David Attenborough: “Humans are a plague on the Earth”

Sir David Attenborough has written in the current edition of Radio Times about the threat of human population increase on the planet, stating that “Humans are a plague on the Earth”.

In many ways I agree. A plague indeed.
It’s good to hear people such as David Attenborough use the word ‘plague’ to describe the current state of affairs regarding human population increase, because it’s an emotive word that has to be used with care.
In the hands of some commentators on the state of the world it could easily be dismissed as the sensationalist, misanthropic, headline grabbing, apocalyptic vocabulary of a doom-monger, of someone who seeks to see nothing but death and destruction at every turn.
David Attenborough is patently no such person. He seems to be a well balanced, sensible, optimistic soul, who, what’s more, likes people (possibly even more than animals). And on top of that he happens to have a good brain for management too (he used to be controller of BBC2 after all). So if he uses the word plague you know he’s using the word in a considered way and that he isn’t exaggerating for effect.

Having said that, I’d personally feel happier if most commentators on population growth steered clear of excessive deployment of the word. In David Attenborough’s hands the word has power, but in lesser hands it can have the effect of crude exaggeration (even though it isn’t) – with the danger being that it may only serve to make people reject the argument.

Here’s a cartoon of mine on the subject of human impact on the environment, in which I’ve depicted us humans as a plague-like pestilence. Very misanthropic!

humans eating the planet cartoon

Here’s David Attenborough in the Radio Times
And here’s David Attenborough in the Daily Telegraph

Here’s a riposte to David Attenborough’s article, written by Harry Mount on the Daily Telegraph blog. Mount is an ex-Telegraph leader writer. Mount’s criticism of Attenborough is accompanied by the headline: David Attenborough is wrong – the human race has never been so successful or healthy.
The problem is, increased health and success tend to lead to population increase unless a conscious effort is made to do otherwise.
I think this riposte falls into the trap of dismissing Attenborough as a Malthusian human-hater, which, as I mentioned above, I’m sure he isn’t (I’m pretty certain that I’ve heard Attenborough state that he finds humans the most amazing creatures on the planet – just as I do – it’s just that we’re far too successful for our own good). It also falls into the trap of equating increasing population with good – because of the fact that population increase is an effect of good health, plentiful food and so on. I agree that increasing health and prosperity are good (who wouldn’t?), but they don’t have to be accompanied by a population boom. At least not any more.

If you’re concerned about over population you may be interested in the Population Matters site.

You can see more of my environment cartoons here.


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