. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 12(5):288–296, 2014.
 Yvonne Cerqueira, Laetitia M Navarro, Joachim Maes, Cristina Marta-Pedroso, João Pradinho Honrado, and Henrique M Pereira. Ecosystem services: the opportunities of rewilding in Europe. In Rewilding European Landscapes, pages 47–64. Springer, Cham, 2015.
 Jenna C Dodson, Patrícia Dérer, Philip Cafaro, and Frank Götmark. Population growth and climate change: Addressing the overlooked threat multiplier. Science of the Total Environment, 748:141346, 2020.
 C.K. Tucker. A Planet of 3 Billion. Atlas Observatory Press, 2019.
 Gilda Sedgh, Lori S Ashoford, and Rubina Hussain. Unmet need for contraception in developing countries: examine women’s reasons for not using a method. Technical report, The Guttmacher Institute, 2016.
 Alhaji A Aliyu. Family planning services in Africa: The successes and challenges. In FamilyPlanning. InTech, June 2018.