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Dublin: 7 °C Saturday 19 October, 2019
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Lynn Ruane: 'Now is not the time to stop listening to David Attenborough'

We don’t have time for small measures when it comes to climate change, writes Lynn Ruane.

Lynn Ruane Independent Senator

THE THREE ARENA is full to the brim of people scurrying to their seats, plastic bottles of water in one hand and a paper container of popcorn in the other. The stage is ready, large screens act as a backdrop to the orchestra that is about to take its place on stage. Blue Planet II illuminates the first few rows of the audience.

If you had asked me when I was younger what I wanted to be, I usually replied “David Attenborough”. He was more than just my idol: he was the man who showed me the world.

He will never know me, yet he has shaped so much of who I am. I would sit staring at the television screen, afraid to even blink in case I missed something. There was no rewind on the television in the 90s, so I couldn’t risk missing even a second of David Attenborough showing us the savanna filled with impalas, mounds of ants or the glaciers of Greenland.

Some of my best memories are of lying on the sofa with my Da watching his documentaries. My Da told me about a show called Zoo Quest that Attenborough had in the 60s. My Da said he went to a place called Madagascar. The word Madagascar sounded so beautiful to me so I lodged it in my head with a promise to my future self to go there.

In those early years, Attenborough didn’t bring the scenes of destruction we see today and this, in my opinion, was not because he felt he didn’t have to. Instead, he connected us to the world in a way that didn’t feel so far away.

Everything is interconnected

His shows taught people better than anyone else that everything is interconnected. Not in a spiritual sense, in a purely scientific and observational sense – this river dries up, that plant dies, those herbivores thin out, that carnivore goes extinct.

That’s his greatest gift for me: he brought me from my home in Killinarden into every corner of the world and made me feel part of it.

He didn’t need to hammer home the point about us being responsible, because he taught us that nature is both easy to disrupt, yet also robust if we give it space.

My desire of exploring Africa came from watching him, lapping up his every word as everything he said inspired an aspiration in me. It is because of David Attenborough that my daughter Jordanne and I sat on the wooden barges of Cancun, Mexico in hope we would catch a glimpse of a saltwater crocodile.

It is because of him that in 2009 we travelled to Mozambique to spend time in the African bush and the following year to Zululand for five weeks to research the movements of the endangered wild dogs as volunteers.

‘I felt like I was home’

I remember the exact moment we landed in Africa for the first time. Our excitement was tinged with panic when we saw the plane. It looked ancient, and flimsy. Jordanne held my hand and said: “Mam, I love Amelia Earhart, but I don’t know about getting on the actual plane she flew.”

But nothing was going to get in our way, so we boarded the plane, squeezed each other’s hands and closed our eyes tightly as we took off. After a few minutes, we gently opened our eyes and gazed out the window. There it was, Africa. I hadn’t yet stepped foot in the African bush and already I felt like I was home. The tears fell as I realised we had made it. 

Once the plane landed, we were piled into a pick-up and ferried to our destination, a wooden lodge with a straw roof, perched on a mountain top, surrounded by lush green trees. Everything looked so rich in colour. We were met by the friendliest of staff, who gave us strict instructions:

Don’t leave the room without a guide because animals often make their way through the lodge. And don’t leave your door unlocked from the inside because the baboons like to rob all the pretty things from guests’ rooms.

Jordanne’s eyes were wide open and the excitement on her face made my heart skip a beat. I was emotional with gratitude that we could visit such a place. We made our way out on the balcony just in time to watch the sun go down over the plains.

Only a couple of hours later, we would be out on our first trek in the Land Rover. Jordanne was nine at the time and the trip had such a powerful impact on her that she never ate an animal again. David Attenborough had become just as much her role model as he was mine and her love and respect for the animals allowed her to take this principled decision at such a young age.

For a decade now, she has become a passionate advocate of the movement for people to address the impact of eating meat is having on the planet. We will always treasure those heart-stopping moments and beautiful memories in Africa. But we understand that the safety we felt in our planet then, is not there now. 

‘Attenborough is no longer just here to entertain us’

Back to 2019 in the 3Arena and as Jordanne held my hand again, it wasn’t excitement we felt, it was grief. As the audience sat uncomfortably in their seat we hoped that they like us were just as distraught by the scene on the screen.

We sat there, silently crying, as a walrus cub was cradled close to its mother in an effort to find a surviving bank of ice that they could have safety from the polar bears. Polar bears that are not in good condition either. Attenborough drives the point home that the ice is disappearing due to rising sea temperatures brought on by climate change. 

David Attenborough has dedicated his life to bringing our planet into our homes and now he is telling us in no uncertain terms that we must take what he is saying out of our sitting rooms and into our everyday lives to save our beautiful planet.

You could feel the concern in the room as people glanced to the plastic bottles in their hands and the empty popcorn containers at their feet. He has brought generations of us on a journey around the world, but Attenborough is no longer just here to entertain us of a Sunday afternoon. Now is not time to stop listening to him.

There are encyclopaedias written about communicating climate and environmental politics – we’ve gone from spreading information, which was considered disempowering and depressing, to hyper-positive solution-orientated talk of economic opportunities of decarbonising, back to a more realistic position that is emerging now from voices like Greta Thunberg.

We don’t have time for small measures, for consumer choices and educational programmes – we have 11 years left to fully implement policies to avoid catastrophic disruption to the world’s systems, and panic is the only appropriate response. Panic matched with action.

It’s hard to not let despair and helplessness become the reaction to that though. Some, like Greta Thunberg, have focused on the approach that despair and resignation are a “sin” in these circumstances. That’s an evolving debate. 

In acknowledging Thunberg’s comments, we also need to ensure we are not just passive onlookers to this drama. Some would say that individual action is mostly irrelevant, yes, but it’s the same in voting, and we still do that and we still encourage others to too.

We have to act responsibly and set examples, and we have to convey to our representatives, including those knocking on your doors over the coming month, that this is one of the most important issues that we care about, and that we will accept changes to our way of life as long as they are fair, effective and will allow us to continue to enjoy all we’ve achieved in the past without costing the earth.

One way for Ireland to lead on this is to fully get behind Deputy Bríd Smith’s Climate Emergency Bill, which bans Fossil Fuel exploration in Ireland.

In the words of George Monbiot, leading environmental thinker in the UK and Guardian columnist “we can’t do it by just pissing around at the margins”.

Lynn Ruane is an independent senator. 

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About the author:

Lynn Ruane  / Independent Senator

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