David Attenborough is, to many people, nothing short of a legend and certainly thoroughly deserving of the oft-overused plaudit of national treasure. His nature documentaries and wildlife series have spanned the decades and opened the eyes of successive generations to the wonders of the natural world.
At the ripe old age of 94 (at the time of writing), this icon has no intention of retiring. Indeed, he has a new film coming out in cinemas and on Netflix on 28th September, 2020, entitled David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet. The film was produced by the WWF, the World Wide Fund for Nature.
For many years now Attenborough has discussed environmental issues and the need for humanity to take responsibility for the natural world, but have his environmental concerns led him to change his dietary and lifestyle habits? In other words, is David Attenborough vegan?
David Attenborough Limits Meat Intake, But Is Not Vegan
It might come as a disappointment to some, especially those who have chosen to become vegan for environmental reasons, but Attenborough is not vegan. At least not in any strict or dogmatic way. In an interview with the Radio Times in 2019 he stated, “I’m not a vegetarian in the sense that I would actually throw up if I saw or touched a piece of meat, but I eat very little meat at all.”
In a separate interview with Lily Cole in 2019, Attenborough was asked, “What do you think about the rise of veganism and the argument that people should reduce their meat consumption?” He responded thus:
Well, we can’t go on eating meat at the rate we have been. I haven’t been a doctrinaire vegetarian or vegan, but I no longer have the same appetite for meat. Why? I’m not sure. I think subconsciously maybe it’s because of the state of the planet. Although, I’ve never really been one for eating enormous meals and I’m not particularly a gourmet either, so I can’t pretend that I’m feeling deprived in any way or that it’s cost me all that much.
“The Planet Can’t Support Billions of Meat-Eaters”
In A Life On Our Planet, however, Attenborough is reported to suggest people move towards plant-based diets. As reported by the Mirror, in the film he says, “We must change our diet. The planet can’t support billions of meat-eaters. If we had a mostly plant-based diet we could increase the yield of the land.”
Of course many vegans will inevitably make the point that perhaps Sir David should lead by example and commit to full veganism in order to use his mammoth profile to carry the flame for the movement. Especially given that, according to the WWF, who produced Attenborough’s 2020 film, “The livestock industry alone generates nearly 15% of all man made greenhouse gas emissions.”
WWF Suggests a Rebalancing of Diet
But in their 10 Tips For Eating For The Planet it is notable, and many would say very frustrating, that the wildlife organisation does not call for people to adopt full vegan diets but rather suggests, “we need to rebalance our diets by prioritising plants and moderating our intake of animal products.”
That would be great on some levels if everyone moderated their intake of animal products (whatever that vague statement means in real, quantifiable terms). But the fact is that there will be many people who will not reduce their intake of meat and other animal products, so from an environmental perspective it is going to take a lot of extra vegans to offset the damage done by those who refuse to change their dietary behaviour.
Incremental Behavioural Changes
On the other hand, there is a valid argument that suggests that nudging people towards incremental behavioural change can prove more effective on a population scale than making what some might view as unrealistic demands, for example, to immediately cut out all animal products from one’s diet.
As argued by various scholars over the decades, such as French anthropologist, Pierre Bourdieu, and English sociologist, Anthony Giddens, the habits, structure and subconscious norms of populations – such as the regular consumption of animal products – are not easily shifted or modified.
Can David Attenborough Influence the Masses to Make a Change?
It is entirely possible that someone of the stature of Sir David Attenborough might be able to break through (in a way that a bunch of shouting vegans picketing a steakhouse might not) and strike a chord with many people when he urges them to modify their intake of meat rather than making demands that everyone immediately embraces veganism.
The hope is that Attenborough’s films and personal stance will at least open people’s eyes and allow people to make the very real link between environmental destruction (both global heating and habitat destruction) and the consumption of meat and other animal products. Time will tell on that front, though our planet might not have too much time if things don’t change quickly.
Let’s leave that debate aside for now though and take a brief sojourn through David Attenborough’s impressive television CV.
David Attenborough’s Television Career
Since beginning work as a producer for the BBC way back in 1951, it really is astounding how many television projects Attenborough has written, presented, narrated or produced. He has also been involved with films that utilise cutting edge technology, whether using drones and trap cameras, ultra-slow motion or 3D, he has never been a stick in the mud when it comes to methods of capturing the best wildlife footage. Indeed, Attenborough is the only person to have won BAFTA awards for programmes created in black and white, colour, HD and 3D, something which is indicative of his longevity in the industry.
Let’s take a look at a selection of Attenborough’s wildlife programmes that have brought wonderment and education to households around the world. We won’t list them all, but here are some of the televisions highlights of this bona fide national treasure. Note that many of David Attenborough’s BBC series (as well as various one-off specials, interviews and other programmes) are available for UK viewers to watch on BBC iPlayer.
|Zoo Quest||1954-1963||Attenborough’s first series as a presenter (as well as writer, sound recordist and producer!) was ground-breaking and gave television viewers access to images of wildlife that many people didn’t know existed or which they had only ever read about. It proved a big hit and essentially created a new genre of television.|
|Wildlife on One||1977-2005||Running for 33 years, this series was narrated by Attenborough and focussed on all kinds of wildlife all over the planet from cheetahs to sharks, rhinos to ladybirds.
It also produced amazing footage about the diverse flora and habitats present in many far-flung destinations and generally instilled in many people of all ages an appreciation of the natural world.
|Life On Earth||1979||Critically acclaimed and loved by the watching public, Life On Earth told the story, as the title suggests, of the history of life on our planet. It exhibited innovative and ground-breaking filming techniques, as well as a good deal of patience on the part of the filming crews (with one cameraman reportedly waiting for hundreds of hours to capture a particular shot of a frog!).
One of the most memorable scenes of the series was when Attenborough got up close and personal with a group of mountain gorillas in Rwanda.
|The Private Lives Of Plants||1995||Focussing on flora rather than fauna, this series gave an at times enthralling insight into the vast array of plants that span the globe, including carnivorous plants that are capable of trapping and consuming rodents… proving that even plants avoid the vegan diet sometimes!|
|The Blue Planet||2001||This time Attenborough focussed on the world’s oceans and the animals that live in and around them. Cue more extraordinary wildlife footage and ground-breaking filming techniques, including the use of a cutting-edge submersible that allowed filming to take place in the depths of the oceans.|
|Planet Earth||2006||With footage that took around four years to collect and that was filmed in 64 countries, this epic series proved extremely popular with people of all ages.|
|Frozen Planet||2011||Examining life and nature in the polar regions, the series began to show the impact of global warming on the ice caps and the implications for the animals and people who rely on those environments.|
|Africa||2013||Though many African countries had featured in previous Attenborough programmes, this series focussed on the continent’s diverse wildlife and habitats in more depth than ever before.|
|Seven Worlds, One Planet||2019||This series looked at each of the world’s continents in turn and was filled with the usual wonderful and educational footage that has become par for the course for Attenborough’s natural history programming over the decades.|
David Attenborough: Not a Vegan But a True Champion of Animals
There will be some people out there who would challenge David Attenborough to put his money where his mouth is and to fully commit to veganism to back up his other environmental credentials. But over the course of a career that has spanned decades, Attenborough has done more to help educate people about animals and the natural world than perhaps anyone else on the planet.
Through this education, and other resources they have been inspired to access, many millions of people have become more aware of the issues facing the planet in relation to global heating and the climate emergency, plastic pollution, habitat destruction and more. And, though he isn’t himself a strict vegan (or even vegetarian), his advocacy for reducing the amount of meat we consume has got to have a real and positive influence on many people across the globe.
It is our view that browbeating people into making lifestyle changes the advocates feel are positive and even logical is not only ineffective but also like to have the reverse effect. Education backed up by science and encouragement by people of real statue (such as David Attenborough) is likely to have a far wider and deeper influence.
And, if he can encourage millions of people to significantly reduce their consumption of meat, that has got to be a positive thing for the vegan movement, and indeed the animals who will be spared and, of course, the planet as a whole.
Perhaps in an ideal world Attenborough would be a vegan and sing the praises of a vegan lifestyle. But as we’ve seen on many of his more recent programmes, the world is far from ideal at the moment, despite retaining much beauty. The hope is he, and others, can give people enough reasons to want to make the changes necessary to ensure the world maintains its beauty and wonder, whether those changes are to reduce the number of flights taken, making more ethical shopping decisions, or indeed reducing meat and dairy intake, or fully embracing veganism.