The sad decline of David Attenborough

How can someone who once commissioned The Ascent of Man now churn out such human-hating parables?

Rob Lyons

Topics Culture

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‘Today we’re living in an era in which the biggest threat to human wellbeing, to other species, and to the Earth as we know it, might well be ourselves. The issue of population size is always controversial because it touches on the most personal decisions we make. But we ignore it at our peril.’

David Attenborough’s film for BBC2’s Horizon strand, ‘How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?’, was an essay on why there are too many of us for the Earth to support – at least, if we want anything approaching a decent standard of living. Attenborough, who has been making wildlife films for half a century, argues that humans now have far too big an impact on the planet. The result, he argues, could be an ecological and humanitarian disaster.

But far from opening our eyes to a major new problem, Attenborough merely parrots the anti-human spirit of our times. It is Attenborough’s view of humanity, not humanity itself, which is toxic. Moreover, the logical upshot of his belief that humanity is wrecking the planet is for people to be stopped from having children, not merely by gentle persuasion, but by force if necessary, as people in China have discovered to their cost.

Attenborough begins by explaining why he’s come to this view. He never started out being particularly interested in conservation, he says, he just took great pleasure in looking at animals. Now, the ‘creatures that gave me joy are under threat’. He loved to search out wilderness, but now true wilderness is becoming difficult to find. As the most intelligent creatures on the planet, Attenborough argues, we have a moral obligation to the rest of the world to rein in our destructive tendencies and live within the limits of what nature provides. There is self-interest, too: ‘We’re still utterly reliant on natural systems for our very survival.’

Drawing on the work of the Canadian academic, William Rees, who developed the notion of an ‘ecological footprint’, Attenborough argues that the Earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ for humans is dependent on how well we want to live. If we all live like the average Rwandan, the Earth could support 18billion people; live like the average Indian and that capacity falls to 15billion. But if we want to enjoy the living standards of the average American, then the Earth can only support 1.5billion. Using the examples of water, food and fossil fuels, there are simply not enough resources to use, nor ‘sinks’ to dump our waste into, to support any more people.

Attenborough seems like a thoughtful and sincere man, but like all the arguments put forward by neo-Malthusians, this is errant nonsense. He quotes approvingly from Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population, which argued that population will always run ahead of the means to support it, an imbalance that would ultimately be corrected by nature itself through starvation. But Malthus has been proven utterly wrong so often it is embarrassing that intelligent people should still endorse him.

Despite what Attenborough says, the case against Malthus was even made, unwittingly, in his own Horizon film. Attenborough shows that while food production will need to double over the next 40 years to feed a bigger and wealthier population, the industrialised world has in the past trebled production through the use of fertilisers and machinery. The ‘green revolution’ of the Fifties and Sixties, led by the agronomist Norman Borlaug, increased agricultural output fivefold in just a few short years in many countries. Simply applying the best techniques available now to the whole world would come close to solving the problem, while emerging techniques could make farming even more productive. In other words, the food crisis, like the water crisis and the energy crisis, is really a social problem of poverty and development, not natural limits.

Attenborough believes that we cannot solve this crisis without birth control. To his credit, he reminds us of the terrible interventions made in the past. While everyone knows about China’s one-child policy, Attenborough points to Indira Gandhi’s emergency programme of vasectomies in 1977, when eight million people were sterilised. At one point, says an Indian contributor, the punishment for every crime – even something as petty as not having the right ticket on a train – was forced sterilisation. Attenborough prefers the lessons of the southern Indian state of Kerala, where a high level of education, particularly for women, means families are started later and are generally small.

Better education and access to contraception are very worthwhile aims, and we should be striving to make these available to as many people in the world as possible. But mixing up these aims with the misanthropic goals of the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), the organisation of which Attenborough is a patron, is plain wrong. And what happens if population levels carry on rising, despite the fluffy efforts to improve the lot of women? If the rising number of people is really such a threat, the logical conclusion might be to take stronger action, ‘for the sake of the planet’, along the lines adopted by Indira Gandhi.

Attenborough claims that he’s never known an ecological problem that couldn’t be made better by having fewer people, or worse by having more people. But he blithely ignores, for instance, the disastrous problems of desertification in thinly populated areas, or the benefits that rising population can have in setting people free from subsistence agriculture to do something more interesting and creative instead. For example, the wildlife films that he is famous for making are dependent on travelling the world and setting up hardy, patient photographers for months on end in camouflaged hides just to capture that thrilling shot of animals being born, mating, fighting, hunting and dying. None of that would be possible if we didn’t have populous and wealthy societies that could spare the resources to capture nature on film, purely for our entertainment.

What is really sad is that Attenborough, now promoting the idea that humanity is a blight on the planet, was once a great promoter of our achievements. As controller of BBC2 television from 1965 to 1969, he commissioned two great series on human achievement: Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. (He also put snooker on the box to show off another innovation, colour television, but we’ll forgive him that.) Forty years ago, Attenborough produced heavyweight television to promote man’s heavyweight achievements. Now he churns out one glossy nature programme after another which, while beautiful to look at, all seem to end up as simplistic parables about how we’re screwing up the planet.

How many people can live on planet Earth is a question that will be answered through our own endeavours to understand and manipulate the world around us for our own benefit. In Attenborough’s lifetime, as his film notes, global population has both trebled and average living standards and life expectancies have gone up considerably. If we accept, as Attenborough would like us to, that there are insurmountable natural limits upon the drive to raise the whole of humanity out of poverty or that we should put the planet before its people, we may very well end up with the kind of humanitarian disaster that Attenborough says he is seeking to avoid.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Patrick West is away.

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