Party Political Broadcast on Behalf of the OPT

by | Dec 9, 2009

On the BBC’s Horizon tonight, Sir David Attenborough, patron of the Optimum Population Trust, tackles the question How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?

Except he doesn’t. He comes up with an answer alright – 15 billion if we all live like the average Indian, 2.5 billion if we all live like we do in the UK, and 1.5 billion if we all live like fat, horrible Americans. It’s all derived entirely from standard ecological footprint stuff.

Attenborough tells us that:

Malthus’s principle remains true. The productive capacity of the Earth has physical limits. And those limits will ultimately determine how many human beings it can support.

We were looking forward to hearing a good argument for why that might be. It’s Sir David Attenborough, after all. There wasn’t one. Just lots of footage of people without access to enough food, water etc. No historical or political context. Just lots of simplistic environmental determinism. Apparently even the Rwandan civil war/genocide/whatever you want to call it was the result of too many people. Nice. And of course…

But the picture may be even worse than this. These figures are based on rates of consumption that many think are already unsustainable.

Happily, for anyone wanting arguments for why Malthus, Attenborough and sustainability are wrong, here are some we prepared earlier:

In Praise of Unsustainability
Infinite Regress
Attenborough & the Descent of Man


  1. Kasmir

    “1.5 billion if we all live like fat, horrible Americans”

    Well no problem then. There’s only 300mm of us at the moment.

  2. Trefor Jones

    This was rather a Curate’s Egg of a programme and I agree took a political stance. The shadowy reference to Malthus without questionning how wrong he had been on the arithmentic and geometric progression of food and population was a rather glaring omission. The lack of a reference to GM,biotech, UN Millennium goals and a second green revolution was also rather obvious. Attenborough comes over sadly as an old man, deluded and misinformed, spreading death and destruction as Malthus’s Horsemen of the Apocalypse, like a modern day Swift. Malthus’s work was at best a rant aginst sin, he was after all a clegyman, as against a thesis on population. I thought he and Ehrlich had been put firmly to bed, but with respected but addled fools like Attenborough around he keeps making a disguised appearance. As John Humphrys so memorably said on Radio 4 the other day, the first rule of journalism ” Simplify and exaggerate” – a classic.

  3. Kriek Jooste

    In other words, we need to be around 5 times as efficient at exploiting our resources than we are now if we want the entire world population to have the same standard of living as those in the first world, and more if we want either more people or an even better standard of living. I suspect we’ll aim for the latter since the higher the standard of living, the lower the birthrates.

    Doesn’t seem that hard to achieve over the next century, if our advancements in efficiency over the past century is anything to go by.

    I believe as the climate becomes less of a tool for the environmentalists, sustainability will become the next thing to move back to. Their idea of sustainability is that we reverse our advancements in the exploitation of certain resources in order to exploit it slower. The cost is all the savings we have been making with those advancements, we have been making those advancements because the old way is not sustainable. They also seem to think that instead of having concentrated, efficient, industrialised ways of doing things where the combined waste is large and visible, efforts should rather be split up into small things set up on their large properties (or someone else’s large property, or the undeveloped land of poor countries), where the waste is only a little bit at a time. However, in total that causes more waste and it doesn’t scale, so it’s pretty much the opposite of sustainable.

  4. Lee Jones

    It is so sad to see David Attenborough (one of my all-time broadcasting heroes) descend into this Malthusian nonsense. Even his own programmes belie this sort of message. I remember seeing an episode of (I think) Planet Earth – the final episode, where he considers man and man-made environments. He travels to the middle of a desert in the USA, where lush, green food is being grown – and even mentions that new technologies are being trialled that might even allow us to grow food on the moon. He then concludes on a totally bum note about maybe it being time to keep the human population in check and stop destroying biospheres. The evidence of his own programme suggests that we are not bound by natural limits – the whole episode was about how we had transformed from hunter-gatherers to intensive agrarians, and so on. I just don’t get how such an apparently intelligent, well-travelled person can subscribe to Malthusianism.

  5. Editors


    Life of Mammals maybe. His final words of the final episode are:

    “Three and a half million years separate the individual who left these footprints in the sands of Africa from the one who left them on the moon. A mere blink in the eye of evolution. Using his burgeoning intelligence, this most successful of all mammals has exploited the environment to produce food for an ever-increasing population. In spite of disasters when civilisations have over-reached themselves, that process has continued, indeed accelerated, even today. Now mankind is looking for food, not just on this planet but on others. Perhaps the time has now come to put that process into reverse. Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, perhaps it’s time we control the population to allow the survival of the environment.”

  6. George Carty

    Instead of terrifying the public with scare stories about climate change caused by CO2 emissions, why aren’t governments actually doing something about it by replacing fossil-fuel power stations with nuclear ones (and crushing any protests which try to stop them)?

    Instead, billions have been squandered on unreliable wind and solar power which can only ever be a supplement for gas, rather than a free-standing source of energy. Not only is gas the scarcest of the three fossil fuels (and dangerously dominated by Russia as far as Europe is concerned), but it is probably no better for greenhouse emissions than coal once the effect of leaks is considered. Methane is a greenhouse gas far more powerful than CO2!

    Either almost all governments have been duped by the despicable propaganda of Storm van der Leeuwen and Philip Smith (which claims that nuclear power is unsustainable, and was paid for by Europe’s Green Parties), or they regard global warming not as a real threat but as a convenient excuse to rein in human ambitions.

  7. Yarmy

    The real problem is that virtually everywhere on the planet we are living longer, we’re healthier, infant mortality rates are at all-time lows…sorry, what was the problem again?

    I noticed Jonathan Porritt praising China on its population control measures. He didn’t mention anything about the consequent widespread infanticide though. What a pleasant man.

  8. Stefan

    I have trouble following a programme like that, as I kept interpreting what he was saying in its opposite sense.

    “thousands of litres to make a cotton shirt” –> good, there is plenty to spare if we can waste that much on manufacturing clothes for people to buy every month

    “some countries already having to use desalination” –> great, the process works and all we need is nuclear or some other energy to harness it…. so go on David, tell us about nuclear… David?… David?

    “the world is running out of water, see Mexico city” –> oh it is running out of water because it is on top of a mountain? good. most of the world is not on top of a mountain.

    “we are running out of land, africa is not using its land to feed its own people, and china is buying it up” –> good, if the chinese can make that land productive, then the problem in africa is a lack of development, not a lack of land. (i used to fly across africa… it is big)

    “the world needs to increase its productivity, but this has already been done before” –> it has already been done before? good, that shows great advances are possible in reality, with the right technology and brains. who’s to say which of the next billion people to be born won’t have a stunning new idea that will save billions?

    “it is a fact we will reach the limits” –> good, i also know it is a fact i will die, but if that is all the facts we have, then there is a wealth of uncertainty… like WHEN will we run out and WHERE are the limits? human innovation is not predictable.

    Basically, the program sort of annoys me because I was hoping for something MORE. I’m actually quite partial to disaster scenarios, and I think it can go either way–sometimes humanity makes great leaps just in time, sometimes we just all die in a plague that nobody can stop. Sometimes we have peace and prosperity, and sometimes millions upon millions die in senseless wars. Sometimes life is good. Sometimes life is bad.

    But the program made for a weak case. I certainly can’t tell from that when we will hit disaster, only that it is out there as a possibility. Well so are big rocks flying through space.

    In essence, I think they are making a “moral” demand. That’s why so many scientists think it is “irresponsible” to report results that might be music to the ears of sceptics. But you can take your superior moral stance and I’ll better you with my own superior moral stance. Namely, don’t mess with complex systems that you don’t understand. We shall see how China fares with their one child policy in years to come.

    Actually, the best bit of the programme–in the sense of something I’d never heard of–was the stuff about Indians being subjected to forced sterilisation simply because they’d broken the law. I didn’t know that.

  9. Phil

    Mmm, the sweet sweet smell of population control.

    I agree with pretty much everything you state on this blog, but wonder exactly where to go after that. I can spot that a lot of the problems are similar to those described by Spiked and the “Institute of Ideas” people. Political cowardice has resulted in an unjustified appeal to somewhat dodgy science, presumably for its own ends. I think your strongest rebuttal of these panaceas was the fact that poverty is the most pressing problem, and none of the rich nations are lining up to help combat that, in the most obvious way.

    Still: where to go and what to do? Starting a robust policy discussion that will have traction with actual real skint people will need more than typing. [I know; I can hardly be bothered.]

  10. Blue Swan

    The thing is, we Americans don’t live on our whole country, big as it is. Far from it. Because of the limits of 20th century technology, things like electric wires, roads, pipes…”infrastructure”, something like 90 percent of the population has been crammed into 30 metropolitan areas.

    The good news is that 21st century technology is letting the whole world spread out and live better lives. Locally produced hydrogen generation, fuel cells, Wimax, water collectors, will let us plop down a house practically anywhere and let us live in some sort of semi-self-sustaining fashion.

    The enemies of this independent lifestyle are the big Government types who buy up all the land and put it in “trusts” where no humans are allowed.

  11. Pete


    following your excellent skewering of Johann Hari, there’s an open goal waiting for you at the BBC website. Richard Black is obviously getting very annoyed at the Copenhagen talks, for in his latest blog post, he’s lost it completely. He’s dispensed with his supposed impartiality, his understanding of BBC standards and guidelines for journalists, and quite possibly, his mind.

    It is all low-hanging fruit for those convinced the Beeb not only departed from journalistic ethics on this topic a long time ago, but have assumed the role of active campaigners.

    Although he might be proud of the fact that his post drew forth an overwhelming and withering tide of condemnation, which was probably the point of it, he looks isolated and partisan as a result. Not a good thing to be if you’re reporting for the BBC.

    I kept thinking: why is an environmentalist allowed to report on environmental politics for a supposedly impartial news organisation?


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