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Monday, January 28, 2013

David Attenborough Tells It Like It Is Again, People Get Pissed

Posted by on Mon, Jan 28, 2013 at 10:02 AM

The quote you'll see in the headline of just about any post that surfaced last week on this interview is where Attenborough says humans "are a plague on the Earth," but of course that's out of context. He also said completely reasonable, if somewhat harsh things like:

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. Until humanity manages to sort itself out and get a co-ordinated view about the planet it’s going to get worse and worse.

Unsurprisingly, right-wing blowhards sounded off in quick time. Take Wesley J. Smith, who, over on his National Review Online column entitled "Human Exceptionalism," says this "anti-human" view of "radical depopulation" demonstrates his thesis that "environmentalism is growing progressively anti human." Get that? This anecdote demonstrates his thesis, everybody!

Attenborough's views are hardly new, though (The Population Bomb was written almost 50 years ago), and it's not at all outlandish or radical to say that the world's human population, which is estimated to have surpassed seven billion last October, is growing at an unsustainable rate. According to the UN, nearly half of the humans on the planet are under the age of 24. Also, we hit six billion just 12 years ago. The United Nations estimates that there will be nine billion by mid-century. There are just too damn many of us, and if you believe in this thing called science, it's undeniable that we're already a major stress on the planet. Forget your Prius and obsessive recycling, the best thing an American can do for the environment is not have a kid.


Comments (39) RSS

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zivilisierter Wurm 39
Horseshit. The best thing you can do for the environment is to end your life, and leave a considerate will stating you don't want any caskets or embalming fluids.
Posted by zivilisierter Wurm on January 28, 2013 at 8:37 PM · Report this
Ethiopia has famines and extreme poverty because it's under a shitty dictatorship/kleptocracy that loots everything in sight. Famines never happen in democracies. Attenborough doesn't know what he's talking about. Ethiopia could easily feed all its people and then some if their government weren't so damn shitty.
Posted by I have always been... east coaster on January 28, 2013 at 8:03 PM · Report this
@20 You sir, are seriously deluded and a fine example of what Mr. Attenborough is talking about. There is far too much magical thinking going on regarding the state of the world. Time to get real.
Posted by gberry on January 28, 2013 at 5:29 PM · Report this
biffp 36
@31, fair points.

@29, good point. Give resources to women, and they use them to improve their family. Give them to men, and the results are less than impressive.
Posted by biffp on January 28, 2013 at 3:47 PM · Report this
@17: For the conservatives who believe in things like Ayn Rand and the Austrian School of economics, I've only seen Malthus' writings on unsustainable population growth referenced as antiquated, discredited ideas. The primary evidence offered for this is generally that the sort of crash he declared inevitable hasn't happened since he wrote about it.

Because the cult of the Free Market assumes that unlimited growth is not only possible but desirable, the idea of inherent, insurmountable resource limitations is anathema to its adherents. This is of course most evident in the popular belief that our economy can experience endless growth, but one can also witness it in conservative hand-wringing that 1st World countries are not having a replacement level of children.

Of course, for religious conservatives, the rejection of Malthus is even more primal: Our bible tells us to be fruitful and multiply, and doesn't say anything about worrying if there will be any means to feed our progeny.
Posted by Proteus on January 28, 2013 at 2:58 PM · Report this
Op you sound like Mudede, ever eager to socially engineer _everyone else_ into behaving as you want.

I imagine you would also, like him, exempt yourself from those standards.
Posted by ryanmm on January 28, 2013 at 2:35 PM · Report this
treacle 33
Also, environmentalism is a "full-belly" issue... you only care about it if you have the rest of your Maslow's pyramid taken care of. With the US economy putting downward pressure on wages and increasing the number of poor and "near-poor", fewer people here will be bothered to eat meat from ethical sources and not drive if they have to get to work on time when there's only a crap bus system. The developing world considers eating meat regularly to be a sign of improved living standards --a concept that is very strongly culturally (and physiologically) reinforced-- and they're not wrong either. So more meat-eating in the third world is in our near future. Vegetarianism/Veganism is a conscientious luxury of the developed world -- or simply a reality for the world's poorest.

And thus, a paradox: Increase people's standard of living (consume more resources), and they'll likely become more environmentally conscious (consume less resources).
Posted by treacle on January 28, 2013 at 2:28 PM · Report this
treacle 32
Well, regardless of our ability to actually feed ourselves, and despite Attenborough's apparent errors regarding Ethiopia,.... it is still the case that more people on the planet is having a very acute deleterious impact on the natural world. People want cars and other things that make their life better.. eg. electricity, fridges, washing machines ..and all of those take infrastructure, and consume resources without replenishing those resources. This is putting increasing pressure on non-human nature... and as a result we are seeing the world's largest extinction since the K-T boundary. Fish stocks are diminishing, the oceans are in fact acidifying and coral is dying (taking apart their food webs), forest land is being heavily fragmented, water resources are increasingly tapped (and often wasted, I'm looking at you, Bellagio fountains). This is one of Attenborough's points... perhaps not in that interview, but in others.

We may be able to feed ourselves with better distribution of food and goods, but it's hard not to believe that the impacts of all of this --and the still-increasing population-- won't continue taxing to death the natural world we rely on for so much.

Global mass extinction of various flora and fauna is bound to affect us irrevocably in the near future.

What to do? Yeah, stick to bicycling and being vegetarian. Voluntarily reduce your own standard of living, I guess. Although it'd be nice if all the rich schmucks took the lead on this.
Posted by treacle on January 28, 2013 at 2:21 PM · Report this
Matt from Denver 31
@ 8, I'm not incorrect - well, except for tacitly agreeing with @3 that the problem isn't in the First World. On that point, you're correct, albeit full-on abstinence from eating meat isn't necessary. Just reducing it to something you eat a couple of times a week, and from ethical sources (no fast food or other mega-feedlot produced meat) will accomplish that.
Posted by Matt from Denver on January 28, 2013 at 1:14 PM · Report this
JensR 30
@27 the politics of it is that we are growing faster than we are able to replenish. Yes its a political issue NOW. It wont be soon.

This is not imagination or conspiracy its simple math - the curve with which the human population is growing is not only alarmingly steep - it also point to a major flaw in human logic. A flaw you can serve as an example of: we simply cannot fathom how steep and quick the population is growing and probably wont until its too late.

We are "doubling up" faster and faster - but as with an example of a bottle with cells growing in it doubling itself every hour, where at for example the 12th hour it will be full, it will still be only half full at the 11th hour and we as humans tend to have a problem seeing such a steep increase in time.…

Above link is a graph of assumed future population growth. Lets say that for some reason, the UN projection of population growth is kept at "medium" or "low" (and considering the graph you'll agree chances are slim that this will happen) - there needs to be something rather drastic that will happen for that to take place.
We can pretend it will fix itself but as it is now - we will AT LEAST:
1) cut down on what we in the west see as a reasonable standard of living. That is, we need to accept that we wont get to eat as much, as well and as fresh as we are accustomed.
2) we will need to cut down on energy spending (unless cold fusion but I doubt that will happen soon enough)
3) Institute a "one child per couple" policy and police it. Make damn sure people stick to it.

Thats for starters but since it will take too long - and unless someone has a rather clever idea how to make humans breed slower, less and how to create more resources and quick we are as the saying goes "in for a rough ride" no matter what morals we me have concerning it.
Posted by JensR on January 28, 2013 at 1:03 PM · Report this
The number one thing rich countries could do to reduce birth rates is invest in the education of women and girls. Time after time, increasing the status of women in poor countries through education has lead to lower birth rates.
Posted by Westside forever on January 28, 2013 at 12:20 PM · Report this
"the best thing an American can do for the environment is not have a kid"
Bullshit. the best thing would be to prevent an idiot from having 5 kids and pump out one super kid yourself.

If we would just get off our asses and turn every US city into a super dense machine with zero surrounding sprawl, problem solved. Safeco field could easily grow enough grubs to support the state protein wise. The edible plants will grow wild in the new surrounding wilderness. Of course we have to outlaw ALL commercial fishing [for 60 yrs at least]
Posted by carsten coolage on January 28, 2013 at 12:17 PM · Report this
Fnarf 27
I came here to say what @21 said. Attenborough is wrong in the specific instance of Ethiopia. It's not just mismanagement by their government, either; in many cases famine in Ethiopia (and elsewhere in Africa) is a political tool, deliberately used to control populations and move them around according to the desires of leadership (chiefly self-preservation). International aid organizations participate in this deliberate starvation policy, using their food aid -- which is absolutely controlled by the rulers, after they've skimmed off half of it for themselves -- to force some populations to migrate after the food and to force others to stay put.

Most of the famine in Ethiopia is completely avoidable. All of it would be if they had modern government.
Posted by Fnarf on January 28, 2013 at 12:09 PM · Report this
keshmeshi 26

Why? It seems like they love Malthus.


I agree that it's not the Third World that's over-consuming resources. That said, it's clearly the goal of any up-and-coming nation to achieve First World status and consumption rates, and that is cause for concern, if First World countries don't respond by decreasing consumption, and why would they?
Posted by keshmeshi on January 28, 2013 at 12:07 PM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 25
the idea of overpopulated Africa simply is not true. The continent contains eleven of the world's twenty least densely populated nations and only one of the twenty most densely populated.

The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet's Surprising Future…
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on January 28, 2013 at 12:04 PM · Report this
Bauhaus I 24
I had to real Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb for a class in high school in the 60s, and it was taken as gospel. Everybody was talking about over-population then. Then, all that went away for some reason in the coming decades with the exception of China's one child policy.

I remember before the book people would get applause on TV when they announced they had 8 or 10 or 12 children. That went away after the book. It wasn't such a badge of honor anymore. But now you see people bragging about that again - having a houseful of children. Maybe if there were social pressures associating large families with over-consumption instead of everybody getting getting all giddy about so many kids?

I don't get it. I never will. Additionally, it pisses me off that doctrinaire religions (and we know which ones they are) still embrace a 6th Century attitude about population growth.
Posted by Bauhaus I on January 28, 2013 at 12:00 PM · Report this
While global resource sharing, through trade and subsidies, is a wonderful thing, it is also a very recent thing, and a thing that may very well fail in the future. It seems important that each nation or region ought to be able to support itself to some degree. So if a region has limited resources, it seems like courting disaster to allow the populace to grow as it depends on imports.

I guess the upshot is that food production is not equally distributed across the globe, so local populations probably need to adapt to the conditions on the ground.

Posted by Chris Jury on January 28, 2013 at 11:51 AM · Report this
Sandiai 22
I came here to say what @8 said.
Posted by Sandiai on January 28, 2013 at 11:40 AM · Report this
Attenborough ignores decades of mismanagement under various dictatorships that followed feudalism in Ethiopia. Despite the numerous droughts nothing suggests Ethiopia should fail to feed its population considering its natural wealth. Population density is an important variable in the sustainability equation but to ignore all others is complete nonsense and a rather reactionary (and often racist) POV.
Posted by anon1256 on January 28, 2013 at 11:37 AM · Report this
The truth is there is plenty of food. There are even plenty of resources. Enough to last thousands of years. But there's this thing called profit. It's why billions starve to death while people like me get heart disease.

So fuck right off, Attenborough. This isn't science coming to collect the check. Societal collapse is not inevitable given the parameters we have to work with. This is nothing but greed and avarice. Saying it's inevitable is washing your hands of responsibility, full stop.
Posted by johnjjeeves on January 28, 2013 at 11:16 AM · Report this
You guys you guys you guys. Read Doug Saunders' amazing "Arrival City", plumped here by Fnarf last year. In brief, the unstoppable global wave of urbanization is going to normalize population and reduce our environmental impact tremendously. It is the entirely plausible cause for hope in the face of all the conventional wisdom on display here. C'mon, read!
Posted by gloomy gus on January 28, 2013 at 11:12 AM · Report this
@11: I will not, seeing as how I'm paying into the damn system, kids or not.
Posted by treehugger on January 28, 2013 at 11:04 AM · Report this
If you wanna piss off a modern conservative, mention Malthus.
Posted by Proteus on January 28, 2013 at 10:59 AM · Report this
The world has changed dramatically since The Population Bomb was published, but a lot of our collective thinking about the state of the non-Western world is stuck in that era.

I would suggest taking a read of Abundance by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. Also check out Hans Rosling's TED talks (all of them), but especially this one:…
Posted by thalia on January 28, 2013 at 10:58 AM · Report this
ScrawnyKayaker 15
Any positive growth rate is a disaster. My college physics prof:
Posted by ScrawnyKayaker on January 28, 2013 at 10:51 AM · Report this
"first world person uses an average of 32 times more resources than a developing world person"

That's what happens when you no longer live in desperate poverty. There's no nobility in having a low carbon footprint when you can't even afford a light bulb.
Posted by Greens are the original misanthropes on January 28, 2013 at 10:51 AM · Report this
treacle 13
On a more hopeful note, the world birthrate is alleged to be leveling off somewhat. Couples are having fewer children --worldwide-- as infant-mortality drops, and economic factors make having lots of kids unfeasible. So according to Nat Geo's population article from last year, the population rise is beginning to level off. Where, exactly, it will finally level is anyone's guess... 12 million? 20 million?

Observations of natural animal populations on Earth would suggest that we'll either run out of food, and our population will crash. Or we'll be attacked by a really effective predator (likely a virus, if not aliens) which will see us as a plentiful food source/host.

Fun fact for me, the world population has almost doubled in my lifetime! And definitely will in short order.
Posted by treacle on January 28, 2013 at 10:50 AM · Report this
ScrawnyKayaker 12
@5 If you don't have any kids, you can laugh at what the idiots are doing to "the future." Sucks that my spousal critter talked me into a spawn. Now I suppose I have to care.
Posted by ScrawnyKayaker on January 28, 2013 at 10:48 AM · Report this
Don't want kids? Turn down social security.

Liberals discover that prosperity is the #1 cause of co2 emissions.
Posted by Flogged on January 28, 2013 at 10:48 AM · Report this
Pope Peabrain 10
Human extinction is inevitable. We've only just avoided it in the past. Modern sanitation and medicine have allowed us to gather in intense numbers that are stressing the environment we depend on. But I was thinking the greatest danger we face are natural disasters. A huge wave of volcanoes could cause considerable destruction by poisoning the atmosphere and darkening the skies. If it's not one thing it's something else. But Mr. Attenborough wasn't anti-human to suggest we aren't making life very happy or any easier for the future of the human race.
Posted by Pope Peabrain on January 28, 2013 at 10:45 AM · Report this
Some Old Nobodaddy Logged In 9
A right-wing pundit is filled w/ righteous indignation after taking something out of context. Color me shocked.

It's the age-old proposition w/ the conservatives: they're either blithering idiots or what they're doing is deliberate, which makes them cynical bastards. Iran-Contra. Iraq's WMD. And so on...
Posted by Some Old Nobodaddy Logged In on January 28, 2013 at 10:44 AM · Report this
biffp 8
@3 and @5 are incorrect. A first world person uses an average of 32 times more resources than a developing world person. One thing you can do from Seattle that makes an impact is to stop eating meat.
Posted by biffp on January 28, 2013 at 10:40 AM · Report this
people are going to naturally pair up and have offspring, so we just need to dump 100x the amount of contraception on top of the global population, using boeing aircraft if need be, and flood the planet with condoms and stuff like that so people can have safe sex and freely choose to reproduce if they wish to, or not. and also be taught that masturbation is safe too. mr. prez, get on top of this please, we don't have time to f around anymore like the author stated above.
Posted by tim koch on January 28, 2013 at 10:34 AM · Report this
Matt the Engineer 6
@3 We're not exactly flat here in the US.

We need to promote better birth control and family planning here.
Posted by Matt the Engineer on January 28, 2013 at 10:34 AM · Report this
Matt from Denver 5
@ 3 is right. Also, the future is too important to leave to the idiots who believe they're supposed to multiply at an exponential rate.
Posted by Matt from Denver on January 28, 2013 at 10:31 AM · Report this
TheMisanthrope 4
Or at least not have more than 2 at the most. I have 2 guys I work with who have 3 kids each. Its astounding to me.
Posted by TheMisanthrope on January 28, 2013 at 10:29 AM · Report this
The problem isn't wealthy Seattle hipsters and their 2 child families, the problem is explosive population growth in China and Africa. We need to do more to promote birth control and family planning in the Third World.
Posted by Brandon J. on January 28, 2013 at 10:28 AM · Report this
Tell that to my right-wing cousins, who are not only popping out children of their own as fast as their bodies will allow, they're also fighting as hard as they can to make abortion illegal for other women... so that they can farm those children when they get around to adoption.

They won't put it in those terms though, and they get quite offended when you ask them to consider the feelings of the young women whom they would love to see be forced to remain pregnant.
Posted by treehugger on January 28, 2013 at 10:17 AM · Report this
I did my part -- the family tree ends with me, as the saying goes.

Also, inequitable resource distribution has a LOT to do with social problems. Including access to health care, potable water, birth control, education, etc.
Posted by LMcGuff on January 28, 2013 at 10:07 AM · Report this

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