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Sorry, Sir David Attenborough. This isn’t the way to tackle over-population

Not the least unfortunate aspect of his remarks is that they will be used to attack a reasonable central thesis; that soaring population growth is a threat to the world itself

Even our heroes can slip up at times. Sir David Attenborough is officially the most trusted man in Britain, but his remarks published today, in the context of the debate over world population growth, that it is “barmy” to send food to famine-stricken countries, is crass in its callousness; it is simply stupid. And when he reflects on the implication – that it is acceptable to reduce human numbers by starving people to death – Sir David may well be forced to modify his words.

Not the least unfortunate aspect of his remarks is that they will be used to attack, and to attempt to invalidate, the central thesis of our revered naturalist father-figure, one he has increasingly been propounding: that the soaring growth of the world’s population is a terrible threat to the world itself. But however inhumane and unacceptable the comment may have been, it needs to be stated strongly, here and now, that it does not invalidate the thesis.

These are the figures behind it, which can be found in the UN document published last month, World Population Prospects: the 2012 Revision. Human numbers currently stand at 7.2 billion, having passed the seven billion mark on 31 October, 2011. At the start of the 20th century global population stood at about 2 billion, and it took until 1960 to add a billion more; yet the leap from 6 billion (in 1999) to 7 billion took a mere 12 years. We are projected to increase by nearly another billion in the 12 years to come, reaching 8.1 billion in 2025, 9.6 billion in 2050, and 10.9 billion by 2100.

The problem is this: these colossal increases have colossal costs. It is clear that the gigantic scale of the human enterprise is now beginning to overwhelm the natural wealth of the Earth upon which all life, including ours, ultimately depends. The forests are chainsawed, the seas are stripmined and the fish stocks collapse, the rivers are destroyed by filth and their valleys by giant dams, and the croplands are increasingly drenched in pesticides until nothing but the crop survives. Across the globe.

It cannot be stressed enough: these are not natural events, like tsunamis or volcanic eruptions. They are the work of people – of us – and as we continue to grow, and our needs continue to expand, so will the destruction. Remorselessly. And yet many sections of modern society – western governments, churches, liberal commentators who view the world from a humanist perspective – are unwilling to make the connection. (If you speak of it, your views will be quickly ghettoised with the handy term “Malthusian”, implying that, like Thomas Malthus, who first raised concerns about world population two centuries ago, you are merely an idiotic scaremonger).

One can understand the reluctance to look at the population question: nearly all the increases to come will be in developing countries, and there is an understandable fear of seeming racist. Yet the massively increased weight of the human footprint is going to affect peoples of all races, especially as it begins to degrade the ecosystems which, it is increasingly recognised, provide vital services for human life, from the provision of fresh water to the pollination of crops by insects.

And if, as the century progresses, soaring population growth begins to interact with climate change and reinforce the stresses a changing climate may bring, such as agricultural failure, the consequences will be severer still.

Recognising the problem, of course, is not the same as offering a solution, and the unacceptable nature of David Attenborough’s remark is that it implies a “solution” which would be outrageous in its inhumanity. The way forward with addressing population growth can only lie in humane measures – not in forced sterilisation or China’s one-child policy, but in the education of women, and the provision of reproductive choice, on a systematic basis.

But recognition is a necessary first step. At the heart of the problem is something that was brought home to us when the Apollo 8 astronauts returned from circling the moon in December 1968 and took “Earthrise” – the first photograph of the Earth seen from a distance. There was the blue planet, exquisite, shimmering in its beauty, and very clearly, against the blackness of space, finite.

It can only take so much stress from us. Sir David Attenborough’s remark was heartless, and he should apologise, but his concern is justified entirely.