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Friday 17 April 2009

The BBC and Overpopulation: Stupid, Ignorant or Deliberately Misleading?

This week, Sir David Attenborough, a man of great integrity who has done so much to bring natural history to the British public through his enduring love and knowledge of the subject, announced that he was joining the Optimum Population Trust (OPT). Rightly concerned about the unsustainable rate of global population growth he told the Times: “I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more. Population is reaching its optimum and the world cannot hold an infinite number of people.” [1]

Sir David’s patronage of the OPT, which promotes a voluntary maximum of two children per family, is very much welcome. As Edward Wilson has noted, we are currently experiencing one of the most, if not the most, rapid mass extinction event in the history of life on Earth [2]. Its root cause: the explosion of global human population which entered its current phase circa 1750 and, as Sir David notes, has trebled within his professional lifetime.

Thomas Malthus, in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), long ago predicted that without checks and balances on human population growth (either voluntary or involuntary) we would as a species eventually outstrip the land’s capacity to support our pullulating species. Critics of Malthusianism have stated that his predictions have been repeatedly falsified, as to date food production has always stayed one step ahead of demand. Mass starvation has thus been averted. It must be conceded that thanks to a number of developments such as the eighteenth-century agricultural revolution, the mechanisation of agriculture, the introduction of new methods of food preservation (canning and freezing) and the later Green Revolution, we have indeed as a species managed, with a few localised famines here and there, to feed ourselves. To suppose that this can be maintained indefinitely, or that this is even desirable, is folly.

Before moving on to explaining why Malthus will ultimately be proven correct, I will deal with a frankly irresponsible article written for the BBC website by Michael Blastland entitled “How can a graph be so very wrong?” [3]. Seemingly prompted by Sir David’s patronage of the OPT, Blastland’s article seeks to demonstrate that the OPT’s concerns are essentially baseless, using past projections of the UK’s population growth to demonstrate that population prediction is not an exact science. True. This is undeniable. He then goes on to state that the average number of children born to families in Bangladesh has reduced from circa 7 in the 1970s to 3 today, noting that this “changed in a way that took the rich world 200 years.” He also mentions a potential UK population of 78 million. This prospect does not seem to bother Blastland, despite the fact that the OPT notes that the carrying capacity of the UK is circa 20-25 million.

Our current global, and indeed national, population levels have only been able to reach their existing scale thanks to energy-intensive agriculture, i.e. oil-based fertilizers, mechanised systems of production, processing, and transit. Without relatively cheap oil, the entire system collapses. Our civilisation is predicated upon the availability of this vital commodity. Last year, a few bad grain harvests in different parts of the world such as Australia, coupled with rocketing oil prices and increasing consumer demand in China and other developing economies, led to the current spike in food price inflation. For all the talk of potential “deflation”, the price of food in the UK continues to track upwards, and as global demand grows and our currency depreciates (thanks to the devaluation of Sterling euphemistically termed “quantitative easing”), it will continue to do so.

With current population levels the UK cannot feed itself sustainably. With the mass immigration promoted by our mainstream political parties we could be confronting the very real prospect of national starvation at some point in the future as the global economy realigns and our economic purchasing power declines relative to that of other nations. This is why Blastland’s article, presumably endorsed by the BBC, is reckless. We should be aiming for a balanced demographic policy, with the goal of reducing our national population to circa 20-25 million over the next century or so. This is readily achievable without any draconian or inhuman measures. For this to succeed, mass immigration needs to be halted and reversed.

We should seek to take a less anthropocentric perspective, and acknowledge that there is intrinsic worth in the rich biodiversity of our Earth. With the loss of each species, our own lives become more impoverished.

Globally, it will be the business of other states to deal with their internal demographic issues, but we should not provide a safety valve for their domestic pressures. Either states and individuals can choose to regulate their populations voluntarily, or the age old checks and balances which, as Jared Diamond noted, brought about the collapse of the Maya, the Easter Islanders, the Greenland Norse and others, will engulf us all [4].

[1] 'David Attenborough to be patron of Optimum Population Trust',

[2] Edward O. Wilson, 'The Diversity of Life', Penguin, 2001.

[3] 'How can a graph be so very wrong?',

[4] Jared Diamond, 'Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive', Penguin, 2006.

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