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Sir David Attenborough would like us to die soon (sort of)

I recently read a fiery book, full of strong argument, well-presented data and verve, by Robert Zubrin, called “Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism… ” The book takes a blowtorch to today’s heirs of the Rev Thomas Malthus, the 18th/early 19th century political economist who argued that Man is doomed to outrun resources. Zubrin nicely skewers this reasoning, and takes on a range of population control characters ranging from Nazi advocates of eugenics through to supposedly well-meaning birth control enthusiasts in post-imperial India. (In the latter case, birth control was carried out with great brutality, as it was in China, with its “one-child” policy.)

And now, Sir David Attenborough, famous to generations of British TV viewers for his programmes about the natural world, reiterates the idea that humans are a “plague” on the planet and that there should be a lot fewer of them. Don’t worry, Sir David: judging by childbirth rates not just in the West, but in certain other countries, the risk of an accelerating growth in population numbers is unfounded, or at least that is how it seems to me. In some extreme cases, such as Japan and Italy, or arguably, Russia, the population is actually shrinking. (Maybe people just don’t get randy in those countries any more).  According to this article in the New York Times, population growth of the sort that gets Attenborough so steamed is not happening and may be in reverse soon. Attenborough is not just wrong, he’s out of date.

Attenborough will be listened to with a certain level of respect that gets granted to persons of his type. He is very grand, and yet comes across also as that “jolly nice English chap who likes his gorillas, moths and strange fish”. What he seems to lose sight of is that humans are as much a part of nature as any other species, and that he wants to deny to humans what any other creatures pursue, which is to thrive and flourish. (In the case of other species, they do so through the iron process set out by Darwin. A paradox, given that humans are the only species we know of to care about the fate of other animals.)  Then there is the point, made by the late Julian Simon and others, that humans are themselves a crucial resource,  a fact that those who take a fixed-wealth approach to life seem to overlook. (Simon famously beat population-control fanatic Paul Ehrlich in a bet about the prices of commodities. Ehrlich’s predictions have been so wrong as to be beyond parody.)

There is also the assumption that people who have “too many kids” in poor countries such as Ethiopia are too thick to figure out the supposed downsides (in countries where there are few social safety nets and mortality rates are high, having plenty of kids is entirely rational).

The history of government-led efforts at birth control and population control has been that it is ineffectual at best and savagely brutal and destructive, at worst. If you have any doubt of that, read Zubrin’s excellent book, and ask yourself what sort of person can support the ideas of Sir David, and his ilk, given the likely results.

Correction: a reader points out that it was Thomas Carlyle, not Malthus, who branded economics as a dismal science. My error.


32 comments to Sir David Attenborough would like us to die soon (sort of)

  • Ed Snack

    It isn’t that people don’t get randy, often they seem to fuck very indiscriminately with anyone and/or anything. What they don’t do though is have any truck with pregnancy and children, and at least some of that is by a new childishness that refuses to take the step away from self gratification. So all forms of birth control including abortion, especially including abortion, are so important to so many. Maybe it’s a form of group nihilism.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    CS Lewis once observed that the British are a very odd race. During the war they would call for the blood of the Nazis with unquenchable zeal, and then when they actually encountered downed German airmen they’d make them a cup of tea while they waited for the police to arrive.

    Likewise, Sir David may well think human beings are a plague on the planet. And yet when my 6 year old daughter wrote to him to tell him her favourite animals were cows and drew him a picture, he took the trouble to write back, in person and in his own hand. She was delighted.

    Just like politicians actions are frequently a lot worse than their speech would suggest, sometimes people’s actions are a lot better than their speech would imply. It’s the gulf between the general and the specific. You can think very bad thoughts generally, but when you encounter specific people show them only kindness.

    On balance I think I’d rather a person who did this than the opposite.

  • Stephen Fox

    Nicely expressed Johnathan.
    In my encounters with top people and what is (or used to be) known as ‘society’, I have always been struck by the refusal of elites to use their own common sense, and to acknowledge that the hoi polloi might possess any of their own. I think it’s also true that groups of hoi polloi have their own compulsive norms, which can lead them to behave stupidly, but perhaps they are more often confronted by a reality that obliges them to face up to the way things are.

    Maybe the problem with the likes of Attenborough is that the only real difficulties they actually have to deal with are to do with competing for attention. It is a small, hothouse world, which hugely overestimates its own power. So top people go around dictating this and that, banning here, ‘nudging’ there, and the rest of us either ignore these efforts or find ways round them. I have, for example, just ordered 30 100 watt incandescent lightbulbs online (lighting superstore, if anyone’s interested). Governments always have only limited power. Even dictators like Assad eventually run out of it. Perhaps the chief characteristic of wise government is to know that.

  • Current

    “dismal science”

    No, Carlyle called it that when someone else (Mill?) suggested that the same laws of economics apply to Irishmen and apply to Englishmen.

    Malthus’ ideas weren’t really wrongheaded at the time he wrote them. He simply failed to foresee the importance of industrialization, as many others did.

  • Friday Night Smoke

    I’ll say the same thing I say whenever some enlightened sort calls for the population to be thinned; “I take it he’s volunteering for the first round of thinning, then”.

  • Glad to see you liked Zubrin’s book.

    I’m afraid that people like Attenborough have real power to do harm. In America they have made it pretty hard for a normal lower middle class couple to have children. Charles Murrey’s book “Coming Apart” touches on this.

    As P J O’Rourke once put it, population control consists of says “Not enough of me. way too many of you.”

  • Thanks for this pointer to Zubrin’s book.
    More on the origins of “dismal science”: http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/LevyPeartdismal.html

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Current, I stand corrected on the attribution.

    However, even at the time when Malthus was writing, the UK was going through what is sometimes called the “Agricultural Revolution”, bringing higher crop yields, and the like. It may have been understandable for him to overlook the idea that Man is a resource, based on previous centuries of famine and plague, but by the early 19th Century, when he wrote, the plenitude brought about by science and better techniques of farming were already coming through. So he is certainly not as guilty of writing rubbish as Ehrlich, say, but he should not get off completely.

    Mind you, those Malthusians around today are ignoring some very basic facts. I really do urge people to read the Zubrin book – available on Kindle – it is a great read.

  • chuck

    My memory of David Attenborough — I don’t watch TV — is his ludicrous demonstration of global warming. He drew a hockey stick in the dirt, and announced that the conclusion was clear. I concluded he was an idiot and a fraud. Not because of his conclusion, but on account of his argument.

  • RRS

    Time for a return of Monty Python

  • YogSothoth

    Sir David Attenborough would like us to die soon

    What delightful symmetry, I would like Sir David Attenborough to die soon

  • Paul Marks

    In most advanced countries the fertility rate for women is less than 2.

    That means that the long term problem is FALLING populations not RISING ones.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    On a tangentially related point, do you ever get the impression the UK is chock full of misanthropes?

    Pretty much every newspaper running this story is bloated with comments either of the “Yes, we are a plague. We have bruised Mother Gaia so terribly and deserve to die” (Guardian/Independent) or “Yeah, every time I go out the door there are bloody immigrants everywhere!! Sterilise em I say!!” (Telegraph/Daily Mail).

    Both of these types of comment have nothing to do with environmentalism per se, and everything to do with just not liking people very much.

  • Paul Marks

    JV – I have noticed this sort of thing.

    Traditionally the British have only pretended to dislike people (while liking them really – but not wanting to seem “soppy” ). Hopefully that is still true. But I do have my doubts…..

  • As Paul and others have stated, the population issue is certainly a problem, but the exact opposite type of problem that people like Attenborough are whining about. The big problem is that certain countries have such low fertility replacement rates that they are in grave danger of not having enough young people to care for -and more importantly pay for- the elderly and the services they need to live out their life.

    For example:
    Japanese minister: Let the elderly hurry up and die already

    Same problem in China-

    China Will Get Old Before It Gets Rich

  • Current

    “at the time when Malthus was writing, the UK was going through what is sometimes called the ‘Agricultural Revolution'”

    I think Schumpeter says somewhere that he ignored the world immediately around him and how it was changing. That’s true and we can fault him for that. But, he also wrote a great deal that’s worthwhile.

    His ideas about the geometric growth of populations and the limitations of food supplies are relevant for understanding history and possibly still relevant to the present. In the past, in the highly populated empires of Asia especially, his ideas may accurately describe what happened. Improvements in agricultural production were present, but slower than the growth in population. So, the rate of deaths from poverty equilibriated the size of the population. This may still be going on in some places.

    I don’t think that modern Malthusians are entirely wrong either. I agree that in the developed world new children are likely to contribute to world and help make it a better place. But, things are totally different in the “developing” world (much of which isn’t necessarily actually developing). Many people there have few opportunities and little education, their culture may not encourage them to do things that contribute to the world. Reproduction in those places creates more mouths to feed and little else. That’s not the fault of those involved. I’m not saying every developing country is like that, China certainly isn’t for example.

    There are all sorts of things that could be done to improve that situation by governments and private actors, I don’t want to get into those now. In my opinion the likelihood is that none of them will be done with sufficient throughness to work. I don’t support governments in the west trying to population-control developing countries. My point is that poverty will accomplish that task whether people like it or not.

    I agree with Paul Marks that too few children are being born in the advanced countries. The problem the world faces is that there’s population growth in groups and places without opportunity and a lack of such growth in groups with opportunity.

  • Paul Marks

    Ah yes the Japanese minister with his “hurry up and die”.

    Dear minister – give me the benefit of your example, then I will consider it.

  • Mike James

    Sorry, we’re not handing over control of the economy to you. No, we’re not going to die on your say-so.

  • Tedd

    Attenborough’s attitude, and that of many other naturalists and scientists, seems odd to me, given what science tells us. What we’ve learned of the universe so far suggests that it’s filled with ecosystems not unlike that found on Earth. But what we know of the development of life on Earth suggests that intelligent life forms such as us might be very rare indeed, at any given moment. The reasonable conclusion is that, in the overall scheme of things, non-intelligent life forms on Earth matter relatively little, except in as much as they serve us.

    We might reasonably be concerned with the survival of species in general, in much the same way that we preserve stamps even when they have no practical value. And we certainly ought to feel empathy for the suffering of animals, especially when we’re responsible for it or can reasonably prevent it. But the idea that our priorities should take a back seat to preserving or protecting other species is just daft. We (humans) are what make the Earth special.

  • pete

    ‘In the case of other species, they do so through the iron process set out by Darwin.’

    Humans are governed by the iron process set out by Darwin too.

    That’s what irks Attenborough and other misanthropes of his type.

    As he shows in his TV programmes he is amazed and delighted by the antics of photogenic creatures like dolphins and tigers, and reverential on the topic of the evolutionary process that caused them to exist, adapt and survive.

    He’s miffed that the process has also caused us to exist too, with our cities and cars, and that by thriving too well we are causing other species to suffer because they can’t adapt to an environment with us in it.

    This ruins his lazy and simplistic world view.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Current, you say the Malthusian situation may be going on in some parts of the world, but then again, as evidence (see the Zubrin book) shows, the real price of foodstuffs, adjusted for inflation, has fallen dramatically over the past 200 years. There maybe “local Malthusian traps” but I would wager that this is because of things such as deficient technology, war, and other interferences in the productive processes of the market. In fact, the grim history of the 20th Century contains several Man-made famines, such as what happened when Stalin murdered the Kulaks, and the later horrors of Mao. This is probably still going on, maybe, in North Korea.

    As for developing nations, I repeat the point that the presumed irrationality of having lots of kids is lost on those having them. As far as they are concerned, without a social safety net and given standards of healthcare, large families make sense.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    To put things in perspective, the Japanese PM was talking about euthanasia- how the very old people might want to die with dignity, instead of being hooked up to machines all the time, or doped on medication all the time. As a libertarian, I am not automatically against suicide. It would all depend on context.
    If a human-specific plague did ‘cull’ our numbers right back to just a million or so, would the planet be better off? Think of all those farm animals that would starve in their paddocks, the pets that would die- and the real estate agents who would be out of a job, with all that land free for the taking! It would be a disaster!

  • veryretired

    I agree with Sir David that there are way too many people just like him around, and if he and the others that think like him would like to line up on the edge of the cliff, I’ll be happy to walk along behind them giving pushes so as to help solve this terrible problem.

    Seriously, though, it is rare when the intense hatred toward humanity felt by the deep ecologists is allowed to surface. Most of he time it is kept hidden, and all we hear are the sweet, mushy bits about the poor baby seals or drowning polar bears or some such.

    In fact, several of the foundational documents of deep ecology state that the population of humans should be reduced to about 100 million at most, and that it should be done fairly ruthlessly.

    Something to keep in mind next time you’re saccharined with another plea for money to save the baby seals…

  • pst314

    I enthusiastically reciprocate the wish, not only for David Attenborough but for all who think like him. “Drive him quickly to his tomb.”

  • MicroBalrog

    Russia’s population isn’t shrinking. Both due to immigration and due to a positive natural birth rate.

  • Paul Marks

    The Russian fertility rate has had an uptick – but it is still well below 2 babies per women (let along the 2.3 that Nick points to as replacement level).

  • Paul Marks

    Sorry – that was Nick over on Counting Cats (Paul tired – Paul just observed Israeli election).

  • Rob

    Attenborough is 86, so it won’t be long before he does his bit.

    Ironic that someone so antipathetic towards human beings to the point where he thinks them a plague on the planet has lived beyond the average age of his species. Perhaps guilt and liberal self-loathing are driving him.

    Or maybe he’s just a batty and grump old bastard. Happens when you get old. All these young people, running around, enjoying themselves, CONSUMING STUFF.

  • bloke in spain

    Well, if the consensus amongst the right thinking is the world is overpopulated..
    WTF’s SaveTheChildren all about?

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    If people can not reproduce at replacement rate when achieve a certain level of wealth, what happens when *everyone* is that wealthy? It seems like anti-aging technology will be needed.

  • Paul Marks

    Err no problem where I am presently writing this from Rob.

    And no problem over in Utah either.

    Orthodox Jews are breeding at more than replacement levels and work hard and do well (unlike the “ultra orthodox” sects – but let us not “go there”).

    And Mormons are (on average) the most wealthy group of Americans – and also the ones with the largest families.

    Still if you have an anti-aging technology – I could certainly do with it.

  • Current

    On below-replacement population growth….

    I don’t think that the population of advanced countries will grow at below replacement levels in the long term. In developed countries we have pensions to look after us when we’re old and being childless or unmarried carrier little social stigma. The only reason to have children is personal ethics or personal satisfaction. For some couples it’s a choice between children or a more materially wealthy life. Understandably, many couples who don’t have much money choose the latter. As economic growth progresses that problem will diminish. Indeed, if populations fall it will diminish too because there will be more resources per person.

    Some people are skeptical about that explanation because population growth rates are so high in developing countries and were so high in the past. Those are different issues though. In the past, in the developed world even, contraception was worse than it is now. The pill was a great step forward. In some places not having a family carried some social stigma. Often though being single carried little stigma, unlike today there was no possibility of having series of short relationships while staying single without a lot stigma. Some of these stigmas still apply in developing countries. Jonathan Pearce mentioned the other reasons. In developing countries there are mostly no good pension systems and no government welfare, so having children is useful because it means there’s are people there for you in old age. It’s also often necessary to have many children in order to have some that survive to adulthood.

    On developing countries….

    Jonathan Pearce writes “There maybe ‘local Malthusian traps’ but I would wager that this is because of things such as deficient technology, war, and other interferences in the productive processes of the market.”

    I mostly agree with that. Globally prices of food have been gradually falling for a long time. The issue I’m pointing to is that locally people can only buy by trading what they can produce. If circumstance force them into traditional, un-mechanised agriculture then these issues are still relevant. I agree that this situation may be brought about by the corruption and stupidity of governments. But, in many places that’s not likely to change.

    As you say people there will have lots of children no matter what I think. No matter what they think that means populations will rise until poverty limits them. I see no immediate solution to this problem. Though in the coming centuries as advanced technology spreads across the world the situation will improve.