A plague of David Attenborough

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The British broadcaster blames poverty and hunger on the overbreeding poor

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Last week, British broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough devoted over a third of a widely reported interview to his claim that human beings are “a plague on the earth.”

“It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.”

Attenborough cited Ethiopia as his only example of the natural world fighting back against the human plague.

“We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves – and it’s not an inhuman thing to say. It’s the case.”

In Attenborough’s view, Ethiopians are starving simply because there are too many of them. Since they haven’t voluntarily reduced their numbers, the natural world is doing so, by the “natural” method of mass starvation.

But let’s suppose that 50% of Ethiopians disappear today. That would take the country’s population back to its level in the 1980s. If Attenborough’s people-are-the-problem view is correct, hunger should not have been a concern then.

In reality, more than 400,000 Ethiopians died of starvation between 1983 and 1985, in one of the worst famines of modern times.

Clearly, reducing population would not make Ethiopia any less vulnerable to mass hunger.

Too Many People?

Too Many People?

Ethiopia actually produces much more food per person today than it did when the population was much smaller. According to Oxfam, the country is now is “just 2% from being able to supply an adequate level of food energy to all its citizens.”

Despite that, at least thirty million Ethiopians go to bed hungry every night.

The problem isn’t human numbers or food production, it’s an economic and political system that enriches foreign investors and a tiny urban elite, while nearly 80% of the people earn less than $1 a day. There’s lots of food, but they can’t afford to buy it.

Cruel irony: the hungriest people in Ethiopia are farmers. In the past five years, hundreds of thousands have been driven off their land with no compensation, while the government has leased millions of hectares to foreign corporations that raise export crops.

But in Attenborough’s populationist worldview, there are no land grabbers stealing land from subsistence farmers. There is no history of colonial exploitation, slavery, and war, no extreme inequality reinforced by neoliberal policies. There are no international speculators driving up food prices, no agribusiness giants exporting food to richer countries while millions starve. There are just people, and people are a plague.

Yes, there is a plague on the earth, but it isn’t people. It’s a social and economic system that puts profit before people, that treats food as a commodity instead of as a basic human right. So long as that system remains in place, hunger and poverty will continue, no matter what happens to birth rates.

Films about wild animals have made David Attenborough famous. It’s sad and appalling that he uses that fame to promote ignorance about human suffering.


More on the overpopulation myth …
More from my notebook …


  • Poor people will keep producing more children until they’ve more economic justice & education, but infinite growth into a finite system won’t go, & climate change & the decline of fossil fuels ought to make us even more cautious about our swelling population. More people = more consumption, more loss of habitat for other species.

    • Have you caught your own tail yet? Human survival and population stability both require something simple: radical redistribution of wealth and power. Population growth is a symptom, not the cause.

  • Suggesting that highlighting the dangers of overpopulation somehow makes David Attenborough’s comments “sad and appalling” is going a bit far, especially as his observations are based on serious and acknowledged concerns about the inability of the planet’s resources to support the maintenance of the baseline standard of living that many countries aspire towards. The political problems you’re describing are real, yet they’re an additional layer of complexity on top of this system. The core issue remains that ecosystems cannot support unrestrained demands on their resources, and we’re not doing nearly enough to avert the end point. Much can still be done to improve efficiency, but there’s too much fossilized resistance to meaningful change, and we need public figures like David to stimulate this debate. The train has not gone over the cliff yet, but it’s approaching fast and we’re all bickering over whose job it is to apply the brakes.

  • http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/21557

    Link from an article in the Guardian 22 January showing UK involvement and complicity in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of rural and farming Ethiopians as a result of their flawed and very questionable aid programme. Currently about 500,000 refugees have fled to Kenya having been forcibly removed from their land in favour of agribusiness.

    All around the world people go hungry not for lack of food, even in times of dire drought or crop failure, but because they have no money. This is the system we live in.

    Unfortunately the tragedy of D Attenborough’s public stance on this is that because of his well-deserved reputation as wild life expert, documentary maker etc. too many people will be willing to heed his word on the ‘population problem’ crediting him wrongly as an expert on this too.

  • Humans can either cultivate or desecrate the planet. We are not intrinsically plague-like.
    We can build a non growth oriented economy which is based upon renewables and decarbonisation but also reafforestation and agroecological interventions which actively revive the earth and boost soil carbon and make the blue planet lush once again.

    I think Attenborough has made a swag of fantastic documentaries which showcase a range of complex ecological oddities and various creatures large and small in an easy to digest format that is accessible to the masses. Which is a legacy that will live on long after he has returned to the nutrient cycle, so to speak, and is truly a credit to the man. But with comments such as what is quoted above regarding Ethiopia I have to say that his grasp on the political realm comes a distant second to his grasp on all things zoological and biological.

    I would be keen to see him make a documentary about the Cuban campesino to campesino agroecology movement and that countrys food system – and forest and marine reserves – and see if this restored his faith in the ability of the human species to live in a more symbiotic relationship with pachamama.

    Whilst it is true that the best way to curb population growth is to provide the social security that large families stem from a lack of, if this point is not explicitly made by people like Attenborough when they discuss population then they are effectively obscuring the role capitalist relations play in the equation rather than highlighting it.

    If Attenborough followed his comments on Ethiopia by noting that the provision of universal healthcare and education across Africa would be a big help and that a shift toward a more self sufficient agroecological model (rather than an export agribusiness model based on cash crop exports like coffee) might be a good idea that would be a slightly more nuanced and less offensive variation of mathusianism. But he didn’t do that.

    What he is saying essentially blames the victim for the ills of capitalism. Which is an unhelpful argument to be inserting into the mix at this time in human history and I think its important to deconstruct such ill conceived interventions.

  • The system of capitalism was not imposed on the human race from outside,
    we thought of it all by ourselves… Since we seem to be unable to
    come up with anything better, then “plague” is probably an accurate
    description of our species. “Cancer” would be another accurate term,
    with our obsession with endless “growth”. We certainly do not deserve
    the term “Intelligent Life”!

  • I think / hope Mr. Attenborough is a good person, but I absolutely agree with your POV. It seems like you are attributing malice to what I think is honest ignorance, probably attributable to his focus on nature and environment rather than politics.

    I wonder if, in an open debate / discussion, with evidence from either side on the table, D.A. would change his opinion?

    A related subject I hear a lot from scientists and engineers is that technology X will save the hungry, sic, poor, uneducated… Technology can help, but peoples’ dire situations come down to society’s lack of will, not a lack of technology.

  • This is simple ecology that David Attenborough is discussing. He’s not saying there aren’t other impacts, but in any population of any species if there are too many individuals then as a result of all kinds of influences then the population gets reduced. This can be from disease, starvation, lack of habitable land, flooding because the environments been changed too much etc.

    David isn’t saying that capitalism and politics isn’t an influence, he’s just giving the world a warning that we can not expect to live the way we do with a growing population. Things that lead to a reduced population are usually strong socialist ideas such as the education of women, or access to birth control, which is a positive thing on all sides.

  • You know this is a contentious issue for me. But you have made your point eloquently and with good logic and skillful argument. You may yet persuade me! I am sadly watching the what the energy companies in the US and Canada are doing. The growing sinkhole in Louisiana, the Keystone Pipeline land grab, mountaintop removal in Virginia, and the oil drilling in the Gulf, all of which threaten livelihoods and food production while promising more energy for our cellphones and computers. Balance is in great need.