Attenborough, 95, is arguably the world’s best-known natural history broadcaster. During a career that began with the dawn of television, he has penned and presented some of the most influential documentaries on the state of the planet, including his decade-spanning, nine-part Life series.
When Sir David Attenborough was a boy, he spent much of his free time bounding through abandoned quarries in the English countryside, hammer in hand. His prey: fossilized ammonites, spiral-shaped mollusks that lived in the time of the dinosaurs.
To a young Attenborough, the fossils were like buried treasures and he was amazed to be the first to set eyes on them in tens of millions of years.
The natural world would keep him enthralled for the rest of his life.
Today, Attenborough, 95, is arguably the world’s best-known natural history broadcaster. During a career that began with the dawn of television, he has penned and presented some of the most influential documentaries on the state of the planet, including his decade-spanning, nine-part Life series.
With what the New York Times called his “voice-of-God-narration” and an insatiable curiosity, he has spent 70 years revealing the beauty of the natural world – and laying bare the threats it faces. Along the way, he has offered hundreds of millions of viewers a vision for a more sustainable future.
“If the world is, indeed, to be saved, then Attenborough will have had more to do with its salvation than anyone else who ever lived,” wrote environmentalist and author Simon Barnes.
The United Nations has recognized Attenborough’s outsized impact on the global environmental movement, presenting him with the UN Champions of the Earth Lifetime Achievement Award. The award is the UN’s highest environmental honour and celebrates those who have dedicated their lives to tackling crises like climate change, species loss and pollution.
“You have been an extraordinary inspiration for so many people,” said Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), as she presented Attenborough with the award.
“You spoke for the planet long before anyone else did and you continue to hold our feet to the fire.”
Along with his work in the media, Attenborough is one of the leading voices of the global environmental movement. He has appeared at landmark summits, like the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference, where he has called for a unified global effort to combat the threats to the Earth.
He has also collaborated with UNEP for at least four decades, lending his voice to a series of campaigns and short films that have cast a spotlight on the organization’s efforts to counter the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and pollution. That work is driven by a belief that no one country alone can solve the planet’s environmental ills.
“We are living in an era when nationalism simply isn’t enough,” Attenborough said in accepting the UNEP Champion of the Earth Lifetime Achievement Award. “We must feel like we are all citizens of this one planet. If we work together, we can solve these problems.”
Attenborough graduated from Cambridge University in 1947 with a degree in natural sciences, but soon found he didn’t have the disposition for a life of research. And so, he made his way to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) just as television was creeping into homes.
His first TV appearance came on 21 December 1954, in Zoo Quest, a globe-trotting series that introduced rapt Britons to exotic creatures, like orangutans and Komodo dragons.
Life on Earth
As talented an administrator as he was a presenter, Attenborough would rise through the ranks of Britain’s national broadcaster, eventually coming to helm BBC Two. There, he commissioned Monty Python’s Flying Circus, among other series.
But administration wasn’t really for him, and in 1973 Attenborough left the executive suite to return to making films.
The result would be his landmark 1979 series Life on Earth, an epic that charted the history of the living world, from the first microbes to humankind.
The series took three years to make and Attenborough travelled 1.5 million miles during filming. With its scope and ambition, Life on Earth would redefine the natural history documentary and be viewed by some 500 million people.
Over the next three decades, Attenborough would write and present eight more grand documentaries, focusing the world’s attention on what he called the “spectacular marvel” of nature.
But as his career progressed, Attenborough came to bear witness to the cratering of the natural world. As humanity’s presence grew, nature’s receded. Human activity has altered three-quarters of the Earth’s surface and placed 1 million species at risk of extinction.
“Immensely powerful though we are today, it’s equally clear that we’re going to be even more powerful tomorrow,” he said at the conclusion of 1984’s The Living Planet. “Clearly we could devastate the world. [The Earth’s] continued survival now rests in our hands.”
Attenborough’s films showed the world that the wild is not infinite, that it was delicate and needed protecting – and that humanity was growing dangerously apart from nature.
Last year, halfway through his 90s, he addressed world leaders at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
“We are already in trouble,” he said. “Is this how our story is to end? A tale of the smartest species doomed by that all-too-human characteristic of failing to see the bigger picture in pursuit of short-term goals.”
But then, as almost always, Attenborough’s words were tinged with optimism. A recurring theme of his films has been that despite the dire state of the planet, humanity can still repair the damage it has done.
“It’s not all doom and gloom,” he said in 2020’s A Life on Our Planet, a look back at his career. “There’s a chance for us to make amends, to complete our journey of development and once again become a species in balance with nature. All we need is the will to do so.”
In the same film, he offered a prescription for making peace with nature. It centered on raising living standards in poorer countries to curb population growth, embracing clean energy, like solar and wind power, eating more plant-based foods, which are easier on the planet, and abandoning fossil fuels.
“If we take care of nature, nature will take care of us,” he said. “It’s now time for our species to stop simply growing, to establish a life on our planet in balance with nature, to start to thrive.”
Attenborough’s work and activism would see him knighted (twice) and become the namesake of dozens of species, from attenborosaurus (a prehistoric swimming reptile) to nepenthes attenboroughii (a carnivorous plant).
In recent years, Attenborough has continued to lend his voice to natural history documentaries, earning a pair of Emmy nominations in 2021 for narration. (In his career, he has won three Emmys and eight BAFTAs.)
For decades, Attenborough has been sought by world leaders looking for solutions to the crises facing the natural world – and perhaps a jolt of his enthusiasm.
In 2015 he visited the White House for a conversation with United States President Barack Obama. Obama asked Attenborough what sparked his “deep fascination” with the natural world.
“I’ve never met a child who’s not interested in natural history,” he replied, perhaps recalling his fossil-hunting days in the English countryside. “So, the question is, how does anyone lose it?”