Sir David Attenborough is considered a national treasure. This must be because he is the long-established public face of all nature and wildlife programmes on the BBC, has the surname “Attenborough” (shared with his distinguished actor brother, Richard) and is thought to be a fount of wisdom. But even popular pundits and media gurus can sometime say remarkably silly things. An article by Marcus Roberts on the “Demography is Destiny” website has drawn my attention to a recent remark made by Sir David to the Radio Times. Talking about his own species, he said: “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.”
What a Jeremiad. Roberts points out that Attenborough is a patron of the Optimum Population Trust. This outfit is now known as Population Matters “perhaps because the Trust couldn’t decide what our ‘optimum’ population should be”. It seems that, as patron, this national treasure has warned about the “frightening explosion in human numbers” which is outstripping the planet’s resources. On the subject of Ethiopia he has further commented that “We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves… Until humanity manages to sort itself out and get a coordinated view about the planet it is going to get worse and worse.” Another Jeremiad.
Roberts accurately points out in response to Sir David’s gloomy prophecies that “We are not running out of food. Our famines are not due to there being too many of us, but due to wastage and politics and war… We are able to feed more people on the same amount of land due to our technological advances and those technological advances are driven by people, of course. Humans are not only consumers; we are also producers and a resource!”
Roberts also quotes Tom Chivers in the Telegraph: “The most likely outcome at the moment is that the world population will peak sometime around 2050 and at a population between eight and ten billion. Obviously that’s more than we have now, but not so many more that we couldn’t feed everyone.” Someone should tell Attenborough that humanity is not a “plague”. In Roberts’s words, “It is a collection of over seven billion individuals. Each of those individuals has his or her hope, fears, dreams, loves and each is more valuable than we could possibly imagine.”
Reading the Telegraph obituary of the late film-maker Michael Winner, I feel he was more the kind of national treasure I like; yes, he was clearly an old rogue and full of vices, unlike Sir David, and he didn’t make films about cuddly polar bears – but he was also a colourful character, generous to his many lady friends, a collector of Ernest Shepard ‘s Winnie-the-Pooh illustrations, a gourmet and good to his old Mum – even though it seems that she once stole and then sold the deeds to Winner’s penthouse to fund her gambling addiction. “What can you do” asked Winner rhetorically; “You can’t sue your aged mother.” I don’t think he ever described humanity as a “plague”; indeed, he deeply regretted at the end of his life not to have added to the world’s population himself. The Telegraph obituary records him once admitting that not having children was “the one mistake that wipes out everything I have ever done.”
In place of Sir David and now that Michael Winner is dead I would like to propose a new national treasure: my own old Mum. She came to live next door to me over two years ago and will be 89 next week. She has a weakness – I mean fondness – for whisky and cigarettes, gets very hoity-toity when other people refer to her as “old” and has an opinion on everything – most especially on subjects she knows nothing about. As an example of this, she asked me last week to run off down to the local shop on yet another unnecessary errand. I made some lame excuse, saying that I had to write a blog for the Catholic Herald. “A blog?” she repeated witheringly, in exactly the same tone of voice that Dame Edith Evans used when, as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of being Earnest, she repeated “A handbag?”: “A blog? I have never come across that word and I don’t like it. It sounds very vulgar. You were never brought up to use it by me – I can assure you of that. I don’t want to hear it used again in my presence!”
A plague on all those doom-mongers who think there are too many people in the world – especially Ethiopians or old people, like my mother.