OFTEN, it seems to me, that David Attenborough, who appeared for a while to be the one voice we needed to galvanise us into action for the planet, has now tipped over to being the last we need if we’re actually going to do anything about the mess we’re in.

In his latest documentary, The Year Earth Changed, which covers the effect of the last year of lockdown on our world, he reportedly says: “Human beings, even with the best will in the world, cannot but restrict the natural world. That’s what we’re doing. We’re pushing it aside. Even the most considerate of us. That’s almost inevitable to some degree but let us realise that we are intruders, that we are latecomers and that the natural world, by-and-large, would do much better if we weren’t there at all.”

This, of course, is just one quote from the film, but it's a telling one. It reminds me of how, as an 18-year-old, when I read James Lovelock’s Gaia, I felt a kind of sigh of “Ah well, the planet will get rid of us eventually, let’s carry on as usual”. I look back with regret at the way that fuelled apathy rather than action in my twenties.

I wish I hadn’t let the idea that the Earth would do better if we weren’t here enter my head. With it I lost an opportunity to make a difference, however small. Indeed every time we let a death wish for humanity prevent action today, the room for manoeuvre in the future narrows. I say this because I believe that almost as damaging as the minority-narrative that we are not responsible for global warming and can carry on burning fossil fuels, is the one that says: “Pah, the sooner the planet purges us, the better.” Right now, in the run up to COP26, what we need are voices that tell us that the world could be, if not better with us, fine with quite a few of us around – and how.

We need voices that remind us that we can transition and be a kind of human species that lives well with the natural world, of which we are part. And that tell us there are answers out there that are not just technological fixes, but the beginnings of a set of principles and concepts – regenerative culture, circular economy, symbiotic relationships, hyper-localism, sharing, community-ownership, rewilding.

Of course, we have a long way to go. We are still far from loosening our ties to a view of humans as resource-plunderers. We still cling to models of endless economic growth, and panic at the idea of any birth-rate related to population decline, even if, particularly in wealthy countries, that’s an environmental win.

In The Brilliant Abyss, Helen Scales warns against the desecration of the sub-sea realm

As much as we need the practical answers, creating change is also a confidence trick, and we need to believe in order to make the leap to a different way of relating to our environment. Comments like Attenborough’s don’t help. They come across like a death wish – a dream of a world in which, like his earlier documentaries, wildlife roams and battles for survival, but humans are absent. What we need now is a vibrant and tangible vision of a world where both can co-exist.