David Attenborough on population concerns

4 June, 2011

Last April, the New Statesman published an article written by Sir David Attenborough called “This Heaving Planet”.  Much of it is worth quoting, so I take the liberty of doing so below.

My tuppence worth: what a handicap has been bequeathed to us population worriers and doomsayers by Malthus and his too-early warning of disaster.  As Attenborough says, Malthus was actually right in principle, but his timing was a bit out.  And we are continually derided by the Population Polyannas who point to Malthus’ “wrong” analysis.  Yes, Malthus may have “cried wolf”.  But people forget that, in the Aesop fable, the real wolf did eventually arrive.

Fifty years ago, when the WWF was founded, there were about three billion people on earth. Now there are almost seven billion – over twice as many – every one of them needing space. Space for their homes, space to grow their food (or to get others to grow it for them), space to build schools, roads and airfields. Where could that come from? A little might be taken from land occupied by other people but most of it could only come from the land which, for millions of years, animals and plants had had to themselves – the natural world.

But the impact of these extra billions of people has spread even beyond the space they physically claimed. The spread of industrialisation has changed the chemical constituents of the atmosphere. The oceans that cover most of the surface of the planet have been polluted and increasingly acidified. The earth is warming. We now realise that the disasters that continue increasingly to afflict the natural world have one element that connects them all – the unprecedented increase in the number of human beings on the planet.

There have been prophets who have warned us of this impending disaster. One of the first was Thomas Malthus. His surname – Malthus – leads some to suppose that he was some continental European philosopher, a German perhaps. But he was not. He was an Englishman, born in Guildford, Surrey, in the middle of the 18th century. His most important book, An ­Essay on the Principle of Population, was published in 1798. In it, he argued that the human population would increase inexorably until it was halted by what he termed “misery and vice”. Today, for some reason, that prophecy seems to be largely ignored – or, at any rate, disregarded. It is true that he did not foresee the so-called Green Revolution (from the 1940s to the late 1970s), which greatly increased the amount of food that can be produced in any given area of arable land. And there may be other advances in our food producing skills that we ourselves still cannot foresee. But such advances only delay things. The fundamental truth that Malthus proclaimed remains the truth: there cannot be more people on this earth than can be fed.

Many people would like to deny that this is so. They would like to believe in that oxymoron “sustainable growth”. Kenneth Boulding, President Kennedy’s environmental adviser 45 years ago, said something about this: “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad – or an economist.”

The population of the world is now growing by nearly 80 million a year. One and a half million a week. A quarter of a million a day. Ten thousand an hour..…

… our poor battered planet – the increase of greenhouse gases and consequential global warming, the acidification of the oceans and the collapse of fish stocks, the loss of rainforest, the spread of deserts, the shortage of arable land, the increase in violent weather, the growth of mega-cities, famine, migration patterns. The list goes on and on. But they all share one underlying cause. Every one of these global problems, social as well as environmental, becomes more difficult – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.

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