David Attenborough: Extinction of the natural world is ‘on the horizon’

Attenborough told the audience at COP24 that climate change is "our greatest threat in thousands of years."

  • David Attenborough spoke Monday at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, also known as COP24.
  • The annual summit is designed to help the international community reach agreements on how to curb climate change.
  • The U.S. pulled out of the Paris accord in 2017 and President Donald Trump will not attend the summit, though reports suggest he's sending energy and climate advisor Wells Griffith to hold a side event promoting fossil fuels.

Civilizations will collapse and much of the natural world will go extinct unless the world takes action on climate change, David Attenborough said Monday at the United Nations summit on climate change in Poland.

"Right now we are facing a manmade disaster of global scale, our greatest threat in thousands of years: climate change," he said. "If we don't take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon."

Attenborough was speaking at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, also known as COP24. The annual summit takes places this year from December 2 to 14, and it's aim is to help signatories of the Paris climate accord reach agreements on how to cut global emissions and curb climate change.

"This is the most important COP since the signing of the agreement, and we need initiatives like yours to testify that governments, the private sector and individuals can work together to tackle climate change by committing to multilateralism," said U.N. Climate Change Deputy Executive Secretary Ovais Sarmad.

Attenborough, a natural historian who's perhaps best known for presenting the BBC's nature documentary series 'Life', called for urgent action.

"The world's people have spoken," he said. "Time is running out. They want you, the decision-makers, to act now. Leaders of the world, you must lead. The continuation of civilisations and the natural world upon which we depend is in your hands."

COP24 occurs in the wake of a sobering U.N. report from October that warned the atmosphere could warm by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial temperatures by 2040, a rise that would bring catastrophic consequences. Last week, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said that the average global temperature for 2018 was on track to be the fourth highest on record.

(Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images)

Sir David Attenborough.

The Climate Action ActNow.bot

Attenborough recommended that everyone have a chat with the U.N.'s ActNow bot, a program designed to help people make small but significant lifestyle changes to help reduce their environmental footprints.

"If many people take actions that will reduce emissions, it will add up," reads the U.N. website. "And it will send a message to leaders, in government and the private sector, that people want climate action, and are willing to take it."

You can check out the ActNow bot here.

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  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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