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David Attenborough: Hate Ethopians, Love Polar Bears

Ben Pile, Climate Resistance

Attenborough’s claim that humanity is a plague is silly and dangerous. When natural historians use their knowledge to try to explain the human, social world and its problems, it’s almost always dangerously wrong. It is presented as a ‘scientific’, empirical approach, but is deeply ideological. 

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.

Climate Resistance, 22 January 2013