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 Gerry Gold on February 4, 2013 at 12:01


Thank you for your 'Do it!' challenge. I'll be happy to swap CV's with you at some point, including my experience of 'doing it' over the last several decades: nationally, internationally, locally, economically, politically and culturally.  We should also critically consider the successes and failures of all of the prototypes, test beds and pilots studies carried out by others and the obstacles to their further development. 

But before we get on to that, I'll look forward to your comments on your reading of our published works.

Comment by Allan Wort on February 3, 2013 at 17:54

Many thanks for the links, Gerry. I look forward to reading all of those works.

Now can you address the main point; why is 'a different kind of society' necessary before you and the other community activists can implement your ideas?

I'll be a little more pointed if you like; why the hell do you think anybody with power and influence at the moment would hand it over to you, even temporarily or in proxy, to pursue your policy ideas? And if you don't think that unlikely event will occur, aren't you really saying that the first order of business in your mind is to grab hold of power? I think you are. What you are really saying is 'I want/need to take power in order to dictate new policy'. At least be honest about that goal if nothing else.

What I hear from many on this site is essentially the same. It's the old juvenile and fruitless game of 'If I ruled the world'. Nice to daydream when you're a teenager but not so impressive in middle age.

Here's a thought; formulate a plan that starts with 'here and now'. Establish some track record and credibility. Gather a following of people who have tried your ideas and who have seen they work. Build some prototypes, create some test beds, perform some pilot studies, make some examples of anything you suggest on the basis of your policies then you'll have something solid to point to for the dullards who have no imagination. Well, it might be more successful a route than talking and/or writing about it! Do it.

I am of course being hyperbolic in the service of dialectics; I mean you no harm at all and only use your example as an Aunt Sally at which to tilt because you are robust enough to take the hit. The main point being that interminable, middle class, ego-stroking is only satisfying to the person stroking themselves to fulfillment in public. It achieves nothing more for anyone else and might indeed deter others from contributing. There seems to me much too much of that in these threads already.

Too harsh? I'd argue 'not harsh enough'. While sites and boards like this accumulate more than enough self-serving armchair intellectuals and soak-up time and effort, possible productive initiatives founder due to lack of support. I'm sure you're as frustrated by this as I am. We need to focus on the energy and ideas of people like Daniel Buckley and find ways of skirting those worshippers of Onan who infest us :)

Comment by Roger Alexander on February 3, 2013 at 17:05

Surely money offers us the purest form of democracy in that it is a medium that we earn by our efforts and dispose of according to our needs and then our desires.  We have developed a system whereby for a few years we were allowed to print our own money by increasing the price of the house in which we lived.  We called this a part of the market economy but it was not.   This happenned in the business world with offices and is still gong on as the owners of office blocks do not work but print money for themselves by saying that their proeprty has more monetary value than it did when the acquired ownership.  The cash flow of the world has shrunk because those who have the maney they have printed cannot think of anything for us to do for which they can charge is interest.

A glaring example of this stupid way of governing is a simple matter of public toilets that I saw on TV today.  Local councils are closing them down to save money!!!  How much money will they save?   How much do they pay to the person who is on minimum wage who cleans and maintains those toilets?  When they have made the efficiency that person will not be required and the government will have to pay more in benefits so everybody loses including the people who are forced too relieve themselves illegally.

This is real economy that I am talking about... it is well paid council officials desperately trying to justify their own wages and expenses by sacking people in the layer below them.  It does not work and it cannot work.

Democracy in a monetary society can only work if the masses are given the right to vote... and that means giving them money so that they can make the choices.  I remember Rupert Murdoch saying that if 'tits and bums is what people want, that is what we will sell them' .... the rise of the Sun newspaper is a history of monetary democracy that should not be ignored.

Comment by Gerry Gold on February 3, 2013 at 12:44


Since 2004, I and my colleagues in A World to Win have devoted considerable effort to dealing with the question you ask:

‘Why don’t you think our society is subject to democratic control at the moment?’ 

In our several books we've presented the facts of the process of globalization and explained the underlying logic that both required the growth of global corporations, and saw the emergence of agencies including the World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund. Together they constitute a global political-economy which has transformed the role of government - and undermined - 'hollowed out' - the democratic process by which they are elected. 

Rather than repeat the whole argument here, I'd be grateful if you would spare the time to read even Chapter One, of A House of Cards, from fantasy finance to global crash, which was written as the crash was taking place in 2007 (and is only 82 pages long altogether), and the equally short and concise book Unmasking the State. a rough guide to real democracy, published in 2008. 

They, together with all of our publications are available as free downloads. Unmasking the State is also still available in paperback and formatted for Kindle.

I look forward to your further comments.

Comment by Allan Wort on February 1, 2013 at 14:44

I welcome the normality of Gerry’s contribution here as opposed to the ‘transmit-but-no-receive’ brigade; I’ll certainly try to honour it by responding in kind.

Let’s take for granted the premises contained in your paragraph starting;

‘As I see it, policy formation is currently in the control of ’

we can get onto those later, and concentrate on the meaty and interesting talking-point you  present at the end;

‘In order to change to different objectives - to a sustainable future, satisfying everyone's needs - and to be able to implement any policies we community activists might help to formulate, we'll need a different kind of society, one in which planetary resources are subject to democratic control.'


May I ask; ‘Why don’t you think our society is subject to democratic control at the moment?’ and if that question is too off-topic then might we address another.


Starting with the end of the causal chain you describe ‘Why do you imply it is a necessary condition to bring about a different kind of society before different objectives can be pursued let alone addressed by policies community activists help to formulate?’

Many thanks for your stimulating post.

Comment by Gerry Gold on January 31, 2013 at 15:10

It would be good to move this lively discussion through into some ideas about the future and how we can change it from the dystopian nightmare scenario we can all see emerging from (as the effect of) 'business as usual', to something more attractive, more likely to enable a sustainable future for the inhabitants of the earth. 

On Monday, Allan ended with this: 

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.

As I see it, policy formation is currently in the control of, or at least subject to the needs and pressures of the organisations that have been created as a result of the drive to seek the greatest profit from the ownership and control of the planet's natural resources.  I refer of course to the system of global corporations which could be seen airing their concerns in Davos a few days ago. I wrote about it here - Davos elites warn of "perfect global storm" threat,  here - The real cause of growing inequality, and here - Bankrupt states – bankrupt system

In order to change to different objectives - to a sustainable future, satisfying everyone's needs - and to be able to implement any policies we community activists might help to formulate, we'll need a different kind of society, one in which planetary resources are subject to democratic control.   

Comment by Roger Alexander on January 30, 2013 at 11:22

Who counts the people?  The problem with numbers is at the bottom of the pyramid.  Who are these 1.5 million Ethiopeans who are to be relocated?  Do they enjoy life now or are 1.3 million living in discomfort and dissatisfaction and don't even know what the word relocation means?  Could it be that they well be happier and more comfortable living in tower blocks than scraping a living from a desert, or swamp, or jungle .... or some beautiful outdoor zoo that Attenborough can film without the diseases and death all around?

I would suggest that the numbers we are given come from those who can manipulate them in any way they want and should be taken as a very small part of our considerations of the whole of the world.

Nigeria is a country that I know part of and love..... the part where I have lived.  It is an example of statistical inaccountability... some say there are 125 million but when it is to an advantage there can be 80 million.  It depends to whose advantage it is in financial terms.

Our electoral system in the UK is another example of statistical number bending.... we are supposed to be a democracy where the representatives of the majority make decisions for us all.

I do not know the exact figures but from reports in the media it seems that less than 50% of those who voted actually wanted our present prime minister, in fact less than 50% of the coalition and less than 50% of his party agree with his decisions.  It might be statistically presented that the decision to deprive disabled people of some of their benefits was made by a person who represents less than 0.01% of the population and is in charge of the office of national statistics.

Comment by James Derounian on January 30, 2013 at 9:48

Dear Joe - I'm no reactionary but.....!

Yes - it's more about depletion of resources than population; but.......there is a "frightening explosion in human numbers" combined with (over) consumption (industrial revolutions in India, China, Brazil etc).


We need to change our profligate ways and invest in greener technologies and businesses.....


CAN I COMMEND TO ALL - MINIATURE EARTH....2 mins of instant sobriety! required viewing for all citizens with humanity - 

Comment by Penny Cole on January 30, 2013 at 9:09

I agree with Andrew that numbers are important. The most important number in my blog is that the Ethiopian government plans to "relocate" 1.5m of its own citizens, and that the land they are removed from will be sold or leased to foreign interests. Another number is that the birth rate in Ethiopia is falling. That the birthrate in the developing world as a whole is falling, and falling faster than it did in the US and Europe at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century. Another number we quote is that at this rate, the human population will stabilise at 9.5-10 billion. The only number Attenborough and the Malthusians seem to be interested in is the number of babies poor women produce. There is a kind of bourgeois disgust about the way they discuss the issue. The more I read of their views, the more I conclude they are a pretty revolting lot, actually.

Comment by Andrew Rossall on January 30, 2013 at 0:45

Numbers are important.  In fact, the power of the story has often been detrimental to good decision making.  One person crashing at a crossroads with no traffic lights is better than all the statistics in the world claiming that some crossroads are safer without traffic lights.  One immigrant claiming a whole raft of benefits whilst raising a family of 15 does a lot of damage to the public's general perception of immigration, whilst all the statistics about the net benefit migrants bring, about how hard working the majority are, or about what percentage actually rely on state benefits fall by the way side.
It's easy to criticize the use of numbers and statistics as dehumanizing, but as long as the goals themselves are very real, very human, and of great benefit, only statistics can show us the best way of getting there.  The media has a lot to answer for in terms of reporting "stories" rather than broader Truths.  An example: there is no correlation whatsoever between crime and fear of crime, but there is a strong correlation between reporting of crime and fear of crime.  In any given week there will be a murder, a suicide, a drug overdose, a robbery, an invention, a birth, a marriage, a victory in court - choosing which "stories" to report has a serious detrimental impact on our view of the world.  The media do print "headline statistics" regularly, in their defense, but graphs and tables are rare, particularly in the tabloids.

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