David Attenborough calls Humans a ‘Plague on Earth’, Misses the Mark

We all know and love David Attenborough for his delightful narration of the Planet Earth series.  However, now he has offered us a very stern and (unfortunately) misguided warning: either we limit our population growth, or the natural world will do it for us.  He expects us to see devastating effects of climate change and population growth in the next 50 years.  See the story here: Humans are a ‘plague on Earth’

Sir David Attenborough

While Attenborough is right to be concerned about climate change, his focus on population is extremely problematic, especially when he makes reference to places like Ethiopia and blames famine on ‘too many people’.  It has been well documented that famines are never just ‘natural’ disasters, but are always political.  In every major famine the world has seen, the country in question was producing more than enough food to feed the entire population, but access to food was denied to the majority of people for political and economic reasons.  For example, the famines around the world in the late 1800s, killing 30-60 million people, were the result of countries being forcibly pulled into the global economic system through colonialism (as Mike Davis explains in The Late Victorian Holocaust).  There was certainly enough food being produced, but it was being exported to the colonial powers instead of feeding those who farmed it.


As well, the colonists ‘encouraged’ people in the colonies (by force) to plant profitable cash crops instead of subsistence crops that would have normally sustained them.  Cash crops are farmed intensively as monocrops, which are more prone to disease and more vulnerable to natural shocks like temperature and drought.  So, people were no longer farming for themselves, but were producing cash crops for colonial masters.  They were then forced to buy food back from colonial powers with the meager money they received working the land, which became impossible when natural conditions changed and monocrops failed.  This system therefore set the conditions for people to be vulnerable to famine when natural conditions changed, and also denied them access to the food that was being produced based on economic relations of power.


Today, this is still the case.  African nations produce far more food than is necessary to feed their population, but neo-colonial activities and trade agreements deny food access to many African populations.  Placing the blame on ‘population’ essentially blames them for their own hunger, when there are much greater political and economic reasons (of which the Western countries are very complicit) for their struggle.

‘Population’ is also very problematic because people use the idea that “too many people equals environmental degradation” to place the onus for change on the Third World.  Since some of the most populated countries in the world are the ‘underdeveloped’, people use ideas about overpopulation to point fingers and say they need to change, not us.  Truthfully, some of the most populated countries on the planet have the lightest ecological footprints, while North America, Europe, and Australia, with relatively low population densities, have enormous footprints.  If everyone consumed the way that North Americans consume, we would need at least 6 Earths.  Blaming social and environmental problems on ‘population’ instead of politics and issues of over-consumption, then, completely misses the mark.  It implies that to save the environment, we only need to address population levels instead of seriously scaling back our unsustainable production and consumption.  It also implies that the people who have the least to do with unsustainable consumption patterns are the ones who need to change.


‘Population’ on its own is not to blame — it is the way that wealth and resources are unevenly distributed across that population, and the extreme over-consumption of global resources by the more developed nations.  Of course we could benefit from lowering global population, but it is politically, ethically, and factually misleading to suggest that population is the source of –and solution to– the global environmental and social crises.


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4 Comments on “David Attenborough calls Humans a ‘Plague on Earth’, Misses the Mark”

  1. andhastings January 29, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

    Very interesting critique of his statement. I’d love to hear his response to this. It does seem unfair of “us” to eat ourselves into a state where 50% of the population are considered “obese”, and then look at African countries and call their population “unsustainable”. How do we do this and keep a straight face?

    • utopiandreaming January 29, 2013 at 5:44 pm #

      It is completely ridiculous, especially when you consider that opulence and overconsumption in the developed world was literally built on the backs of the colonies, and capitalist exploitation directly grew out of colonial exploitation so that the same vulnerability for underdeveloped countries continues today –on purpose. We’re told stories about population, famine, and poverty to make it seem as if these places are just inherently hopeless, so that we don’t have to address the bigger problems. But we can’t blame people for poverty and hunger that was/is very actively created by us. Global issues need global solutions, not place-based attempts to reduce population.

  2. jpgreenword February 26, 2013 at 10:06 am #

    Wonderful post. Thank you.

    I see this as another example of a bad diagnosis of what the real problem is. And you can’t fix the problem until you know it’s true cause.

    • utopiandreaming February 26, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

      Precisely, and blaming poorer nations for their own suffering or for the situation the world is in today completely obscures our historical (and current) complicity in producing the world as we know it.
      Thanks for the comment!

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