Sir David Attenborough’s views on population control

TV naturalist Sir David Attenborough’s programmes are usually fascinating and informative but when it comes to his views on population control, he is talking rubbish. Reactionary rubbish at that.

“Human beings are a plague on the earth,” Attenborough says in an interview with theRadio Times. If we don’t limit “the frightening explosion in human numbers, the natural world will do it for us”.

Attenborough (president of the Malthusian Optimum Population Trust) calls for urgent measures to cut population growth in developing countries:

“We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves…”

But Ethiopia is actually a classic example of why this is absolute nonsense. If the calories grown in Ethiopia stayed in Ethiopia then there would be no problem feeding the whole population. But the government’s economic plan is dependent on forcing its own citizens off the land and handing it over to global agribusiness to grow crops for export.


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Comment by Roger Alexander on January 29, 2013 at 21:15

It saddens me that this topic is about numbers and surface areas and not real people who have emotions, needs, desires a sense of humour.  I find it funny when lofty discussions are talking about 50 people per acre and land being stolen for agri-industry.  We have a population of batch-farmed humans in our tower blocks and it seems that this is what people want.  We have deserted farm land that would be used if that was what people really wanted to do with their time.  Farms used to be no more than slave worked plantations in this country.

Attenborough seems to want the whole planet preserved as a gigantic wildlife park and that is ridiculous.  He is doing a great job of preserving on film the evolution of the planet but he ignors the success of some viruses and insects.... does he want us to preserve them?

The population will control itself.   There is a movement to bring the natural world into cities with roof and wall gardens so the 'natural world' might well take over the human world... who knows?   My point is that this cannot be organised by governments or committees.

Comment by kenyasue Smart on January 28, 2013 at 21:28

Greetings Penny If that Is the case why the insistence that Ethiopian Women have to be on this birth control programme to gain entry into Israel as refugees

TEL AVIV, 28 January 2013 (IRIN) - The director of the Ministry of Health in Israel, Roni Gamzo, has issued a formal directive instructing that gynaecologists should not inject women with the contraceptive Depo-Provera without their knowledge or consent.

The directive, issued last week, comes after around 30 Ethiopian Jews who had emigrated to Israel said they had been told that they would not be allowed into the country without receiving the contraceptive drug.

Within Israel, Ethiopian Jews make up the majority of those given the drug, according to a report published in 2010 by Isha le'Isha, a women’s rights organization; 57 percent of women who had received the drug in Israel are Ethiopian Jews, although they account for less than 2 percent of the overall population.

“We believe it is a method of reducing the number of births in a community that is black and mostly poor,” Hedva Eyal, the author of the report, told IRIN. “It is indeed the first time that the state actually acknowledged that this procedure of injecting immigrant women with this drug, when they do not know the side effects and are given no other choice, is wrong.”

This report online:

Comment by Penny Cole on January 28, 2013 at 20:24

This is a complex issue indeed, but just to return to the points made in my blog, I pointed out that there is a massive transfer of calories from the developing to the developed world, including from Ethiopia. Just as during the famine in Ireland food was still being exported to England, so during the famine of 1985 in Ethiopia food was still being exported. 

Famine in Ethiopia does not arise from population size or drought but from an unfair distribution of land, and people's lack of control over the economy. That means they can't store food or set aside income from cash crops to import food in lean years. The problem is being intensified with the government's growth plan that will drive over a million people from their land and then sell or lease it to agribusiness. The production of cash crops will increase and the profits from that kind of farming will not be staying in Ethiopia.  So to return to the question, is hunger in Ethiopia due to the fact that "there are too many Ethiopians who can’t feed themselves", as Attenborough claims, or is the problem inequality and an unfair distribution of resources?


To return to the issue of population, it is true that most future population growth will be in developing countries. But the overall rate of population growth in the developing world is slowing and slowing faster than happened in the US and Europe in the 19th century. We are on a trajectory to a stable population. This is from the World Bank's population stats: “On the global scale, falling fertility rates already have decreased the population growth rate — from more than 2.0 percent to 1.5 percent a year over the past 30 years. Experts expect this trend to continue, so that by the end of this century the world’s population will stabilize at 9 to 10 billion people.


In 2010 the world’s population density was 53.2 people per square kilometer up from 48.9 in 2003 – not an unmanageable increase if there were a fairer distribution of land. Not that it wouldn’t be a good thing to decrease the rate faster, but we could cope – if we didn’t also have to also cope with war, racism, land grabbing, illegal logging, livestock farming, the use of food crops for fuel in other words, global capitalism.


Humanity will certainly ‘overrun’ the last remaining wildernesses if it continues to permit reckless destruction to feed the demand for continuous growth in commodity production.


And if we don’t halt global warming there are areas where existing populations will be driven out, and will have to be relocated. I imagine they will get the same level of support from their ruling elites as the poor of New Orleans did in the wake of Katrina and the poor of New York in the wake of Sandy.

Comment by Allan Wort on January 28, 2013 at 18:27

Back on topic.


The last substantive point worthy of consideration was Gerry pointing us towards Ian Angus’s thoughts (the stuff on tone policing and scientific method was funny though). Upon reading, they merely repeat the simplistic trope that the problem is one of an;


‘economic and political system that enriches foreign investors and a tiny urban elite’.

a social and economic system that puts profit before people’


‘Yeeeeeees.Thanks for that Ian.’ /Paxmanmodeoff


So now that kenyasue has backed away and Roger has got whatever it was that he meant to say off his chest, can we get back to an interesting point that Andrew made, please?


‘For example, the Earth could sustain about 1.2 billion Americans, or about 15 billion Ethiopians (these figures are from memory of something I read a few years ago, and so they are illustrative, and may not be accurate).’


If the issue is one of constrained resources, what part can and should data on disparate resource consumption and creation rates play in forming policy? If he could find and provide a link to the data he remembers it would be most helpful.

Comment by kenyasue Smart on January 28, 2013 at 15:56

@ Allan Wort

That’s no way to learn new things dear, just a kneejerk mechanism to preserve old prejudices and indoctrinations.

Any prejudices that I have are a result of white supremacist attitude thoughts and actions  on the motherland. We can agree to disagree and park this one, I am not your "dear" !

Comment by Roger Alexander on January 28, 2013 at 15:39

Posters expose themselves and only give an insight into how they think.  If we react to their postings we are allowing them to influence us and that is not the way to clear thought.  The phrase 'everybody knows that....' is typical of a poster who thinks he/she is voicing a commonly held belief.  Each individual has an opinion based on their own perspective and experiences and it is good to watch stupid people label themselves as stupid.

Comment by Andrew Rossall on January 28, 2013 at 12:16

This is all getting very personal.  Not agreeing with somebody's point is never an excuse for personal insults.  I would suggest that if we can't debate civilly, then perhaps we should end the debate here.

I think there are some very interesting lines of thought being discussed though, and I think it would be a shame if we had to stop because of the personal insults.

Gerry Gold said:  "If he's applying an unshakable, perhaps even dogmatic adherence to the 'scientific method' (observations, hypothesis, experiment under controlled conditions etc) then we haven't a chance of having any statements about these huge and important matters surviving his onslaught."

The social sciences have centuries of experience of observing, hypothesising and testing without relying on "experiment under controlled conditions".  There are methods/ criteria for determing whether we have causation:
* There must be correlation.
* Effect always comes after cause.
* The pattern is repeated in several scenarios (eg looking at different countries, or at different times).
* There is a mechanism by which A might cause B.
* A causing B is the most likely situation (as opposed to some C causing both A and B).

Simply suggesting that being unable to test hypotheses under controlled conditions does not imply that we cannot be scientific.

In peace,


Comment by Gerry Gold on January 28, 2013 at 10:58

It would be good to know what Allan thinks would constitute proof of causation, before any more of us are subject to his ferocious criticism?

If he's applying an unshakable, perhaps even dogmatic adherence to the 'scientific method' (observations, hypothesis, experiment under controlled conditions etc) then we haven't a chance of having any statements about these huge and important matters surviving his onslaught.

Here's another view on the matter from Ian Angus:

Comment by Allan Wort on January 28, 2013 at 9:36

Isn’t it interesting everyone that kenyasue can’t be bothered to make any defense at all of the wildly inaccurate and misleading stuff she posted? She just wants to retreat back into her insulated bubble of ignorance waving the ‘I’m offended!’ banner.


That’s no way to learn new things dear, just a kneejerk mechanism to preserve old prejudices and indoctrinations.

Comment by kenyasue Smart on January 27, 2013 at 23:42

@Allan Wort  the evidence is out there If you care to read, all I can say about your rant and insults is that "The axe forgets, but the tree remembers."

Shona (Afrikan) proverb

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