Hate Ethopians, Love Polar Bears

by | Jan 22, 2013

The Telegraph’s resident Gaia-botherer, Louise Gray has a short piece on neoMalthusian anti-baby campaigner, David Attenborough.

The television presenter said that humans are threatening their own existence and that of other species by using up the world’s resources.

He said the only way to save the planet from famine and species extinction is to limit human population growth.

“We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now,” he told the Radio Times.

Sir David, who is a patron of the Optimum Population Trust, has spoken out before about the “frightening explosion in human numbers” and the need for investment in sex education and other voluntary means of limiting population 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 — and it’s not an inhuman thing to say. It’s the case. Until humanity manages to sort itself out and get a coordinated view about the planet it’s going to get worse and worse.”

Let’s leave aside Attenborough’s silly claim that humanity is a plague. What is of interest here are the ideas that Ethiopia suffers from having too many people, and that ‘we keep putting on programmes about famines in Africa’.

Alex Cull deals with the first claim in a comment posted at The Telegraph and on another post here.

Taking a charitable view here, Sir David is being a little naive.

In terms of population density Ethiopia ranks 121st, well behind the United Kingdom, France and Germany. It also has vast areas of fertile arable land.

Drought and war undoubtedly played a part in Ethiopia’s problems during the 20th century but there’s a strong argument that the famine in 1983-85, for instance, was caused mainly by bad governance, including inflexible Soviet-style central planning (Kenya, by contrast, had worse drought in that period but avoided famine altogether.)

This has nothing to do with “too many people”.

Attenborough would have it that Ethiopia’s problems are the result of its relationship with the natural world, not the result of relationships between Ethiopians, and between other countries. It is the privilege of elderly natural history broadcasters from wealthy backgrounds to pronounce on what people with dark skin are doing wrong: existing in such numbers that offend him. He ignores the history of people in that part of the world. It’s much easier to say that a fecund, stupid people don’t ‘get’ nature than is understand what drives conflict and besets development to produce famine. It’s immeasurably patronising; nobody, if they came across someone living in poverty or without a home in the West, would say ‘what you need is sustainability’. Why then, is the ‘natural order’ the way social problems are understood when they happen thousands of miles away?

So is it true that ‘we keep putting on programmes about famine in Africa’?


The BBC put almost all of their programmes online for a week following broadcast. These are all listed in categories. Here is screen capture of the ‘science and nature’ category:

So in the past week, the BBC has broadcast no less than 14 programmes about nature and wildlife. Notice also that this is the extent of the BBC’s ‘science and nature’ category — i.e. it’s all nature and no science. Furthermore, this includes two programmes that feature Attenborough himself: one on the animals of the Congo, the other a repeat of his 1961 ‘Zoo Quest to Madagascar’. Also noteworthy is the episode of ‘The Polar Bear Family and Me’ series. ‘The team returns in September and finds the polar bears are having a tough time’, says the blurb.

So where are the BBC’s programmes about Ethiopia, that Attenborough is concerned ‘we keep putting on’?

There aren’t any. The BBC is very keen on how animals live or are endangered, but the lives of millions of people, who, according to Attenborough, are not surviving, is not of interest. We care more for programmes about polar bear families than for films about people living in rural Ethopia. There are two series of films featuring Attenborough meeting animals in Africa, but not its people. The BBC’s schedule is full of Africa’s natural history, but rarely does it reflect on the continent’s social, political and cultural history. An entire collection of Attenborough films from the 1950s to the present is online (possibly not available to people outside the UK). Where people are mentioned, it seems they are typically tribal societies, living in ‘Paradise’.

No wonder, then, that Attenborough has such a limited view of humanity in general, and of Ethiopians in particular. When you are concerned with the flora and fauna of a region, rather than with its people, it’s no wonder that you can write people off as the problem afflicting ‘paradise’ once they develop beyond a way of life capable of producing more than subsistence. Humans become an invasive species… a plague… on what should rightfully be in their place.

I don’t want to sound harsh here on fans of natural history. That’s not the point. The problem comes when natural historians use their knowledge to try to explain the human, social world and its problems. Not only is it invariably wrong, it’s almost always dangerously wrong. It is presented as a ‘scientific’, empirical approach, but is deeply ideological. The natural historian’s perspective on the human world — albeit more straightforward than contested ideas about humans relate to each other and to the natural world — turns us all into monkeys. The only exception being the natural historians, of course. Only they possess the sight necessary to oversee the zoo, to pronounce on who or what should be where.


  1. ilma630

    The main problem is that Attenborough and the Beeb are just plain wrong about the climate. Full stop. Earth has vast resources to support the current and bigger populations, and man’s ingenuity has demonstrated so far that we can invent and develop solutions, with no reason to think we won’t continue to do so. The big worry for man, which is starting to be born out in the observed climate data, is that a cooling cycle has started, going into a new minimum lasting for perhaps 30-40 years.

  2. MangoChutney

    The key to population control is wealth. Wealthy nations have less children

  3. Ben Pile

    ilma630: The main problem is that Attenborough and the Beeb are just plain wrong about the climate. Full stop.

    The article doesn’t mention climate change, except incidentally. And Attenborough’s own perspective is not climate-centric. The suggestion in the post above is that natural history and environmental-centricism are problems. Climate change isn’t the issue here.

  4. Retired Dave

    Attenborough has long been anti-human. Although as Ben says Climate Change is not the issue here, his views on it are well known. He is not worried about us humans just the animals on the planet.

    I totally agree with MangoChutney, Attenborough’s banging of the CC drum means he supports the policies of the AGW numpties which will keep the poor of this world poor (lets ignore killing them for the moment) and nothing is guaranteed to lead to uncontrolled population more than being poor.

    As Mango says – as wealth increases birth rate decreases.

  5. Bloke down the pub

    As Mango chutney says; as wealth increases birth rate declines. India is a prime example, the number of children per mother is down to about 2, from over 6 just a couple of decades ago,(sorry, I can’t remember the source). For those who worry about preserving wild habitat, it should be noted that were it not for mandated bio-fuel production, the amount of land under agriculture would be in decline. Another case of the laws of unintended consequences. If David Attenborough thinks there are too many mouths to feed on the planet, he knows where he can make a start at rectifying the situation.

  6. Mooloo

    The easiest way to take pressure off the wild animals is to stop land pressure.

    To stop land pressure requires two things: moving the population to the cities and a government that can enforce its will about land ownership.

    When an NGO bleats about “rural people losing their way of life” they are, in effect, asking for the old ways that crowd out the wildlife.

    The solution to preserving the wild, quixotic as it seems, is to industrialise.

  7. Ben Pile

    BDTP – As Mango chutney says; as wealth increases birth rate declines.

    I think we should be careful of countering Malthusianism with projections — not because the projections are wrong, but because even if they were wrong, it would not make humans equivalent to a plague. The antihumanism of the likes of Attenborough do not rest in the projections, but well before them.

  8. Manicbeancounter

    Attenborough has quite a narrow focus. He should note that
    1. The increase in world population is slowing down. It will stop in around a century and then decline.
    2. The population explosion was a consequence of a fall in the death rate – more children survived.
    3. The decline in the birth rate usually follows a period of strong economic growth. The reason is economic. For the poor, children are an economic necessity. In richer countries they are a luxury, as I am finding.
    4. The major causes of famines in C20th were NOT solely or principally caused by natural factors.
    5. The 1984 Eritrean famine was triggered by a drought, but vastly exacerbated by the collectivisation of agriculture.
    6. Since 1984, there have unfortunately been two bigger famines in Africa – in Congo and Southern Sudan. Both were caused by war, not excessive population or climate change.

  9. geoff Chambers

    Mango / Bloke down the pub
    “As wealth increases, birth rate declines..”
    As wealth increases, health improves, infant mortality goes down, parents’ desire for large families declines. It’s complex. There are good reasons to believe that literacy is the prime driver. I used to think it was all about women being able to read the instructions on the contraceptive packet. That’s wrong.
    Tim Worstall (I can’t remember where) pointed me to a paper suggesting parental ideal family size explains 90% of the variance of fertility.
    Lant Pritchett 1994: “Desired Fertility and the Impact of Population Policies”.
    Women everywhere are wanting and having less babies, but in Africa last. Contraception helps, of course. It comes automatically with civilisation, literacy, and medical care. Making it the prime necessity, as Attenborough and his Optimum Population Trust do, is dehumanising and just pointless.
    I’ve been looking at this at
    with respect to the Royal Society and its neo-Malthusian propaganda drive.
    Ben is right that population projections are not the point. But if you look at the figures I reproduce there, it’s easy to see why neo-Malthusians obsess about Africa, and have to work hard to protect themselves from accusations of racism. Whatever happens, there’ll be a lot of Indians and Chinese in 2100, but not that much more than now (for the Indians), and a lot less than now for the Chinese. Africa is different, because the fertility drop came later. There are countries you’ve never heard of which are going to be bigger than the UK. Hence the media obsession with the wild life.

  10. geoff Chambers

    Alex Cull‘s post 24 hours ago on Louise Gray’s article at the Telegraph is now buried in nearly 4000 comments. The subject excites people, and this kind of excitement is disturbing.
    Two days ago I was the first to comment on an article by Yasmin Alibhai Brown at the left-of-centre Independent on an article on a related subject – Western attitudes to other cultures, as revealed by events in Algeria and Mali.
    The Independent has a peculiar “recommend” system whereby you can vote for or against a comment. Those few of us who supported Yasmin’s argument have negative votes. Yasmin argues, much like Ben here, that we are wilfully ignorant about other cultures, and this argument is deeply unpopular, even in the “enlightened” Independent.
    People are not interested in Africa, as they’re not interested in Climate Change. But that doesnt stop them having attitudes and opinions. These attitudes and opinions are based on ignorance, and this ignorance is supported by the propaganda of a network of activist groups, environmentalist or Malthusian.
    When an event brings these opinions to the surface – a drought or a hostage-taking – the opinions flow, drowning out rational discussion.

  11. AM

    I was in Ethiopia last month. Amazing place, amazing happy people. No overpopulation problems, very enthused about the future of their country. No one I spoke to thought the climate had changed out of the ordinary. No famine to see, although there did seem to be quite a lot of overweight Ethiopians in the towns. The problems will come from the inevitable westernisation, enticing people off their land and into town slums, where they will rely on an income and increasing socialism. That’s Attenborough’s gang’s progress, right?

    See my photos here if you wish:

    I wish they would stop lying and just come out with it: “We, your betters, don’t want any of your type around any more, we have no use left for you, you’re unsightly and, if we can get rid of you altogether we will finally be able to stop worrying about this bothersome democracy farse”.

  12. Mooloo

    The problems will come from the inevitable westernisation, enticing people off their land and into town slums, where they will rely on an income and increasing socialism.

    You mean they want to become wealthy like us, and not have to scratch a living off increasingly tiny plots using rudimentary technology? The bastards!

    The process of moving to cities does not necessarily imply “westernisation”. Urbanised culture long outdates the modern west, with China, India, Japan, Mexico etc historically having them without our input. It is a false dichotomy that places “traditional rural” against “modern western” with no other options. This is made worse when the first is lauded for no other reason than it isn’t the second – but not by anyone who actually has to live like that, of course.

    Why can the Africans not become urbanised in their own way? (Actually, that’s what they are going to do, regardless, so we might as well get used to it.)

  13. Lewis Deane

    Very funny, Ben.

    You say “I don’t want to sound harsh here on fans of natural history” – Oh please do. Those sentimental just so stories that project their anthropomorphic spewel on those O so pretty pictures makes me always feel like Woody Allen – what the Hell is nature for, except to bite and make one itch. Otherwise a good cultivated (ie made by man) English or European Forrest brings me all Schubert-like with awe.

    PS Do you think, maybe, Attenborough, Charlie and other Porret like imbeciles ‘feel’ sex is a matter of etiquette? Something they think the more barbaric of us have not mastered?

  14. Lewis Deane

    Geoff, never use the word ‘women’ – they might be listening!

  15. AM

    I think I understand what you’re saying. Of course, there was other cities and cultures before there was London or New York. If Ethiopia could develop independently, maintain their strong heritage and values, without sinking into a western private debt, then of course that would be great and they would hopefully all benefit from the improved infrastructure, technology, healthcare etc, that it would bring. unconditionally. They have some natural resources and they have plans for more hydro-electricity etc, but they by no means have the wealth to take any big leaps independently. Besides, I’m sure Big Brother would be leaning on them if they tried, like other nations capable of independently developing.

    I can’t say that I am an expert or that I know there is going to be a Milton Keynes in every corner of Ethiopia. But I can say that seeing Ethiopian children with their rap t-shirts on, glued to their mobile phones (somehow they all have mobile phones), obsessed with English football and American TV shows was disheartening. Of course everything they are seeing virtually seems better than ‘scratching a living’, if you want to call it that. If the scratching-a-living, spiritual and caring communities are dissolved into the egocentric, narcissistic, material driven ‘western’ societies we see all around us then I’m sure all the violence, debt, terrorism and famine will follow.

    A couple of years back when I was in Senegal, I was talking to some young guys on a beautiful unspoiled beach, they picked pineapples and coconuts and mangoes etc, and made juices to sell to people while they played football on the beach, talked and smoked the odd joint. They didn’t really have any needs. But they couldn’t believe I was from London. Their dream was to get to Hackney, East London, make some cash, get the trainers, get a nice car and a load of women and live like a gangster. I asked them if they would like to be living in a cold, damp, cramped little flat with 4 to a bedroom and working as a cleaner in a McDonald’s and they said that they would just join a gang and sell some drugs to get rich. That’s what they’ve heard in the music and seen in the films. But sorry, this is all straying a bit from the topic of the story.

  16. Peter S

    The claim that there are too many other people in the world might be a coy way of saying there is not enough ‘me’ in it. If accommodating others – especially when their otherness is pronounced – is a usable definition of ‘democracy’, it may provide clues as to what is being refused and what (or who) is in mind as a replacement.

  17. Mooloo

    If the scratching-a-living, spiritual and caring communities are dissolved into the egocentric, narcissistic, material driven ‘western’ societies we see all around us then I’m sure all the violence, debt, terrorism and famine will follow.

    Which societies are the ones that keep bursting into civil wars and inter-tribal violence?

    Which are the ones that don’t tolerate equality for women, or tolerate even common deviancies such as homosexuality? That would be your “spiritual and caring” communities. The African Anglicans are fighting tooth and nail to prevent their Western brethren taking the church into an era of ordination for women and tolerance of homosexuality. If that’s African “spirituality” then they can keep it.

    Meanwhile our “narcissistic” societies have been the only ones in history to make a serious attempt to break cycles of domestic violence and intolerance. Based on the amount of domestic violence, and the attempts to stop it, I say that we are the “spiritual and caring” societies and that they are not.

    The rest of your indictments of the west seem equally unsupportable. Terrorism? How is terrorism a western thing? The original suicide bombers were the Tamil Tigers. The west has never produced anything terrorist organisation that comes close to matching them. Then again, we don’t allow the sort of ethnic violence that the “spritual and caring” Sinhalese practice against the Tamils.

    The idea that the West is somehow spiritually broken and the undeveloped world is somehow more complete – based entirely on the romantic notion that being “close to the land” is what makes people more spiritual – is as patronising as anything that Attenborough can come up with.

    African society is not more spiritual and caring than Western society. Their people have exactly the same desires and failings are we have, albeit sometimes embedded in different cultural norms. You seem to be trapped in the paradigm of the Greens, whereby wealth and industrialisation somehow diminish us, whereas in fact it gives us the wealth and time to actually develop individually.

  18. Lewis Deane

    Mooloo, well said!

  19. George Carty

    Mooloo: When an NGO bleats about “rural people losing their way of life” they are, in effect, asking for the old ways that crowd out the wildlife.

    The main reason why the Nazis attempted to depopulate Eastern Europe is that they hoped that by doing so they could save the way of life of rural German peasants, by resettling on the much larger areas of land they were hoping to “free up”.

  20. Malarn

    In regards to what has been written here, I’ll post what Ted Kaczynski has written:


    I don’t automatically agree with everything that was written there.

    And AM is another example of somebody who peddles reactionary hippy bullshit that fetishizes people who live in the third world as noble savages and goes on about Westerners being fallen individuals who aren’t in harmony with nature or whatever since they happen to be into smart phones. And other things.



  1. David Attenborough: Hate Ethopians, Love Polar Bears | The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) - [...] Climate Resistance, 22 January 2013 [...]
  2. The Diminished Horizons of Science Broadcasting » Climate Resistance - [...] latter conversion to Malthusianism — a forty year journey from humanist to anti-humanist. Said Attenborough, We are a plague…

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