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Disagreeing with David

Posted by Natalie in Environment - 25 March 2011

As a passionate naturalist, Sir David Attenborough has been an inspiration to me for as long as I can remember. He’s probably one of the main reasons I’m an environmentalist at all.

Is his address to the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce)  Attenborough alludes to population growth as the primary factor driving ecological exploitation and destruction.

The world is a big place. It can, in fact, sustain a lot more people than already exist. The environment, however, continues to suffer increasingly and intensely.  It’s reasonable to jump to the conclusion that if there were less people there would be less exploitation, but that is simply not the case. It is an understandable assumption though, because one falls into the trap of taking over-consumption as a given, of capitalism as the natural, fixed state around which everything else must adapt.

The fact is that most of the population growth occurs in poorer countries, where people have the least per capita impact on the environment. In terms of carbon emissions, for example, Americans today are equivalent to around four Chinese, 20 Indians, 30 Pakistanis, 40 Nigerians, or 250 Ethiopians.  Despite developing nations being responsible for the majority of population increase, their environmental impact is negligible and massively disproportionate.  Look at it another way: in the US, almost half of food produced is wasted, that’s about 40 million tonnes a year. There are approximately 1 billion malnourished people in the world.

Ironically, despite this waste, the problem is over-consumption. If we consumed less, the world would be able to sustain all 6.5 billion of us, and more. This does not mean we all have to live in squalor without electricity or access to clean water.  On the contrary, a model of sustainable development that rejects uncapped capitalism would lead to more equality and a higher standard of living for those currently living below the poverty line.

Such opportunities speed up rather than hinder development, so that access to education, medicine and contraception increase. The population will plateau as a side effect of a better quality of life, as it has done consistently throughout history. To argue the opposite is to reify a flawed system and misjudge what it means to be human.

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