David Attenborough’s demographic determinism

The TV naturalist is still banging on about there being ‘too many people’, just when others fret about declining population.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics

David Attenborough has interesting timing. Just as reports were being published last week warning that the population of the human race is projected to decline, the TV naturalist declared that humans are a ‘plague on the Earth’ and that the growth of the ‘enormous horde’ that makes up the population must be curbed or things will get ‘worse and worse’.

Attenborough and his Malthusian colleagues at Population Matters – the ‘working name’ of the sinister-sounding Optimum Population Trust – have long liked to cite statistical evidence to suggest that drastic curbs need to be made to population growth, lest we bring about the apocalypse. And, like the Reverend Thomas Malthus – one of their most notorious forebears in citing dodgy science to predict doomsday scenarios – time and again they underestimate the capacity for human beings to innovate and find creative solutions to any resource shortages.

But now it seems even the data may be against them, with recent research suggesting that population growth is slowing and could peak at about 10 billion during the middle of the century, before dropping over the coming centuries. These findings have even led one writer to hint at the start of an underpopulation panic; ‘we could be looking at the literal extinction of humanity’, he writes.

Even the most recent UN study anticipates that the human population is likely to hit 10 billion and then stabilise. The reason, in a nutshell, is that as countries become more affluent, couples have fewer children – and in Europe, in particular, birthrates then drop below the population-replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman. Spain and Italy, according to Time magazine, have a fertility rate of just 1.4 children per woman. And Japan and Germany have been experiencing a decline in population growth.

But as Slate has observed, it’s not just the most developed nations: ‘From 1960 to 2009, Mexico’s fertility rate tumbled from 7.3 live births per woman to 2.4, India’s dropped from six to 2.5, and Brazil’s fell from 6.15 to 1.9. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, where the average birthrate remains a relatively blistering 4.66, fertility is projected to fall below replacement level by the 2070s.’

All of which is bad news for Attenborough and his Malthusian ilk, as it reveals that what lurks behind their doom-mongering is prejudice rather than fact. That becomes increasingly evident when you hear headline-generating comments, such as those Attenborough made recently to the Radio Times: ‘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.’

Too many people in Ethiopia? This is a country which, according to the World Bank, has a mere 83 people per square kilometre. This is the same as Serbia, and there aren’t mass starvations there. At 196 people per square kilometre, Switzerland has a far higher population density than Ethopia, but people aren’t starving there. Nor in Japan, where there are 350 people per square kilometre, or the Netherlands, which has 493 people per square kilometre.

Without wanting to probe into Attenborough’s use of the word ‘they’, when it’s evident that many developed countries can support themselves with much larger population densities than Ethiopia, it’s clear his logic is massively awry. It’s not the number of people that is the source of Ethiopia’s problems, but rather a lack of infrastructure that could allow Ethiopians the standard of living enjoyed by people in the West. Social solutions are needed to improve living conditions in Ethiopia, not curbs on the size of the population.

For all the scientific dressing-up of their claims, the Malthusian position has always been one of misanthropic disdain for humanity, reducing the world’s problems to demographic, reproductive questions. If only we stopped copulating as much, the argument seems to go, things would be better. Or as Attenborough said in a lecture to the Royal Society of Arts in 2011: ‘There is no major problem facing our planet that would not be easier to solve if there were fewer people, and no problem that does not become harder – and ultimately impossible to solve – with ever more.’

A similar fallacy is committed by the new breed of scaremongers about a declining population. In this instance, too, humans are reduced to the status of animals whose breeding habits need to be managed for the Greater Good (be it for the planet, or in the name of humanity itself). Those who fret about demography fail to take a social view of the problems humanity faces.

Individuals and communities should decide for themselves how many kids to have, free from the sermonising of population fearmongers. Not least because people usually make rational decisions. A poor African woman, for example, may have lots of kids because she needs them (to work, to increase the chance of more children surviving, and to provide for her welfare later in life), and Western women tend to have fewer children because they now have more choice, greater material prosperity, security and freedom.

Africa’s problems won’t be solved by cutting birth rates, and the West’s problems won’t be solved by increasing them. In singling out the rate of population growth – or decline – the population bean counters fail to see that what sets humans apart from the natural world is our capacity to innovate and exercise reason.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

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Topics Politics


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