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Memo to Attenborough: Capitalism, not humanity, is the earth’s 'plague'

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 the Radio 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.

Ethiopia has had a consistently high annual growth in GDP throughout the last two decades. In 2011, it was 7%, compared to an overall global growth rate of 3.9% in the same year, and most of this expansion is accounted for by agriculture.

The government has a 10-year plan to double the size of the economy, and this means doubling industrial agriculture and agricultural products such as refined sugar and leather. This is to be achieved by selling or leasing millions of acres of land to global agri-businesses.

The removal of a planned total of 1.5 million rural families to new "model" villages in four regions, including approximately 45,000 households in Gambella province, is well underway. Claims that people are going voluntarily and that jobs and services are waiting for them are a pack of lies.

One group of refugees from Gambella is taking legal action against the British Department for International Development. Britain is one of the biggest contributors to the Protection of Basic Services (PBS) programme which pays for corrupt officials and soldiers and infrastructure for the clearances.

The legal action, undertaken by British law firm Leigh Day, is being launched from the world’s biggest refugee camp at Dadaab in northern Kenya where Ethiopians fled after reaching the “model villages” to find there was nothing there.

The World Bank endorses the Ethiopian government’s desire to get people out of what it calls “overpopulated rural settings”, but it admits that in spite of all this recent growth “the absolute number of poor is almost the same as 15 years ago and a significant proportion of the population remains just above the poverty line and vulnerable to shocks”.

It is true that population of Ethiopia is growing at around 2.1% per year, but that rate of growth is slowing. The fertility rate, i.e. the average number of births per woman, is still relatively high at 5.7, but this is also slowing. The rate of births always increases when early deaths from wars, disease or famine increases. It slows when things are more stable but it takes time for that social change to take hold.

As more and more land is cleared of people or of trees and jungle, and subjected to the intensive farming practices of the global chemical corporations, so desertification and greenhouse gas emissions will continue to increase. Famine and hunger also rises, as we have seen.

If there was a fair distribution of food, care and support, health and education in Ethiopia and all the countries of the world, and if the people owned the land they farm, there would be no problem feeding people. This approach would also protect the eco-system because it would be sustainable.

People are not the problem, Sir David, global capitalism and its relentless drive for “growth” is. I hope you will be making a programme about that soon!

Penny Cole
Environment editor
24 January 2013

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Your Say


Sarah says:

It's true that intensive farming is a huge problem and better access to contraception, education and less religious dogma may help reduce populations. But the human race is still too successful at the detriment of other species. It's not just third world countries, the UK is massively over populated and built up - why do we need to keep breeding so voraciously? What kind of world will our children inherit?


Fiona says:

Population growth is slowing in quite notably in Iran and is beginning to slow in Bangla Desh too - or it soon will if the wishes of young women there are any indication. In a New Internationalist survey last year a substantial proportion of younger Bangla Deshi women were adamant that they did not want big families, two or three children at most was the preference, they didn't want the lives of their mothers and grand-mothers. It was also notable that these views came from women who were not particularly well educated or well off either, they wanted to limit their family sizes in order to be better able to acces educationa and employment and what they need are the means to do so. Generally though what would an optimum human population be? Have we reached it, exceeded it, or not there yet? Big obstacle is and here I can see where DA is coming from, though his comments on Ethopia are horrible and disappointing, that the argument that 'too many people' is not the problem is based on a lot of 'ifs' and if these solutions are not implemented soon about which I am not optimistic actually, then the opinions of David Attenborough will gain ever more traction.


Loïc says:

It isn't just Malthusian rubbish it's also racism when third world countries are not allowed to develop as the west did... That's what's wrong with ecology to make ordinary people and mankind as a whole responsible for a system they had no or very little say in it. Ecology can't be anti humanist or misanthrope.


Cissie Lodge says:

It's time someone exposed Sir David's feet of clay. Thanks, Penny.


Robbie says:

It's a shame that Attenborough spouts such reactionary Malthusian rubbish as he has done so much to encourage people to love the environment. It is an example of how if you cannot (or won't) identify the real source of the problem you can find yourself in a perverse backwater.


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