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- I often get letters, quite frequently, from people who say how they like the programmes a lot, but I never give credit to the almighty power that created nature. To which I reply and say, "Well, it's funny that the people, when they say that this is evidence of the Almighty, always quote beautiful things. They always quote orchids and hummingbirds and butterflies and roses." But I always have to think too of a little boy sitting on the banks of a river in west Africa who has a worm boring through his eyeball, turning him blind before he's five years old. And I reply and say, "Well, presumably the God you speak about created the worm as well," and now, I find that baffling to credit a merciful God with that action. And therefore it seems to me safer to show things that I know to be truth, truthful and factual, and allow people to make up their own minds about the moralities of this thing, or indeed the theology of this thing.
- From the BBC documentary Life on Air (2002)
- If we [humans] disappeared overnight, the world would probably be better off [making the point that the reverse is not true].
- The Daily Telegraph (12 November 2005)
- People who accuse us of putting in too much violence, [should see] what we leave on the cutting-room floor. My conscience troubles me more about reducing the pain and savagery that there is in the natural world than the reverse.
- "David Attenborough: 'I'm an essential evil.'", The Guardian (21 October 2011)
- In moments of great grief, that's where you look and immerse yourself. You realise you are not immortal, you are not a god, you are part of the natural world and you come to accept that.
- "David Attenborough at 90: 'I think about my mortality every day'", interview with Joe Shute, The Telegraph (29 October 2016)
- We must change our diet. The planet can’t support billions of meat-eaters.
- "Go vegetarian to save wildlife and the planet, Sir David Attenborough urges". The Independent (26 August 2020)
A Blank on the Map (1971)
- Trade is a proper and decent relationship, with dignity and respect on both sides.
The First Eden (1987)
Episode 2: "The Gods Enslaved"
- The Roman public's thirst for blood and pleasure in witnessing pain seems to have been unquenchable and without limit." "The caged animals were kept in dungeons below the main arena. The terrified animals in their cages were hoisted up from this pit. And not only animals, human beings too, criminals, slaves and prisoners of war. And here in this arena they were set one upon the other to provide the crowd with spectacles of the most appalling carnage. It still continues to this day in Spain.
- And yet, today the harbour is silted up, most of the city lies buried beneath sand dunes and the land has become a desert. As the population had grown and more people wanted more fields, so more of the forest that once stood around the city was cut down, until eventually it was all gone. With no roots to hold the soil, and no attempt to conserve it, it was carried away by the wind and the rain.
- 49 min 40 sec
- And this is where it went. In places all around the eastern Mediterranean the sea is separated from the mainland by strips of flat marshy land like this. Made up of the soil that once clothed the hills beyond. All this was deposited during the last 2000 years. This is the marsh that now separates the sea from the city of Ephesus. These ruined buildings mark the edge of the quay where once merchant ships lay moored. As the harbour died, so did the trade upon which the city's wealth was based, and so, well, ultimately did Ephesus itself. What was once one of the most splendid cities in the Roman Empire fell into decay and was abandoned.
- 50 min 10 sec
- It used to be said, that in places like this, nature eventually failed to support man, the truth is exactly the reverse, here man failed to support nature. Ten thousand years ago man regarded the natural world as divine, but as he domesticated animals and plants so nature lost some of its mystery and appeared to be little more than a larder that could be raided with impunity.
- 52 min 20 sec
Life on Earth (1979)
- There are some four million different kinds of animals and plants in the world. Four million different solutions to the problems of staying alive. This is the story of how a few of them came to be as they are.
- Opening narration
- This is the last programme in this natural history, and it's very different from all the others because it's been devoted to just one animal: ourselves. And that may have been a very misleading thing to have done. It may have given the impression that somehow man was the ultimate triumph of evolution, that all those thousands of millions of years of development had no purpose other than to put man on Earth. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever for such a belief. No reason to suppose that man's stay on Earth should be any longer than that of the dinosaurs. He may have learned how to control his environment, how to pass on information from one generation to another, but the very forces of evolution that brought him into existence here on these African plains are still at work elsewhere in the world, and if man were to disappear, for whatever reason, there is doubtless somewhere some small, unobtrusive creature that would seize the opportunity and, with a spurt of evolution, take man's place. But although denying a special place in the world may be becomingly modest, the fact remains that man has an unprecedented control over the world and everything in it. And so, whether he likes it or not, what happens next is very largely up to him.
- Closing lines
The Living Planet (1984)
- Our planet, the Earth, is, as far as we know, unique in the universe. It contains life. Even in its most barren stretches, there are animals. Around the equator, where those two essentials for life, sunshine and moisture, are most abundant, great forests grow. And here plants and animals proliferate in such numbers that we still have not even named all the different species. Here, animals and plants, insects and birds, mammals and man live together in intimate and complex communities, each dependent on one another. Two thirds of the surface of this unique planet are covered by water, and it was here indeed that life began. From the oceans, it has spread even to the summits of the highest mountains as animals and plants have responded to the changing face of the Earth.
- Opening narration
- Immensely powerful though we are today, it's equally clear that we're going to be even more powerful tomorrow. And what's more there will be greater compulsion upon us to use our power as the number of human beings on Earth increases still further. Clearly we could devastate the world. […] As far as we know, the Earth is the only place in the universe where there is life. Its continued survival now rests in our hands.
- Closing lines
The Trials of Life (1990)
- The savage, rocky shores of Christmas Island, 200 miles south of Java, in the Indian Ocean. It's November, the moon is in its third quarter, and the sun is just setting. And in a few hours from now, on this very shore, a thousand million lives will be launched.
- Opening words
- If you watch animals objectively for any length of time, you're driven to the conclusion that their main aim in life is to pass on their genes to the next generation. Most do so directly, by breeding. In the few examples that don't do so by design, they do it indirectly, by helping a relative with whom they share a great number of their genes. And in as much as the legacy that human beings pass on to the next generation is not only genetic but to a unique degree cultural, we do the same. So animals and ourselves, to continue the line, will endure all kinds of hardship, overcome all kinds of difficulties, and eventually the next generation appears. This albatross is over 30 years old, she's already a grandmother, and this year once again she has produced a chick. She will devote the next 10 months of her life looking after it. She has faced the trials of life and triumphed, for her little 2 day old chick the trials are just beginning.
- Closing lines
Life in the Freezer (1993)
- I am at the very centre of the great white continent, Antarctica. The South Pole is about half a mile away. For a thousand miles in all directions, there is nothing but ice. And, in the whole of this continent, which is about one-and-a-half times the size of the United States and larger than Europe, there is a year-round population of no more than 800 people. This is the loneliest and coldest place on Earth, the place that is most hostile to life. And yet, in one or two places, it is astonishingly rich.
- Opening words
- At a time when it's possible for thirty people to stand on the top of Everest in one day, Antarctica still remains a remote, lonely and desolate continent. A place where it's possible to see the splendours and immensities of the natural world at its most dramatic and, what's more, witness them almost exactly as they were, long, long before human beings ever arrived on the surface of this planet. Long may it remain so.
- Closing lines
The Private Life of Plants (1995)
- Midwinter, and the countryside is so still, it seems almost lifeless. But these trees and bushes and grasses around me are living organisms just like animals. And they have to face very much the same sort of problems as animals face throughout their lives if they're to survive. They have to fight one another, they have to compete for mates, they have to invade new territories. But the reason that we're seldom aware of these dramas is that plants of course live on a different time-scale.
- Opening words
- Ever since we arrived on this planet as a species, we've cut them down, dug them up, burnt them and poisoned them. Today we're doing so on a greater scale than ever […] We destroy plants at our peril. Neither we nor any other animal can survive without them. The time has now come for us to cherish our green inheritance, not to pillage it – for without it, we will surely perish.
- Closing lines
Attenborough in Paradise (1996)
- Wallace's emotions on discovering such marvels must surely be echoed by all of us who follow him. This is what he wrote:
"I thought of the long ages of the past during which the successive generations of these things of beauty had run their course. Year by year being born and living and dying amid these dark gloomy woods with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness, to all appearances such a wanton waste of beauty. It seems sad that on the one hand such exquisite creatures should live out their lives and exhibit their charms only in these wild inhospitable regions. This consideration must surely tell us that all living things were not made for man, many of them have no relation to him, their happiness and enjoyment's, their loves and hates, their struggles for existence, their vigorous life and early death, would seem to be immediately related to their own well-being and perpetuation alone."
The Life of Birds (1998)
- Birds are the most accomplished aeronauts the world has ever seen. They fly high and low, at great speed, and very slowly. And always with extraordinary precision and control.
- Opening narration
- Birds were flying from continent to continent long before we were. They reached the coldest place on Earth, Antarctica, long before we did. They can survive in the hottest of deserts. Some can remain on the wing for years at a time. They can girdle the globe. Now, we have taken over the earth and the sea and the sky, but with skill and care and knowledge, we can ensure that there is still a place on Earth for birds in all their beauty and variety – if we want to … and surely, we should.
- Closing lines
The Life of Mammals (2002)
- Warm-bloodedness is one of the key factors that have enabled mammals to conquer the Earth, and to develop the most complex bodies in the animal kingdom. In this series, we will travel the world to discover just how varied and how astonishing mammals are.
- Episode I
- Three and a half million years separate the individual who left these footprints in the sands of Africa from the one who left them on the moon. A mere blink in the eye of evolution. Using his burgeoning intelligence, this most successful of all mammals has exploited the environment to produce food for an ever-increasing population. In spite of disasters when civilisations have over-reached themselves, that process has continued, indeed accelerated, even today. Now mankind is looking for food, not just on this planet but on others. Perhaps the time has now come to put that process into reverse. Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, perhaps it's time we control the population to allow the survival of the environment.
- Closing lines
Life in the Undergrowth (2005)
- An eye from another world; a smell-detector, investigating the path ahead. We don't often see a snail that way, and that's because we've only recently had the tiny lenses and electronic cameras that we need to explore this miniature world. But when we meet its inhabitants face to face, we suddenly realise that their behaviour can be just as meaningful to us as the behaviour of many animals more our own size.
- Opening narration
- If we and the rest of the backboned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if they were to disappear, the land's ecosystems would collapse. The soil would lose its fertility. Many of the plants would no longer be pollinated. Lots of animals, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals would have nothing to eat. And our fields and pastures would be covered with dung and carrion. These small creatures are within a few inches of our feet, wherever we go on land – but often, they're disregarded. We would do very well to remember them.
- Closing lines
Life in Cold Blood (2008)
- Reptiles and amphibians are sometimes thought of as primitive, dull and dimwitted. In fact, of course, they can be lethally fast, spectacularly beautiful, surprisingly affectionate and very sophisticated.
- Opening words
- Reptiles and amphibians are sometimes seen as simple, primitive creatures. That's a long way from the truth. The fact that they are solar-powered means that their bodies require only 10% of the energy that mammals of a similar size require. At a time when we ourselves are becoming increasingly concerned about the way in which we get our energy from the environment and the wasteful way in which we use it, maybe there are things that we can learn from "life in cold blood."
- Closing lines
How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth? (BBC Horizon, 2009)
- This is the Earth - our planet, home to millions of different species, but only one species dominates everything - human beings. There are nearly seven billion of us living on the Earth, and the human population is increasing by more than two people every second; two hundred thousand people every day; nearly eighty million people every year. Each additional life needs food, energy, water, shelter, and hopefully a whole lot more. m0s0-m0s43
- Today we're living in an era in which the biggest threat to human well-being, to other species and to the Earth as we know it might well be ourselves. The issue of population size is always controversial because it touches on the most personal decisions we make, but we ignore it at our peril. m0s50-m1-13
- I was born into a world of just under two billion people today there are nearly seven billion of us. Whenever I hear those numbers I can honestly say I find it incredible, triple the number of human beings in what seems like the blink of an eye and the world transformed utterly. Human population density is a factor in every environmental problem I have ever encountered, from urban sprawl to urban overcrowding; disappearing tropical forests to ugly sinks of plastic waste, and now the relentless increase of atmospheric pollution. I've spent much of the last 50 years seeking wilderness filming animals in their natural habitat and, to some extent, avoiding humans. But, over the years, true wilderness has become harder to find. m1s58-m3s03
- I can't pretend that I got involved with filming the natural world fifty years ago because I had some great banner to carry about conservation - not at all, I always had a huge pleasure in just watching the natural world and seeing what happens. - I made those films because it was a hugely enjoyable thing to do. But as I went on making them it became more and more apparent that the creatures that were giving me so much joy were under threat. The fun is in delighting in the animals but if you do that you owe them something so you have an obligation to speak out and to do what you can to protect them. m3s08-m4s05
- I support a group called the Optimum Population Trust which campaigns to reduce birth rates because I think, if we keep on growing, we're not only going to damage nature but we're likely to see even more inequality and human suffering. m4s08-m4s43
- Human beings are good at many things, but thinking about our species as a whole is not one of our strong points. m4s45-m4s53
- Just as the human population was starting its unprecedented growth spurt in the late eighteenth century, this was published. It's a first edition of an essay on population by the English clergyman Thomas Malthus. Malthus made a very simple observation about the relationship between humans and resources and used it to look into the future. He pointed out that "the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man." Food production can't increase as rapidly as human reproduction. Demand will eventually outstrip supply. Malthus goes on to say, if we don't control human reproduction voluntarily, life could end in misery, which earned him a reputation as a bit of a pessimist. But Malthus' principle remains true. The productive capacity or the Earth has physical limits and those limits will ultimately determine how many human beings it can support. m10s58-m12s18
- In Rwanda children inherit land from their parents but in a country where the average family has more than five children that can only mean one thing – smaller parcels of land to live off. m30s00-m30s12
- As I see it humanity needs to reduce its impact on the Earth urgently and there are three ways to achieve this: we can stop consuming so many resources, we can change our technology and we can reduce our population. We probably need to do all three. m31m37-m31s56
- For most people the idea of someone else telling them how many children they should have is simply unacceptable so when governments attempt to do just that it always causes controversy. In 1979 the Chinese government introduced its infamous one-child policy, changing family life in China forever. Families were encouraged to have fewer children. Those that didn't were fined. The policy was a direct response to the preceding decades of famine and starvation. It's still in place today. According to official figures, without the one-child policy, there'd be four hundred million more people in China, that's more than the entire population of the USA. Its unlikely that other governments could undertake such an extreme path without major civil opposition. In the 1970s the Indian government also sought to bring down its birthrate. To start with it took a less aggressive path, setting up festivals around the country where vasectomies were carried out for small incentives. m31s56
- In the south west of India lies the long narrow coastal state of Kerala. Most of its thirty-two million inhabitants live off the land and the ocean, a rich tropical ecosystem watered by two monsoons a year. It's also one of India's most crowded states - but the population is stable because nearly everybody has small families... At the root of it all is education. Thanks to a long tradition of compulsory schooling for boys and girls Kerala has one of the highest literacy rates in the World. Where women are well educated they tend to choose to have smaller families... What Kerala shows is that you don't need aggressive policies or government incentives for birthrates to fall. Everywhere in the world where women have access to education and have the freedom to run their own lives, on the whole they and their partners have been choosing to have smaller families than their parents. But reducing birthrates is very difficult to achieve without a simple piece of medical technology, contraception. m35s09-m38s21
- It seems to me that an understanding of the natural world is crucial for all of us – after all we depend upon it for our food, for the air we breath and, some would say, for our very sanity. Its a relationship that we're stretching to breaking point as we continue to grow in numbers. m44s31-m44s57
- I'm very aware that this programme may be regarded as bleak or depressing - an increasing population with an ever decreasing supply of resources – but humans have capabilities that animals don't: to think rationally; to study; to plan ahead. The number of people on the planet depends on the personal decisions we each make regarding the number of children we have even setting aside the moral responsibility we have to protect other species, if we continue to damage our ecosystem, we damage ourselves. Its clear that we'll have to change the way that we live and use our resources. We're at a crossroads where we can chose to cooperate or carry on regardless. Can our intelligence save us? I hope so. m46s24-m47s15
- And they noticed what few others had done – that all over the world, charismatic animals that were once numerous were beginning to disappear. The Arabian oryx , which once had been widespread all over the peninsula had now been reduced to a few hundred. In Spain, there were less than a hundred imperial eagles. The Californian condor was down to about sixty. In Hawaii, a goose that had lived in flocks on the lava fields around the great volcanoes were reduced to fifty. The strange little rhinoceros that lived in the dwindling forests of Java – to about forty. Wherever you looked there were examples of animals whose populations were falling rapidly. This planet was in danger of losing a significant number of its inhabitants – both animals and plants.
- Something had to be done. And that group determined to do it. They would need scientific advice to discover the causes of these impending disasters and to devise ways of slowing them and hopefully, stopping them. They would have to raise the awareness of the threat to get the support of people everywhere; and - like all such enterprises - they would need money to take practical action. They set about raising all three. Since the problem was an international one, they based themselves, not here, but inwitzerland. And they called the organisation they created the World Wildlife Fund
- Fifty years ago, when the WWF was founded there were about three billion people on earth. Now there are almost seven billion. Over twice as many - and every one of them needing space. Space for their homes, space to grow their food (or to get others to grow it for them), space to build schools and roads and airfields. A little of that space might be taken from land occupied by other people but most of it could only come from the land which, for millions of years, animals and plants have to themselves.
- The impact of these extra millions of people has spread even beyond the space they physically occupy. Their industries have changed the chemical constituency of the atmosphere. The oceans that cover most of the surface of the planet have been polluted and increasingly acidified. We now realise that the disasters that continue increasingly to afflict the natural world have one element that connects them all - the unprecedented increase in the number of human beings on the planet.
- There have been prophets who have warned us of this impending disaster, of course. One of the first was Thomas Malthus. His surname – Malthus – leads some to think that he was some continental European savant, a German perhaps. But he was not. He was an Englishman, born in Guildford in Surrey in the middle of the eighteenth century. His most important book, An Essay on the Principle of Population was published over two hundred years ago in 1798. In it, he argued that the human population would increase inexorably until it was halted by what he termed ‘misery and vice’. Today, for some reason, that prophecy seems to be largely ignored – or at any rate, disregarded. It is true that he did not foresee the so-called Green Revolution which greatly increased the amount of food that could be produced in any given area of arable land. But that great advance only delayed things. And there may be other advances in our food producing skills that we ourselves still cannot foresee. But the fundamental truth that Malthus proclaimed remains the truth. There cannot be more people on this earth than can be fed.
- Many people would like to deny this. They would like to believe in that oxymoron ‘sustainable growth.’ Kenneth Boulding, President Kennedy’s environmental advisor forty five years ago said something about this. ‘Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet,’ he said,’ is either mad – or an economist.’
- Make a list of all the environmental and social problems that today afflict us and our poor battered planet. – not just the extinction of species and animals and plants, that fifty years ago was the first signs of impending global disaster, but traffic congestion, oil prices, pressure on the health service , the growth of mega-cities, migration patterns, immigration policies, unemployment, the loss of arable land, desertification, famine, increasingly violent weather, the acidification of the oceans, the collapse of fish stocks, rising sea temperatures, the loss of rain forest. The list goes on and on. But they all share an underlying cause. Every one of these global problems, environmental as well as social becomes more difficult – and ultimately impossible - to solve with ever more people.
Interview in Metro 29 Jan 2013
- I don’t like rats but there’s not much else I don’t like.
- To suggest that God specifically created a worm to torture small African children is blasphemy as far as I can see.
- I'm not an animal lover if that means you think things are nice if you can pet them, but I am intoxicated by animals.
- The thing about a bush baby is that the male establishes its territory by peeing on his hands and putting it all on the walls. And after you've had a pair for about six months, you can see people coming into the house, sniffing and going: ‘Now, that’s definitely not mulligatawny soup.’
- If you understand about the natural world, we’re a part of the system and you can’t feed lions grass. But because we have the intelligence to choose… But we haven’t got the gut to allow us to be totally vegetarian for a start. You can tell by the shape of our guts and the shape of our teeth that we evolved to be omnivores. We aren't carnivores like lions but neither are we elephants.
- When asked if realising that animals are intelligent makes him want to be a vegetarian.
Climate Change Conference 2018
- Right now we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.
- Speech at the Katowice Climate Change Conference, "David Attenborough: collapse of civilisation is on the horizon", The Guardian, 3 December 2018.
Quotes about David Attenborough
- I have always been entranced by Attenborough’s wildlife programmes, but astonished by his consistent failure to mount a coherent, truthful and effective defence of the living world he loves.