David Attenborough pulls a Widdecombe

He compared the crusade against plastic to the fight against slavery – and got away with it.


Topics Politics UK

Yesterday, broadcaster, national treasure and anti-plastic crusader David Attenborough was invited to give his views on the environment and climate change to parliament.

He likened the public’s increased concern about plastics in the sea to changes in public attitudes and morality towards slavery.

You read that right. He drew a kind of moral equivalence between concern about plastic and concern about slavery – that historic abomination whereby humans were traded as property and forced to labour until their deaths.

According to Attenborough, the public’s perception of plastic pollution has now ‘been transformed’, and most people think that ‘to chuck plastic into the ocean is an insult’.

Similarly, he argues, ‘There was a time in the 19th century when it was perfectly acceptable for civilised human beings to think that it was morally acceptable to actually own another human being as a slave… Somehow or other in the space of I suppose 20 or 30 years, the public perception of that totally transformed.’

The response to this has been strangely muted. Last week, Ann Widdecombe caused uproar when she compared Britain leaving the EU to other instances in history of ‘the oppressed turning on the oppressors’: ‘slaves against their owners, the peasantry against their feudal barons – colonies… against their empire’.

The BBC’s Emma Barnett accused Widdecombe of having ‘white privilege’ for being so flippant in her comparison. Labour MP Dr Rosena Allin-Khan labelled her speech ‘disgusting’. David Lammy said it ‘is impossible to explain how offensive and ahistorical it is’ to compare Brexit to overturning slavery.

So why the double standard? Why are Attenborough’s comments not considered ‘disgusting’, ‘offensive’ or demonstrative of ‘white privilege’? Either it is ahistorical and wrong to compare current events to the horrors of slavery, or it isn’t.

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18th July 2019 at 5:50 pm

There will be people who will defend what David Attenborough says, no matter how foolish, because they worship him as a cult-idol. Many environmentalists have been advocating against polluting Planet Earth for years, but they do not grab headlines.

David Attenborough seems to take his talking-points from venal pop-mediocrities who exploit shock-and-awe tactics in order to make the news. They will say the most outrageous things–and the uneducated cheer. He fancies himself as a “rock star”, which is sad. Worse yet, he ignores the Eugenics crowd (Big Oil and Big Bank Barons) who have hijacked the environmental movement in order to pursue their own agenda: grab land, minerals & oil, and water…and get rid of as many of the hoi polloi as possible.

Pity that Attenborough has allowed his ego to get the better of him. He was far better in the 1990s and earlier, when he focused on showing us the glories of the natural world; when he didn’t seem to fall for the vacuous celebs; and, when he was down to earth…on Planet Earth.

Allan Reford

13th July 2019 at 4:48 pm

Slavery isn’t a “historic” thing.

Tom MacDuff

13th July 2019 at 11:55 am

There’s an old saying, ‘the biggest fool can ask a question that the wisest man cannot answer’. Attenborough – or ‘the Bro’ as his fans call him – is one such, who belittles the intelligence of all those around him.

Boris Farage

12th July 2019 at 8:56 am

Widdecombe was likening the British people to slaves (chained, African, oppressed, owned and sold by white people); Attenborough was likening changing attitudes to plastic to a change in general attitudes towards slavery (which was the view of predominantly middle-class white people). So to break that down into REALLY basic terms for you: Widdecome was saying she’s basically suffering the same as a black slave; while Attenborough is saying white people changed their views once before and are doing so again.

Quentin Vole

14th July 2019 at 5:30 pm

Newsflash for Boris – not all slaves were African.

Alastair Dunbar

11th July 2019 at 10:53 pm

Since you didn’t quote the comparison Attenborough apparently made I can only assume he didn’t make any direct comparison at all and that’s why there isn’t any outrage. Just to guess

Fred Iles

11th July 2019 at 10:31 pm

The reason he “got away with it” was because he was drawing an accurate parallel between two crises that humanity has faced. Two things that were once acceptable but now are seen as horrific. Destroying people’s lives vs destroying the planet. It’s a thought experiment, a suggestion rather than an inaccurate and overblown declaration. We are in no way slaves to the EU, so to use slavery in this context is highly disrespectful. A more accurate parallel for Brexit would be “I don’t want to be in this club anymore because I don’t like the rules of being in the club that I helped come up with.

James Knight

10th July 2019 at 6:27 pm

When slavery was abolished some freed slaves were left to starve and died. Remoaners would have been arguing for slavery and against abolition because “nobody would want to be worse off”.

gershwin gentile

10th July 2019 at 2:13 pm

But how much of what David “I knowingly lied about those walruses” Attenborough can be trusted to be true?

Mark Pawelek

10th July 2019 at 1:42 pm

Attenborough is the face of the elites they want to project: We are “saving the planet”. Widdecombe is the face elites want to banish. They believe Attenborough gives them moral authority.

Adelaide Dupont

10th July 2019 at 1:37 pm

I don’t know if everyone reads Religious Tolerance here – I did a few hours ago.

B. A. Robinson – Canadian theologian – has a few big issues: slavery; gender equality; same-sex marriage.

In colonial times, for instance, there was the Curse of Ham which was applied to Africans in the Middle East/lost tribes.

As for the “six clobber passages” fundamentalist-types associate with homosexuality and the rights involved…

Arundhati Roy, for instance, may think it very historical – and current – to compare plastics to slavery, especially if they are produced in a dam.

I wonder – if a flippant remark does harm primarily by being flippant; or if it became harmful the moment someone took it seriously who may or may not have been in on the joke?

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