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Attenborough’s Witness Statement: Between Status Quo and Revolution

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By Youssef Bouchi

· 7 min read

Cognizant of further politicization in an already-polarized political climate—pun intended—David Attenborough in his witness statement, A Life on Our Planet, points a finger at the capitalist mode of production without calling it out by name. Rather, he demonstrates how Earth’s destruction of ecosystems and its warming stem from a multitude of human activities, coupled with a growing human population, carried out throughout the past century. Even though the link between these activities and the capitalist mode of production is not blatantly pronounced, it is to some degree accounted for. For instance, in his demonstration of the conversion of Borneo’s biodiverse rainforest into a monoculture of oil palm, he states that the driving force of this process is a “double incentive—people benefit from the timber and then benefit again from farming the land that’s left behind.” In his description of large-scale fishing and overfishing altering marine trophic systems, he mentions in passing how governments “began to subsidize the fleets to maintain the industry.” These statements are not only telling of the nature of the global economy, but also serve to plant the seed from which critical thought can spring in the viewer’s mind. This is crucial in the build-up to the documentary’s final 30 minutes, consisting of solutions and a reminder to “move from being apart from nature to a part of nature.” To me, that sounds like indigenizing; however, that is far beyond the realm of Netflix and chill.

Before proceeding, it is important to note that this is neither a critique of Attenborough as a person, nor is it a critique of the beautiful, visceral witness statement he provides. Indeed, this stream of thought stems from a wish for Attenborough to leverage his grand stature and come forth with a greater revolutionary call for action after having successfully induced the existential angst and urgency required for it. This piece is rather to entertain the economic and political decision-making possibilities that Attenborough’s conclusive solutions entail. In the BBC podcast succeeding the film’s release, he did indeed recognize capitalism as the “deeper root” of the climate crisis, and called for “curbing excess capitalism.” The set of solutions he posits in the documentary—from stabilizing population to striking a balance between rates of exploitation and regeneration of natural resources—serves as a prescription for a steady-state economy. Yet throughout the documentary, Attenborough uses the pronoun we in reference to the entirety of humanity. While it is adequate from a cosmic, evolutionary history lens, which fairly describes his method in depicting the past and present of the planet “we” have inherited today, it obscures responsibility for the consequences of the past and the responses for the future. It slurps the histories of the colonized, the exploited, the defeated into one global history of development; it creates a monolith out of humanity that co-opts all the forces of opposition and resistance to this untethered exploitation of nature and people. As a result, not only does it shun the fact that only a few companies whose raison d’être is profit are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions historically into oblivion, but it also upholds dominant power dynamics that ultimately dictate the execution of solutions for the climate crisis. Demystifying the polluting monolith that is humanity and connecting the dots that Naomi Klein urges for in On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, these power dynamics are exposed, and the truth thus unveiled: Climate change is class struggle.

It is no fortuity that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) addresses poverty in its Summary for Policymakers, or that one of the guiding principles in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities. Yet, such principles of equity are co-opted into a narrative of green capitalism in that it provides jobs while failing to address the inevitable externalities attached to it. Back to Attenborough. Underlying the double-incentive to benefit from timber and newly farmable land in Borneo, for instance, is a set of determinants: capital, natural resources, labor power, and the state. When natural resources and labor power are cheap and accessible, capital flows in, and the state either welcomes it with open arms or restricts it. Indeed, child labor and coerced expropriations have been reported, and access to land was not only unrestricted, but also encouraged by the state. The rainforest’s biodiversity, by being priceless, is compromised for wealth generation. Such is the capitalist logic; and as such the pattern repeats across space and time. It becomes evident that decision-making power is distributed unevenly, thereby making consequences of decisions experienced unevenly. Perhaps the fact that illustrates this most vividly is how the Global South will suffer from climate disasters disproportionately more than the Global North, when the latter is the larger emitter of greenhouse gases by far since industrialization. Sometimes, one individual, by being appointed Supreme Court Judge in the United States can alter the pathway for global action towards climate change.

The lack of taking into account the socioeconomic infrastructure and gradients of decision-making power underlying human activities in understanding the process of ecological degradation and overshoot is perpetuated in the solutions proposed. These are: limit population growth by providing in healthcare and education for all; phase out of fossil fuels by investing in renewables; preserve the ocean and its fish by creating “no fish” zones in international waters; radically reduce areas used for farming by changing our diet, increasing yield within a given space, and immediately halting deforestation.

To begin with, population growth as a driver for climate change is a myth for the simple fact that the largest emissions per capita are attributed to low-population prosperous states. As for highly populated developing nations, leapfrogging fossil-fuel based growth is indeed possible. Yet, the call to limit population growth was not only to combat climate change, but to also preserve biodiversity and better engage in land-use planning. Drawing on the Netherlands’ highly efficient food production system, Attenborough makes the case for maximizing yield while minimizing land-use. Recognizing a fundamental limit to food production—space—there was plenty of incentive for the Dutch to innovate. Meanwhile in the United States, 90 million acres, which is around 10 times the size of the Netherlands, is covered with corn. And it isn’t to feed people; only 10% of it goes to feeding people, while 40% goes to feeding cars with ethanol, and another 40% goes to feeding livestock. Thus, population growth doesn’t capture the essence of the problem; it needs to be complemented with its patterns of consumption. Education and healthcare for all goes far beyond limiting population growth, and unto delimiting critical consciousness and resilience.

“The trick,” Attenborough says, “is to raise standards of living around the world without increasing our impact on that world.” This already presupposes that the enhancement of standards of living thus far is a byproduct of development, yet a rise in average life expectancy for example is attributed to progressive policy, and not capitalism, contrary to the status quo discourse the bourgeois pundits of the likes of Jordan Peterson would posit. As for fossil fuels, “it’s crazy,” goes Attenborough, “that our banks and pensions are investing in fossil fuels when these are the very things that are jeopardizing the future we are saving for.” What’s crazier is that our future depends on savings to begin with. Even crazier is the inheritance of debt as part of the grander broken system. In any case, when it comes to green finance and so-called impact investments, Michael Goldman’s Imperial Nature reveals from inside the World Bank’s headquarters what it boils down to—"green neoliberalism;” capitalizing on the growing middle class of emerging markets, further commodifying nature, and further expanding the “self-regulating” global market across geographies.

It is indeed essential to harness renewable energy and it has been quite absurd burning through millions of years’ worth of decomposed organic matter; but it is crucial to enquire about the purpose of harnessing, converting, and producing this energy. It is crucial to enquire about the nature of mineral extraction and labor power required to manufacture solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and electric vehicles. It is crucial to enquire about the recyclability and reusability of these apparatuses at the end of their lifecycle. For as long as the status quo discourse of development itself isn’t questioned, further rounds of capital accumulation are inevitable. Additionally, it isn’t down to our diet when the food system is yet another broken system and when hunger is a daily experience for plenty. Once again, it isn’t development and green tech that will save the day. Without at least lessons drawn from the honor system and pedagogy of the land, the aforementioned power dynamics can neither be subverted nor harnessed. While the state has hitherto legitimized capital and all it ensued, the state too, by virtue of that same power, can tame, limit, or even abolish capital. Between status quo and revolution, subsists a web—Foucault’s archipelago of power—from which forces of different magnitudes and directions emerge both within and without the state. Movements—labor, women, Indigenous, BLM, climate—all interlace in solidarity to challenge and subvert the common enemy: capital and the capitalist class.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Youssef Bouchi is an MSc. in Sustainability Management from the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the political ecology of extracting the minerals and metals necessary for post-carbon futures.

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