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Amid planet's crisis, filmmaker Sir David Attenborough's 'vision for the future'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: There is perhaps no one whose name is more synonymous with documenting the natural world than filmmaker Sir David Attenborough.

He has been at it since the 1950s. And in his latest book and film, both out this week, he offers a grave and alarming witness statement about the crisis facing our planet.

William Brangham talked with the 94-year-old recently.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

David Attenborough: The living world is a unique and spectacular marvel.

William Brangham: No one has given us a more intimate or stunning look at our planet than Sir David Attenborough.

David Attenborough: Dazzling in their variety and richness.

William Brangham: But now, after a near 70-year career, he says we are running the planet headlong into disaster.

David Attenborough: Yet, the way we humans live on Earth, you're sending it into a decline.

Human beings have overrun the world.

William Brangham: In his new Netflix documentary and companion book, both titled "A Life on Our Planet," the famed filmmaker wants us to recognize what's happening, and to act before it's too late.

I spoke with him recently from his home in London.

Sir David Attenborough, it's a great honor to have you on the "NewsHour." Thank you very much for being here.

Anyone who knows your work knows that you have increasingly talked about man's impact on the natural world.

But this film really hits this point very directly. Was it your sense that things had just gotten so bad that that needed to be the focus of this project?

David Attenborough: Yes, I think I have been speaking about this the last 20, 30 years, really.

It's just what anybody who knows the natural world and spends time looking at the natural world stares it in the face. And anybody with whom to that happens feels a huge responsibility to talk about it.

William Brangham: As you say in the film and in the book, that when you were a young man, going to all these exotic places, you had the sense at the time that man's imprint was not being felt.

Was there a moment where you first recognized and said, I see it now, I see very directly the imprint that humanity is having on the planet?

David Attenborough: Yes, the problem is making global assessments like that.

I mean, you can go to a glacier that you were there maybe five, 10 years ago, and it has retreated, but you think, oh, well, that's just this glacier. Maybe there's another one that's increasing.

But there are some things that are irrevocable and so dramatic and distressing that you can't brush them away.

The one, I suppose, was the tipping point was when I dive on the coral reef, which I have known perfectly well, on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and suddenly saw a cemetery, and, suddenly, it was dead. And these corals, this extraordinary, wonderful construction of corals was dead, white. And that was a shock.

William Brangham: There is, if I may say, a genuine sense of sadness and melancholy that is throughout this project.

I mean, in the past, you would often talk about man's impact on the world, but would move on, in a sense. This film, you really clearly seem to say: We are not moving on. I cannot stress this point strong enough.

David Attenborough: Well, you put it very well. That is exactly what I think.

And we -- you know, you feel that, sitting in London or New York or wherever, you may feel the what the wilderness is, out there, and, of course, it's interesting, and, of course, we know theoretically we depend upon it.

But when -- but now it's more serious than that. It affects every man and woman and child on this planet. I'm an elderly chap. And I look at my grandchildren and wonder what's going to happen.

And all I know is that, if you see these things and realize what they mean, you simply can't sit back and say, well, I'm not going to bother.

William Brangham: I should say, I don't want to leave people with the sense that you don't address what we might do to remedy this. And a good portion of the book and of the film is looking at solutions.

David Attenborough: This film is my witness statement and my vision for the future.

William Brangham: Attenborough argues, for a rapid shift to renewable energy, to sustainable agriculture, for a slowing of population growth, and for what he calls a rewilding of the land and the oceans to give them time to rebound.

How confident are you that we will, in fact, move from these isolated examples to a true moment for change?

David Attenborough: I'm not in the least confident that we will do so in time.

And I certainly feel, although the situation is worse, I believe that the world is becoming more aware of what needs to be done, to a much greater extent than only, say, five, 10 years ago.

It does seem to me a worldwide realization of the crisis which we are facing. And it's been spearheaded, of course, by young people, and quite rightly, too. It's their future.

The kids of today are -- that's their life, you know? And we owe it to them to do everything we can to make sure that disaster's averted.

William Brangham: Could you talk a little bit about the role that our own human complacency plays in all of this? We all love the benefits of our gas-powered cars and our air-conditioned homes.

And when we talk about sixth extinction or global climate change, it's still very easy for so many people to put this view out of their minds and just keep on.

David Attenborough: But, actually, in your country, it's more unlikely for that to happen than in mine.

I mean, you have faced disaster after disaster. You have got rising sea levels. You had cyclones, hurricanes moving through with greater ferocity and frequency than ever before.

We see on our television usual coverage of appalling things that happen in your country because of climate change, seem to me overwhelming.

And it's nice to say, oh, it's nothing, it's just a passing threat. It isn't. And the statistics show it isn't. It is a major movement that's happening.

And your country and my country and the rest of the world have got to do something about it. And we can. And we know what to do.

William Brangham: Do you have to dig deep down to come up with this optimism, or is the -- is the long arc of your career what gives you this optimism? What is it?

David Attenborough: I don't regard myself an optimist, to be truthful.

But, having said that, we have to recognize that, if we are going to solve it, we are going to, as humanity, act as one. And that means that people will have to give, as well as take.

And if that's to happen, it's got to be supported by the electorate, who says, we want it to happen. We want to solve it. And tell us what the price is, but we want to pay it.

William Brangham: The book and the film is called "A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and A Vision for the Future."

Sir David Attenborough, thank you so much for talking with us, and thank you for your remarkable career.

David Attenborough: Thank you so much.

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