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David Attenborough and his portrait of the earth

''Take heart, the world is recoverable,'' says British naturalist David Attenborough. A man with a finely tuned sense of humor, Attenborough (brother of Sir Richard Attenborough, the film director of ''Gandhi'' and now ''Chorus Line'' fame) gets serious for a moment.

We are talking over a sushi lunch at a Japanese restaurant in New York about his new series, The Living Planet: A Portrait of the Earth (PBS, premieres Sunday, Feb. 3, 7-8 p.m., and runs 11 Sundays thereafter, check local listings). Already the book based on the series, ''The Living Planet'' (Little, Brown & Co.), is in the bookstores. It is expected to be as great a success as his last book, based on his series ''Life on Earth.''

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Does the new series contain a major message?

''Of course there are some things that are irreparable - some species have gone. But the world will survive the loss of the dinosaur and the dodo.

''What we have to recognize now, though, is that every element of our world is affected by us. And since we are affecting it, we must manage it.

''It isn't as if we can say, 'Should we or shouldn't we?' We are already affecting the entire globe. So we've got to decide what we want the world to provide for us and then manage it.''

''Life on Earth'' was zoologist-botanist-naturalist Attenborough's first series, which aired on PBS a couple of years ago. It dealt with one group of animals per program. How does the new series differ?

''What we couldn't do in the other series is show the way in which birds and reptiles interrelate, communities characteristic of a particular environment. This new program looks at one group of environments worldwide - one about deserts, another about grasslands, and individual shows about jungles and coastlines and mountains.''

I have previewed portions of ''The Living Planet'' and found it to be a fascinating survey of similar environments around the world. Through seven continent, 63 countries, and 150,000 miles, the ubiquitous Mr. Attenborough is always there to guide the viewer into mysterious places on earth where he proves that often unrelated animals develop similar solutions to their common climatic conditions and that all forms of life are interdependent within a given environmental community.

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In one of the sequences, the viewer may be surprised to find Attenborough sitting casually in the jungle treetops, 200 feet up. How did that come about?

''I've been making programs about the jungle for 30 years and I thought: 'How are we going to make this jungle program look different?' I realized the one thing nobody had ever done on film was to go where the action is in the jungle - 200 feet up. In the treetops where there is lots of light and sun and wind. That's where the flowers bloom, where the birds and monkeys romp.

''We shot the rope up with a bow and arrow, got somebody athletic to climb it , then let down a fixed rope which I climbed. People are quite surprised to see me sitting up at the top. Actually, so was I. It was quite hard work to climb up.''

In an early sequence, Attenborough is seen climbing in the Himalayas and he seems to be out of breath. He feels the sequence has been misunderstood.

''The point of being out of breath was to demonstrate how human beings are adapted to their own environment just as animals are, that the Sherpa is adapted to an environment of 15,000 feet while you and I are adapted to 1,000 feet or less. If you go higher, there's very little oxygen.

''In order to make this point I was perhaps guilty of slightly exaggerating, so I panted a bit. The London critics said: 'BBC really shouldn't send this poor old soul out anymore. Instead of allowing him to go into retirement, they keep pushing him to climb mountains. . . .' I was very irritated.''

Attenborough admits that climbing the Himalayas has been his ambition since childhood. ''When I was a boy I thought the greatest thing a human being could do is to climb Everest. I desperately wanted to go on an expedition but never made it. It took this program . . . .''

He makes a joke of it, but Mr. Attenborough really seems to believe that mountain people are by and large nicer than anybody who lives in the plains. Why?

''I think it's partly because up in the high mountains you've got enough natural problems without fighting the people with whom you're shoulder to shoulder. There's the cold and avalanches, and when you meet somebody, you meet him as a friend, not as a competitor.

''The only real competitor in high mountains is nature. And so the result is that the nicest people I know are mountain people.''

One of the locations for the series was Mt. St. Helens. Attenborough was appalled at the destruction, ''and yet it is a tremendous, vivid, dramatic manifestation of the power of nature and the power of the earth.

''It's a paradox that it is destruction but it is also life, the creation of land, the creation of new minerals, the beginning of life. Of course, it may be the beginning of your death, but at the same time in volcanoes there is a perception of the processes of wild nature.''

Has there been some new revelation for Attenborough in the making of the series?

''I had an unbelievably privileged view of this tiny planet. If in three years you go from North Pole to South Pole, from the New World to the Old World, from one side of the Pacific to the other, from North to South America, from Europe to Asia, you see the globe as one interrelated whole. Not as little separate bits, ecologically or politically, but as one entity in which every part is coherent. We are all elements.

''It is not until this generation that that perception has been apparent. For so long everybody thought, 'If you've got a lot of waste just chuck it into the sea, because the sea is big and it just goes away and we'll never see it again. Now we know that when you chuck something into the sea it ends up on some other person's doorstep or the chimney makes acid rain for your neighbor. It's that perception which is important.''

The last time we talked, I had asked Mr. Attenborough if he could be any animal, which it would be. He chose the chimpanzee. Has he changed his mind?

He scratches his head, unwittingly making a chimplike movement. ''I don't know. I don't know. I often think that gibbons have the best time. They have this incredible facility to travel 20 or 30 miles per day, leaping and yodeling as they leap. At dawn they sit in the tops of the trees, singing this wonderful silvery call to their rivals and their families. They live in a very nice, loving community. I guess I'd choose to be a gibbon.''

What does he feel is the world's greatest ecological problem?

''The growth of human population. If you could stop humanity from increasing at the speed it is doing now, you would avoid a lot of appalling problems that are going to overwhelm us soon.''

He feels the greatest ecological problem In Britain is agriculture. ''Because of the economic structure of the Common Market, the placing of strange economic biases on different kinds of production, and because of the mechanization of farming, the lattice of hedgerows and small copses and spinneys which gave the English countryside its character - and provided a refuge for a variety of birds and animals - is being ripped up and turned into a featureless desert to provide food which we don't actually need. In the process, we are destroying the face of England. I've been battling that for the past five years.''

What's next on the TV agenda for Attenborough?

''I'm doing a program about (John James) Audubon. He interests me. I've been acquiring Audubon prints for 30 years. I used to buy them for $100, but recently when I was in Philadelphia I discovered one plate of the American turkey which was selling for $65,000. I just wish I'd bought it 30 years ago.''

After the Audubon special, he will do a series about man's interaction in Europe with nature in the last 10,000 years. What does Attenborough feel is the main point of the series?

''I would like people to recognize first of all that the natural world is the source of our riches, our food, our spiritual delight. That it is immensely complicated and that it is very vulnerable. And that if we recognize that everything worthwhile comes from the natural world to us, that we have the power over it, then maybe we'll come to our senses and handle it properly.''

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