When I think of David Attenborough, I picture the wildlife documentary pioneer tracking down the illusive lyrebird in an Australian forest, or following a Siberian tiger’s footprints in the snow. But when he spoke with New Scientist’s Alison George, the focus of their conversation wasn’t wildlife, but rather his recent involvement in the Optimum Population Trust, a think tank on population growth and environment (as George points out, the group has an ominous world population clock on its homepage—in the one minute I watched it, the global population jumped by about 160 people). "For the past 20 years I've never had any doubt that the source of the Earth's ills is overpopulation. I can't go on saying this sort of thing and then fail to put my head above the parapet," Attenborough told George.
Given his experiences, perhaps it isn’t at all surprising that, through tracking wildlife for half a century, Attenborough has come to see human population growth—and the development that comes with it—as a problem for nature. In the Siberian tiger footage (above), for instance, he says, “Hunting animals need hunting grounds. And that, inevitably, brings them in conflict with humanity. Once there were tigers all over Asia, from Sumatra and Bali in the south, India in the west, up to Siberia in the north. But sadly, over much of those areas, the tiger has disappeared.”
Here’s a bit on Attenborough’s take on the controversial topic from the New Scientist article:
There are nearly three times as many people on the planet as when Attenborough started making television programmes in the 1950s - a fact that has convinced him that if we don't find a solution to our population problems, nature will. "Other horrible factors will come along and fix it, like mass starvation."
Trying to pin him down about the specifics of what to do, however, proves tricky. He says it involves persuading people that their lives and the lives of their children would be better if they didn't exceed a certain number of births per family. And that dramatic drop in birth rate rests on providing universal suffrage, education - particularly for women - and decent standards of living for all. It's a daunting task, but the first step, he argues, is to acknowledge that population is a problem.
But isn't the problem solving itself, as people have fewer children and population growth rates slow? Yes, he says, if you discount immigration, the UK's population is more or less static, but it is not so elsewhere. This troubles Attenborough: sounding off about high population and fertility rates in other countries can sound patronising - or worse.
The world at the start of Attenborough's career half a century ago was clearly a very different place. His passion about population seems to connect to a feeling that part of the joy of living rests in the natural world - a world without too many people, where seeking out wildlife means hard days canoeing rather than watching tourist boats arrive twice daily.
As a species, he says, we need to learn modesty, that we can't overrun everything. "If I had more intellectual athleticism I would tackle the problem of why I think other creatures have a right to live. I do think that, but can't justify it in a very convincing way."
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