January 22, 2013 12:44PM

Attenborough’s Nonsense

According to Sir David Attenborough, the famous British broadcaster and naturalist, “humans are threatening their own existence and that of other species by using up the world’s resources.” In a recent interview, Attenborough said that “the only way to save the planet from famine and species extinction is to limit human population growth.”

We are a plague on the Earth,” he continued. “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… We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there.

In 2006, Sir David Attenborough was voted Britain’s greatest living icon. Popularity, however, is no substitute for wisdom. As I have explained in a previous blog post, “[The] rate of global population growth has slowed. And it’s expected to keep slowing. Indeed, according to experts’ best estimates, the total population of Earth will stop growing within the lifespan of people alive today. And then it will fall… the long-dreaded resource shortage may turn out not to be a problem at all.”

Some of the reasons why Attenborough is as mistaken about the “over-population problem” today as Paul Ehrlich was when he published his infamous The Population Bomb in 1968, include:

  1. Increase in urbanization. In 1950, 29 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. By 2050, 67 percent of people will live in cities. City dwellers have less of an impact on the environment than do rural dwellers, because “When you have a critical mass of people like in London or New York, public transport becomes a feasible option for many, while people in more rural areas rely more on cars. And a flat that is surrounded by others is more efficient to heat than a free-standing house.”
  2. Technological change will make it possible is making it possible to feed, clothe and house more people while using fewer resources. In their book Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think, Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler point to some fascinating technological innovations that will revolutionize supply of water, food, energy, and so on. Put differently, Attenborough’s Malthusian thinking about the relationship between population growth and resources is as outdated as a horse-drawn cart.

What is to be said about Attenborough’s take on the famine in Ethiopia? In a word: embarrassing.

To start with, population density in Monaco is 17,676 people per square kilometer. It is 79 people per square kilometer in Ethiopia. Monaco is one of the richest countries in the world and Ethiopia one of the poorest. If anything, there is an inverse relationship between population density and poverty. Some of the world’s most populated places (Hong Kong, Singapore, The Netherlands, etc.) are very rich, while some of the least heavily populated countries (Central African Republic, Chad, the two Congos, etc.) are very poor.

The real reasons for Ethiopian famines are altogether different. First, Ethiopia was a Marxist dictatorship and like many Marxist dictatorships (USSR, PRC and Cambodia), it experienced both economic collapse and civil war. Second, Ethiopia has almost no economic freedom. All land, to give one example, is owned by the state – and the state can take it away. As a consequence, farmers have little incentive to make long term plans and undertake necessary investment, and agricultural production suffers.

Attenborough is, in many ways, a great man and I love watching his programs. But, he thinks he knows more than he does. A little intellectual humility would not be amiss.