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Who is David Attenborough?
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Blog...Who is David Attenborough?

Who is David Attenborough?

Ecology News
Policy
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This article delves into the life of this iconic figure, exploring his transition from a naturalist to an environmental activist.
Ecology News
2023-08-31T00:00:00.000Z
en-us
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Sir David Attenborough, a name synonymous with nature and conservation, has graced our screens for decades, sharing tales of the Earth's wonders and its inhabitants. Celebrated as a national treasure in the UK and revered worldwide, Attenborough's journey is as diverse as the ecosystems he portrays. While his passion for nature has been at the center of his incredible career, it's intriguing to note that it wasn't until 2004 that he began to champion the fight against global warming.

👉 This article delves into the life of this iconic figure, exploring his transition from a naturalist to an environmental campaigner.

Early life and childhood

David Frederick Attenborough, better known as David Attenborough, was born on May 8th, 1926, in Isleworth, Middlesex, a mere 17 days after the late Queen Elizabeth II. His upbringing in Isleworth wasn't exactly ordinary. Attenborough's family was deeply immersed in academia; his father served as the Principal of University College, Leicester. Growing up on a university campus, Attenborough was surrounded by scholars and an array of textbooks, a setting that undoubtedly ignited his curiosity and passion for lifelong learning - traits that would go on to define his career.

Not only was Attenborough’s immediate family rooted in education, but they also had a flair for the arts and business. Among his siblings, his elder brother Richard Attenborough stood out as a prominent director, actor, and producer, while his younger brother, John Attenborough, made his mark as an influential executive in the automobile industry.

However, for a young David Attenborough, it was the allure of the natural world that captivated his heart. From a tender age, he showcased a profound affinity for animals, often recounting his days collecting fossils, stones, and other intriguing specimens. His early passion even benefited the university's Zoology department, which received its supply of newts from Attenborough's collections from a nearby pond. Yet, among the many events of his youth, a particular lecture by the British conservationist Archibald Belaney, who controversially also went by Grey Owl, deeply impacted him.

Listening to Belaney's passionate discourse on ecology, Attenborough was profoundly moved by his warnings about human-caused ecological destruction. At a time when such views were not as prevalent, Belaney ardently believed that human activity was jeopardizing delicate ecosystems. This revelation, alongside Belaney’s influential ideologies, didn't just leave a mark on young Attenborough; it sculpted the trajectory of his career. So profound was this influence that Attenborough even directed a biopic on Belaney's life in 1999.

Given David Attenborough’s upbringing and the inspirations of his childhood, it felt almost destined that he would go on to pursue studies in geology and zoology, which he did at the prestigious University of Cambridge in 1945.

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Early career

In 1947, after completing a stint of mandatory national service, David Attenborough embarked on a career in publishing, where he edited children’s science textbooks. Yet, the monotony of the role soon became apparent, leading him to apply for a radio producer position at the BBC.

Though Attenborough's initial application wasn’t successful, it didn't go unnoticed. Captivating the attention of the head of the then-new factual broadcasting department at the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) , he was offered a three-month training opportunity. This evolved into a full-time producer position in the same department.

💡 Did you know? By the time David Attenborough stepped into the BBC’s factual broadcasting department, he had only ever watched one television program. In those days, television technology was still in its infancy, with the majority of the population lacking personal access.

While Attenborough’s enthusiasm for the medium was undeniable, his initial assignments kept him behind the scenes. Citing his pronounced teeth, his boss believed that Attenborough wasn’t suitable for on-screen appearances. However, fate had other ideas. Collaborating with Jack Lester, the reptile curator from the London Zoo, on a series named ‘Animal Patterns', they developed the series 'Zoo Quest'. The pair traveled to Sierra Leone to capture and transport back to London a variety of different reptiles. However, when Lester, who was originally supposed to present the show, became ill, Attenborough had to step up to the plate.

After this Attenborough’s broadcasting career began to take off. Though his perspective underwent a transformation; Attenborough recognized the ethical issues tied to capturing wild animals for display, developing a preference for observing them in their natural surroundings.

By 1957, the BBC had established a natural history unit, and David Attenborough was approached to be a part of it. However, the role's stipulation of relocating from London to Bristol wasn’t appealing. Instead, a unique opportunity presented itself, allowing David to establish his own division at the BBC: the Travel and Exploration Unit.

Yet, Attenborough’s thirst for knowledge remained unquenched. Taking a sabbatical from the BBC, he enrolled for a PhD at the London School of Economics, juggling between academic pursuits and filming. When Attenborough rejoined the BBC full-time, he was promoted to the role of Controller of BBC Two.

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BBC

As Controller of BBC Two, David Attenborough’s duties were primarily administrative. Nevertheless, he was given the flexibility to continue filming the occasional series. These undertakings, reflecting his passion, often gravitated towards nature. His projects afforded him the opportunity to travel to remote corners of the world: from capturing the majestic herds of elephants in Tanzania and embarking on a quest for a lost tribe in Papua New Guinea to delving into the rich culture of Bali.

Beyond his personal documentary ventures, David Attenborough's imprint on the BBC was far-reaching. He played an instrumental role in shaping the direction and ethos of BBC Two for years to come. Under his stewardship, the channel's programming showcased a broad range of content, spanning music, art, comedy, travel, sport, natural history, science, drama, and entertainment.

Attenborough also commissioned a variety of productions under the banner of these topics, one of the most notable being ‘Life on Earth’, a series detailing the evolution of life on planet Earth. Attenborough wanted to present the series himself, but he was told that it wasn’t possible due to his management position. 

While his administrative roles at the BBC held prestige, David Attenborough’s true passion belonged to the world of program creation and presenting. Even when his rise through the BBC hierarchy culminated in his promotion to Director of Programmes in 1969, and rumblings about him being a contender for the position of Director General of the BBC emerged in 1972, Attenborough’s true calling couldn’t be ignored. He opted to stand down from his managerial role to return to the world of program-making and presenting.

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Life on Earth

David Attenborough stands as an iconic figure in the realm of wildlife and nature documentaries. Widely regarded as the benchmark for excellence in this field, he has not only inspired countless filmmakers but has also played a pivotal role in sculpting the very fabric of the genre, leaving an enduring mark on wildlife filmmaking.

1979 saw Attenborough unveil "Life on Earth". Esteemed for its meticulous research and respectful approach to its subjects, the series fostered a unique bond of trust between the scientific community and Attenborough's team, ensuring smoother collaborations in subsequent projects.

A distinctive hallmark of the series was its pioneering footage. Advancements in international air travel meant that the production team was able to access far-flung locations, allowing them to capture previously unseen footage of the animal kingdom. While "Life on Earth'' might have had a modest beginning, by its culmination, it had captivated an audience of millions of viewers.

This trailblazing success paved the way for "The Living Planet" in 1984, further solidifying the BBC's stature in delivering quality nature content.

As decades rolled on, David Attenborough remained unwavering in his commitment to producing documentaries of unparalleled depth and integrity, predominantly centered around ecology and the wonders of the natural world. By the mid-2000s, Attenborough's extensive body of work had encompassed virtually all significant flora and fauna groups, with reptiles and amphibians being the lone exceptions. This gap was filled with the 2008 release of "Life in Cold Blood." Subsequently, "Life on Land" was conceived as an anthology, consolidating this remarkable collection of documentaries under a single umbrella.

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Other documentaries and work

While David Attenborough is most renowned for his "Life" series, his contributions to the natural history and wildlife genre are vast. Among his other celebrated works are the documentary series "Blue Planet" and its successor, "Blue Planet II". The latter, broadcast in 2017, captured the attention of a staggering 14.1 million viewers.

The poignant visuals from "Blue Planet", such as a turtle ensnared by plastic and birds inadvertently feeding their chicks plastic debris, were more than mere footnotes in the series. These compelling images catalyzed a heightened public and political consciousness regarding plastic pollution. This shift towards highlighting environmental challenges mirrors Attenborough's own evolving focus on environmentalism, as evidenced in his documentaries over recent decades.

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David Attenboroughs’ environmental activism

Marking a departure from his earlier pieces, David Attenborough's 2000 documentary, "State of the Planet," delved into environmental concerns, featuring interviews with top scientists about human impact on the planet. In 2006, he further amplified this theme with "The Truth About Climate Change," a documentary squarely centered on global warming.

His later projects, like 2019's "Our Planet," spotlighted the environmental harm caused by human actions. That same year, "Climate Change - The Facts" and "Extinction: The Facts" brought forth an even more pressing narrative on our planet's state.

Beyond documentaries, Attenborough has actively championed environmental causes. A highlight was his stirring speech at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, where he spoke of the alarming environmental decline he's witnessed over his lifetime.

Further showcasing his commitment, Attenborough has held positions on several conservation boards, including Butterfly Conservation, Fauna and Flora International, and The Conservation Volunteers. He's backed global campaigns, like WWF's bid to protect parts of Borneo's rainforest and the World Land Trust's mission to establish a rainforest reserve in Ecuador. In 2020, he was also enlisted as a member of the Earthshot Prize Council, an initiative by Prince William to promote environmental solutions.

👉 To learn more about COP26 and its impact, why not take a look at our article on the event.

Given Attenborough's vast experience producing nature documentaries and his travels to the planet's farthest reaches, he has a unique perspective on the toll of climate change and environmental harm. It's this firsthand observation of nature's decline that drives the environmental messages in his work.
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David Attenborough’s environmental messaging

David Attenborough understands the influential platform he possesses and its potential for environmental advocacy. Yet, he often mentions the challenge of balancing impactful messages without overwhelming or alienating viewers.

While some argue that Attenborough hasn't been assertive enough, his recent documentaries undeniably underscore the planet's critical state. Films like "Extinction: The Facts" discuss looming mass extinctions, and "Climate Change: The Facts" zeroes in on global warming. His works also tackle deforestation and the inadvertent harm to wildlife due to human activities.

Interestingly, despite witnessing the effects of human actions on environments - like deforestation and resource overuse - Attenborough was initially skeptical about human-induced global warming.

It was a 2004 lecture that cemented the connection for him. Since then, he's championed reducing emissions, even advocating for a vegetarian diet to lessen our collective environmental impact.

Speaking about the lecture, David Attenborough recalled “I went to a lecture given by Prof Cicerone from the United States, who is an expert on atmospheric chemistry. He showed a series of graphs showing world temperature, and critically, population as well as ingredients within the atmosphere. The congruence of those things convinced me beyond any doubt that not only was the climate changing, but that humanity was responsible for that.”

Within months of seeing this lecture, David Attenborough would enter into talks with the BBC to begin the process of making a series of documentaries dedicated to climate change.

👉 Take a look at our articles on climate change and biodiversity loss to learn more about these topics. 

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Critics

Despite being viewed by many in the UK as a national treasure, David Attenborough is not immune to criticism. The main critique levelled at him is that he took too long to speak up about the impacts of human activities on the environment. Some also point to the fact that the beauty of his nature documentaries omit reality - i.e. that they fail to show the impact and encroachment of humans into these wild ecosystems, painting a much rosier picture than is really the case. 

Attenborough has countered this by referencing the BBC's stringent standards, which emphasise objectivity. He has also admitted that he was hesitant to discuss environmental issues as he didn’t see himself as a climate expert, opting instead to bring in specialists for those subjects.

Yet, in a testament to his growing influence and knowledge, many now regard him as an authority on environmental matters. This status was evident when Prince William sought his insights during a 2019 Davos interview, probing Attenborough for solutions to planetary challenges.

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David Attenborough’s power

David Attenborough stands as one of the UK's most cherished public figures. With a broadcasting career that has illuminated our screens for decades, his appeal transcends borders. Consistently ranking high in "most admired Briton" surveys, Attenborough's influence is undeniable.

His enduring popularity grants him a unique vantage point. Rooted in a long and credible tenure with the BBC, he’s seen as a knowledgeable and trustworthy voice. When Attenborough addresses environmental issues, his words resonate globally, captivating audiences from all walks of life and generations. People don't just hear him; they genuinely heed his message.

Such a sterling reputation has opened doors to elite platforms. Attenborough has been welcomed in influential arenas, from the White House to the World Economic Forum, sharing his insights with world leaders and top-tier business magnates.

David Attenborough's esteemed reputation is more than just a testament to his illustrious career; it's a catalyst. Leveraging his vast influence, he's championing crucial environmental causes, turning admiration into action for the betterment of our planet.
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What's next?

David Attenborough is now 97 years old. Yet despite his age, he refuses to slow down, lending his voice and public persona to a number of charitable commitments. David dedicates much of his time to campaigning for action to tackle the growing climate crisis. 

Fans of David Attenborough’s documentaries will also be pleased to learn that he will return to present “Planet Earth III”, which is slated to air later in 2023.

What about Greenly? 

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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