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Sir David Attenborough explains what he thinks needs to happen to save the planet

Sir David Attenborough on 60 Minutes
Sir David Attenborough: The 60 Minutes Interview 13:36

For nearly 70 years Sir David Attenborough has been exploring the planet, taking hundreds of millions of television viewers on eye-opening journeys through the natural world. Jungles and island archipelagos, deserts and deep under the sea, no place has been too remote, no animal too elusive, for Sir David and his talented team of filmmakers to document. The man known as a national treasure in his native Britain, is 94 years old now, but age and the pandemic haven't slowed him down, he's coming out with a new book and a remarkable and stunning new film, "A Life On Our Planet," which premieres on Netflix next week. They are, what he calls, a witness statement, a firsthand account of what he has seen happen to the planet and a dire warning of what he believes awaits us if we don't act quickly to save it.

Sir David Attenborough in "A Life on our Planet": The living world is a unique and spectacular marvel…. 

In his new film, Sir David Attenborough's voice is the same.. 

Attenborough: Of million kinds of… 

Sonorous and soulful, reassuringly familiar... 

Attenborough: Dazzling in their variety and richness… 

But his message is uncharacteristically alarming...

Attenborough: The way we humans live on Earth, is sending it into a decline. Human beings have overrun the world. We're replacing the wild with the tame... Our planet is headed for disaster.  

Anderson Cooper: You call the film "a witness statement." A witness statement is given when a crime has been committed.

Sir David Attenborough: Yeah, well, a crime has been committed. And-- and it so happens that, I'm of such an age, that I was able to see it beginning.

  Sir David Attenborough

Sir David Attenborough: And so it isn't that I enjoy saying, "Doom, doom, doom." On the contrary, I'd much rather enjoy, take thrill, excitement, pleasure, joy, joy, joy, joy. But if you've got any sense of responsibility, you can't do that.

Sir David spoke to us via Zoom near his home in London where he's been living in isolation due to the pandemic.

Anderson Cooper: I imagine you living in a house full of things that you have collected from travels around the world, a sort of cabinet of curiosities. 

Sir David Attenborough: Well, that is true in the sense. And-- and certainly I've got a cellar full of rock. (LAUGH) Lots of rocks. And sometimes you pick it up and you say, "Good lord, what on earth is this," or indeed, "Why on earth would I have bothered to pick this up?"

He studied geology and zoology in college, and was working as a producer at the BBC in 1954, when he convinced his bosses to let him loose and start traveling the world. He was just 28 years old. 

David Attenborough became a household name in 1979 with his ground-breaking BBC series, "Life On Earth," which was seen by an estimated 500 million people worldwide.

Sir David Attenborough: I know it sounds like a publicist slogan, but it is the greatest story ever told. It's the story of how life developed on this planet and led to you and me sitting here, talking across an ocean.

Where Sir David Attenborough draws his optimism 05:21

Viewers were drawn in by Attenborough's enthusiasm and sense of wonder. 

This was his first filmed encounter with endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

Attenborough in "Life on Earth: Life in the Trees": It's really very unfair that man should have chosen the gorilla to symbolize all that is aggressive and violent, when that's the one thing that the gorilla is not and that we are.

Sir David Attenborough:  I remember it very vividly.

Sir David Attenborough: They ended up, two of them, sitting on me. (LAUGH) Two of the babies sitting on me. Was I alarmed? Was I frightened? Was I-- concerned that the mother of those two baby chimps was going to turn on me? Not at all. Not for a microsecond. It was the biggest compliment I can remember receiving. "You are-- you are being accepted into that family." And it was unforgettable.

Unforgettable moments in the wild is what Sir David Attenborough has become known for. 

There is barely a corner of the earth he hasn't been to, or a species he hasn't shown us in a new way. He's done more than just bring the natural world into our homes, he's helped us make sense of it, given it a story, full of characters and complexity, not to mention excitement. Take a look at this from BBC's "Planet Earth II."

Attenborough in "Planet Earth II": A snake's eyes aren't very good. So if the hatchling keeps its nerve it may just avoid detection.

Anderson Cooper: I saw that on a plane. And I started talking to the person next to me in my seat saying, "You have to watch this, this is extraordinary." They thought I was crazy. 

Sir David Attenborough: (LAUGH) Well, I mean, it's the job of a narrator for natural history films is-- is a great-- is-- is a bit of a doddle. I mean, it's--
Anderson Cooper: A bit of a doddle?

Sir David Attenborough: A bit of a d-- a piece of cake, how's that? (LAUGHTER) It's really pretty easy. Because the animals are so fantastic. 

Sir David has always been an animal advocate. In the early 1960's he was a founding member of the World Wildlife Fund, but in his films he rarely focused on the destruction of their habitat or climate change. 

Anderson Cooper: You were skeptical of-- of climate change And I think that's-- that's interesting, because I think it makes your warnings now all the more powerful. 

Sir David Attenborough: Yeah, yeah, certainly so.  And if you're going to make a statement about the world, you better make sure that it isn't just your own personal reaction. And the only way you can do it, do that, is to see the-- the work of scientists around the world who are taking observation as to what's happening. As to what's happening to temperature, what's happening to humidity, what's happening to radioactivity, and what's happening ecologically?   

Anderson Cooper: You've said that-- that "climate change is the greatest threat facing the planet for thousands of years."

Sir David Attenborough: Yes. Even the biggest and most awful things that humanity has done, civili-- so-called civilizations have done, pale to significance when you think of what could be around the corner, unless we pull ourselves together.

Sir David Attenborough: Deserts in Africa have been spreading. There could be whole areas of the world, where people can no longer safely live.

Sir David Attenborough: The hottest temperatures yet recorded in Death Valley and yet we are such optimists that we say-- we go to bed at night and say, "Ah, well, that was exceptional. Gosh, that was interesting, wasn't it? That was the highest temperature. Good lord. Well, that's the end of that." Not at all. Wait. Wait another few months. Wait another year. See again.

Over the years Sir David has repeatedly visited Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
Sir David Attenborough: A coral reef is one of the most dramatic and beautiful and complex manifestations of life you can find anywhere.

But on his last trip he was stunned by what he saw.

Sir David Attenborough: We went on this reef, which I knew. And it was like a cemetery. Because all the corals-- had died. They died because of a rise in temperature and acidity.

Anderson Cooper: There are still people who are gonna see this and say, "Well, look--  it's not that bad. And technology--"

Sir David Attenborough: Who are these people who are saying this?

Anderson Cooper: And technology will evolve to come up with some sort of a solution that we can't even imagine?

Sir David Attenborough: No. We live in a finite world.

Sir David Attenborough: Ultimately we depend upon the natural world for every mouthful of food that we eat and indeed every lung full of air that we breathe. I mean, if it wasn't for the natural world the atmosphere would be depleted from oxygen tomorrow.

Sir David Attenborough: If there were no trees around, we would suffocate. I mean-- and actually, in the course of this particular pandemic that we're going through, I think people are discovering that they need the natural world for their very sanity. People who have never listened to a bird song, are suddenly thrilled, excited, supported, inspired by the natural world. And they realize they're not apart from it. They are part of it. 

Anderson Cooper: So, by saving nature, we are saving ourselves.

Sir David Attenborough: Oh, without question.

Anderson Cooper: You say in the film, "We're not just ruining the world, we've destroyed it." Is it- is it that far gone?

Sir David Attenborough:  It's not beyond redemption. 

Redemption, he says, depends on a complete shift to renewable energy and an end of our reliance on fossil fuels.

Anderson Cooper: The fossil fuel industry does not want the world to move off fossil fuels.

Sir David Attenborough: No, it doesn't, but in fact we know ways in which we can get from the sun up there just a tiny fraction of the amount of energy that sprays on this earth 24 hours a day one way or-- or another, for nothing. If we can solve the problems of storage and transmission, the world is ours. We have all the power we need. Why should we go on poisoning life on earth?

Anderson Cooper: It sounds simple when you say it.

Sir David Attenborough: So it is.

Sir David also wants to see what he calls a "rewilding" of the planet, giving plants and animals on land and in the ocean time and space to bounce back. The World Wildlife Fund says that two thirds of the earth's wildlife has disappeared in the past 50 years.

Sir David Attenborough: Repopulation of the oceans can happen like that, in a decade. If we had the will to do it. But we require everybody to agree that.

Anderson Cooper: If you were to pick up the phone and speak with President Trump or-- or President Xi of China or Prime Minister Modi in-- in India, what would you say?

Sir David Attenborough: I would say that the time has come to put aside national ambitions and look for an international ambition of survival. 

Anderson Cooper: It seems politically the tide is moving in the opposite direction from that, of-- of nations more looking inward and not as being part of a larger international community.

Sir David Attenborough: That's what's gonna sink us in the end. That's what's gonna sink us.

Anderson Cooper: Can you be optimistic at all?

Sir David Attenborough: We don't have an alternative. I mean, what good does it do to say, "Oh, to hell with it, I don't care." You can't say that. Not if-- not if-- if you-- if you love your children. Not if you love the rest of human-- how can you say that?

It's the young that Sir David now puts his faith in. And they, it seems, have faith in him.  

Take for example the reception he received last year when he popped up on stage at Britain's largest music festival.

Sir David Attenborough: There's a huge movement around the world of people from all nations, young people who can see what is happening to the world, and demanding that their government should take action. And that's-- that's the best hope that I have. I mean, it's-- obviously my generation failed. We've allowed it to happen.

We've allowed this to happen, Sir David Attenborough says, despite being the smartest creatures that have ever lived. Now, he warns, we need more than just intelligence, we need wisdom. After all, this planet is all we have. There is nowhere else to go.

Anderson Cooper: Do you believe there's life elsewhere?

Sir David Attenborough: No, not really. But also, I think-- that's-- I mean, it's an interesting theoretical question, but it's a theoretical question. Why would I want to go and live on the moon when I've got this world of badgers and thrushes and jellyfish and corals and-- why would I want to go and live on the moon? Because there's nothing else there but dust. I'd say, "Well, thank you very much, I'll stay where I am and watch hummingbirds." (LAUGH)

Produced by Michael H. Gavshon. Associate producer, Kate Morris. Broadcast associate, Annabelle Hanflig. Edited by April Wilson.

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