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Sir David Attenborough Has A Dire Message About The Earth's Future

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sir David Attenborough is 94 years old and has some stark, startling sentences in the first few pages of his new book. The natural world is, fading, he writes. I've seen it with my own eyes. It will lead to our destruction. His book, "A Life On Our Planet: My Witness Statement And Vision For The Future" - and the highly honored broadcaster, historian of nature and best-selling author joins us now. Sir David, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Pleasure to be here.

SIMON: You were a BBC executive in the control room when the first pictures of Earth were sent back by the Apollo 8 crew. How did that change our view of the world?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, I think it changed everybody's view. I think the sudden sight that there were two people way out there, high up in the sky looking at the Earth from a distance where the whole globe was within one picture was an extraordinary realization, not only of the smallness of the planet but its isolation. There we are, on it, and everybody in the entire world is in that picture except for the two people in the spacecraft. I wasn't prepared for it. I don't think anybody has actually said that they were prepared for it, either. But somehow, it really changed the attitude of people. And suddenly, we realized, you know, we're there together, and we're alone.

SIMON: I feel the need to take up some of the very practical points that you raise in this book. You write, for example, we have become too skilled at fishing.

ATTENBOROUGH: Yes.

SIMON: What does that mean? What has that done?

ATTENBOROUGH: That means that nothing is safe. If we want to, we can kill almost anything in the sea that we wish. And if there's a profit in it, we do that - worse than that, even when there's not a profit in it, when governments actually see fit to subsidize it. So there's not a profit in it, we still go killing it, and they throw a heck of a lot of it back. And that's because of the oceanic commons, as they say, the areas of the ocean in which anybody can do what they like. There is no international law at the moment to stop it. And then we will suddenly discover that suddenly the seas are almost empty. And we're on the danger of doing that. And we've exterminated the great fisheries. The cod fishery, I mean, we exterminated that from the Atlantic. The herrings have disappeared from the North Sea. And we don't learn the lessons.

SIMON: You advocate what you call no-fish zones.

ATTENBOROUGH: Yes. I advocate that there should be zones, parts of the ocean where they should be absolutely sacrosanct, where, in fact, populations of fish can build up and actually from that, colonize the rest of the seas that we've stripped. If there is no corner of the oceans which is safe from fishing vessels of one kind or another, we are heading for total elimination of the edible fish from the sea.

SIMON: You project what the world might look like in 10 years and even a century. Let me just ask you about the 2030s. You say 75% of the Amazon rainforest could be gone.

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, it could be gone. And when the government of Brazil is saying that that's what they actually want to happen because knocking down the rainforest is a very good (ph) way to get a quick buck. You knock down a rainforest tree, and you get a lot of money from the timber which you sell. Then you deal so with the land. You put crops on the land and get another reward. And then you clear that furthermore for cattle. So it's very profitable in the short term. But that rainforest is one of the key elements in the whole of the weather patterns of the world. And if you knock down the whole of the Amazon rainforest, the whole of the climatic systems of rainfall and other climatic factors will be - go off balance. And who knows what effect that will have on the world.

SIMON: I - forgive me, but I feel the need to quote a movie in which your brother starred (laughter), "Jurassic Park," where the scientist says, nature finds a way. You say in this book, with us or without us...

ATTENBOROUGH: Yeah.

SIMON: ...The wild will return.

ATTENBOROUGH: Oh, well, yes. That is quite true. I'm quite sure. It will survive. The natural world will survive. But whether it will survive in the form that will include us in it is just another question.

SIMON: You're 94, but I have to ask, for all you have seen - almost a century - in times that have been bleak, where does this moment rank?

ATTENBOROUGH: Well, I'm not sure if you can take an overall view like that. If you have a global view, which - and science can give us - science would say that there are more species in danger of total disappearance than there have been in human history.

SIMON: So what gives you hope? Or is that question not called for under the circumstances?

ATTENBOROUGH: I don't think it is a responsible thing to do is to simply say that what we see the future, it's very dangerous, and to hell with it. We have to do our best. And I believe we can do our best. The various meetings that have been convened by the United Nations - setting out plans which need validation by national governments and which will cost national governments, and I think that we need to persuade our own government in this country - and maybe you in your country - that we as citizens recognize what's happening to the world. And we understand that it's going to cost something if you put it right and that the Western and developed countries had more than their fair share. They may have got time to actually - to pay more to sort things out.

SIMON: Sir David Attenborough - his book, along with his co-author Jonnie Hughes, is "A Life On Our Planet." Thank you so much for being with us.

ATTENBOROUGH: Pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.