Food and Agriculture

A plague of David Attenborough

Last week, British broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough devoted over a third of a widely reported interview to his claim that human beings are “a plague on the earth.”

“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.”

Attenborough cited Ethiopia as his only example of the natural world fighting back against the human plague.

“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.”

In Attenborough’s view, Ethiopians are starving simply because there are too many of them. Since they haven’t voluntarily reduced their numbers, the natural world is doing so, by the “natural” method of mass starvation.

But let’s suppose that 50% of Ethiopians disappear today. That would take the country’s population back to its level in the 1980s. If Attenborough’s people-are-the-problem view is correct, hunger should not have been a concern then.

In reality, more than 400,000 Ethiopians died of starvation between 1983 and 1985, in one of the worst famines of modern times.

Clearly, reducing population would not make Ethiopia any less vulnerable to mass hunger.

Ethiopia actually produces much more food per person today than it did when the population was much smaller. According to Oxfam (PDF), the country is now is “just 2% from being able to supply an adequate level of food energy to all its citizens.”

Despite that, at least thirty million Ethiopians go to bed hungry every night.

The problem isn’t human numbers or food production, it’s an economic and political system that enriches foreign investors and a tiny urban elite, while nearly 80% of the people earn less than $1 a day. There’s lots of food, but they can’t afford to buy it.

Cruel irony: the hungriest people in Ethiopia are farmers. In the past five years, hundreds of thousands have been driven off their land with no compensation, while the government has leased millions of hectares to foreign corporations that raise export crops.

But in Attenborough’s populationist worldview, there are no land grabbers stealing land from subsistence farmers. There is no history of colonial exploitation, slavery, and war, no extreme inequality reinforced by neoliberal policies. There are no international speculators driving up food prices, no agribusiness giants exporting food to richer countries while millions starve. There are just people, and people are a plague.

Yes, there is a plague on the earth, but it isn’t people. It’s a social and economic system that puts profit before people, that treats food as a commodity instead of as a basic human right. So long as that system remains in place, hunger and poverty will continue, no matter what happens to birth rates.

Films about wild animals have made David Attenborough famous. It’s sad and appalling that he uses that fame to promote ignorance about human suffering.

Ian Angus blogs at Climate and Capitalism (where this article was originally published). He is a member of the Canadian Dimension Editorial Collective.


  • Bad journo. Lazy journo.

    You solved the crisis already by halving the population back to what it was in the 80’s and then saying that the food was 2% off target. So am I to understand that despite the bureacratic/political issues there is food available but too many people. So if the population is twice what it was 30 something years ago then even I would have to admit that sounds like too many people and not enough famine free land to feed them….. And isn’t that what Attenborough was saying?

    Sure, he’s simplifying, but at least he’s raised awareness to the issue (in a “widely reported interview”) and you are blogging somewhere out in the backwaters of the internet.

    It pays also not to forget that Mr Attenborough was merely describing the world from the point of view of a naturalist who has lived long enough ,and seen enough the world, to feel he has something worthwhile to say about it.

    #1. Posted by Pat in London on January 30th 2013 at 8:00am

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