Heroes of the Environment

Leaders & Visionaries

David Attenborough

REUTERS / Phil Klein
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It's the voice, of course. He can imagine the scene at the pearly gates, St. Peter sitting as doorkeeper, deciding whom to let in and whom to send elsewhere. In the corner of the frame, at some distance and still very much alive, is a gray-haired figure in a safari suit, enthusiastically whispering to a camera, "So here he is, then, the creature whose existence so many have doubted — and yet, here, in the remote cloudtops never before visited by living human beings, is the Great Gatekeeper himself." And then, perhaps, he might make a small, friendly sound, in the hope that he could persuade the bearded judge to turn his head. And Attenborough's face would beam in delight.

Life After Death is almost the only natural-history series yet to be made by Attenborough. In a career that has taken him to every corner of the world, he has explored life in all its richness — from mammals and birds to plants and reptiles. No living person has done more to make the people of Planet Earth aware of the world around them.

There are plenty of other missionaries for the environment, of course. But what distinguishes Attenborough is that boundless, schoolboyish enthusiasm, the infectious joy of discovering the infinite variety of life. It all began over 50 years ago, with Zoo Quest, and reached its apogee in the 13-part BBC series Life on Earth, reckoned to have been watched by 500 million people. But the scale of his success has not corrupted him into the hectoring piety of some green campaigners, and he has not sought the comforting "certainties" of religion (with characteristic modesty, he merely describes himself as an agnostic).

He is probably the best-known broadcaster in the world. He has been knighted and fêted, of course (and honored by having a wondrously weird New Guinea spiky anteater named Attenborough's long-beaked echidna). But his true memorial is the sense of wonder that he has brought to people all over the globe at the astonishing ingenuity of the life forms with which we share this increasingly crowded space.

That voice, instantly recognizable, now tinged with the teethy lisp of old age, is the voice of the environment.

Jeremy Paxman is a broadcaster and writer. His most recent book is On Royalty

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