An Open Letter David Attenborough: Exposing Overpopulation as the Causes Climate Change

Climate Change Oct 06, 2020

Sir David, you might be a national treasure, but that shouldn't stop us from holding you accountable.

Let me start by saying, your documentaries are integral to so many people and their love of nature. Your iconic films and voiceovers have bought awareness, joy, and fear to many. That's important. It is equally important to recognize that you hold power, not just as a famous and known naturalist, but also as a rich white man. Achievements and popularity do not negate from our ability to critique and question you, especially about your focus on a topic (overpopulation) that has links to racism, eugenics, and eco-fascism.

A quick google search of the term 'David Attenborough Overpopulation' will bring up a plethora of articles and videos of you pushing overpopulation as a key cause of climate change. See:

  • this highly problematic video (2011) which includes the quotes 'We now know the disasters that continue to inflict the natural world have one element that connects them all... The unprecedented increase in the number of human beings on the planet.', 'It needs actions by governments. In my view, all countries should develop a population policy', and finally a prompt for a room full of powerful people to also start pushing the overpopulation agenda.
  • this clip in you say 'I have no doubt that the fundamental source of all our problems, particularly our environmental problems, is population growth. I can't think of a single problem that would be easier to solve if there were less people.'
  • this recent interview (September 2020) in which you said "we've overrun it', when talking about Earth.
BBC One - Breakfast, “We’ve overrun the planet” - Sir David Attenborough speaks in an exclusive interview with BBC Breakfast
Sir David Attenborough speaks to Louise head of his new book and documentary
  • this video by WWF, where you state 'stabilise the human population as low as we fairly can' whilst images of people of colour flash across the screen. WWF later deleted the video and apologized for the overt racism.
Sir David Attenborough video deleted by WWF charity over racism claims
  • You are a patron of Population Matters, a problematic organization that states 'Human population has grown beyond Earth's sustainable means. We are consuming more resources than our planet can regenerate, with devastating consequences.' without explaining that capitalism, overconsumption and other issues discussed below are the key contributors to stopping regeneration.

David, to be fair to you, you do sometimes mention the need for freely available sexual health and family planning education and care, alongside freedom of choice without coercion. You often state that consumption needs reducing and living standards need to be maintained (I'd argue they need improving for many, but that's beside the point). These social initiatives we can agree on, they are much needed by many. But your motivation for pushing the overpopulation agenda is still questionable.

Tell me, David, why, of all the issues you could have chosen to focus on, have you chosen overpopulation?

Overpopulation and Climate Change.

Let's be clear... Overpopulation ideologies that link or blame the demise of nature, biodiversity, and ecosystems on overpopulation have a name. It's called Eco-Fascism.

Why is eco-fascism harmful?

Overpopulation ideologies often stem from the idea that previously-colonized countries have high populations, that grow too quickly. This notion removes the blame from colonizing countries, who often have more global power and overconsume the earth resources, and instead seats the problem with marginalized people who have less global power and consume far less.

This constant pointing towards previously colonized countries and countries in the global south allows those in the global north to wrongly focus on people of colour as the environmental issue, instead of their own consumption, fossil fuel emissions, and industrial agriculture.

David, do you see how dangerous this is? How pushing an overpopulation conversation puts people of colour at risk of violence, particularly women of colour?

Reproductive Rights Are Being Compromised for Eugenics.

Here is a shortlist of forced sterilizations:

You see David, when we (anyone with privilege, but mostly white people) call for population control, even if we mean well, it has detrimental effects on the most marginalized. While the list above focuses on BIPOC women, and/or poor communities, disabled people and those who do not identify as cis or straight are also targeted in population control methods.

Problems Contributing to Climate Change that aren't Overpopulation, and How to Fix Them.

Anyone who cares about climate change needs to know about the following issues:

  • Capitalism and Wealth Disparity
  • Negligible Governments and Businesses
  • Fossil Fuels and Green House Gas Emissions
  • Industrial Agriculture

These issues all have solutions, and they are things you can promote David. The fixes to the above, listed below, are more likely to help marginalized people than talking about overpopulation. David, instead of focusing on overpopulation, I ask you to focus on any of the above and below instead.

Solutions include:

  • Dismantle Capitalism and Wealth Redistribution
  • Accountability and Environmental Justice.
  • Divestment from Fossil Fuels, Investment in Renewable Energy
  • Regenerative Agriculture and Permaculture

Climate Issue: Capitalism and Wealth Disparity

David, I am sure you know that Capitalism is the driving economic platform for continual never-ending growth. We all know that infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible*, so why do economists and capitalists push consumption? The more we consume, the more we degrade the planet, so should we not be focusing on how to drastically reduce said consumption?

Spoiler: The USA and Europe are the two biggest consumer economies...

*Before I carry on, I know what you're thinking. I've said, ‘infinite growth on a finite planet is not possible ' and David, you've stated multiple times that population growth can't be infinite on a finite planet. And perhaps you're right. At some point, we may reach a time where there are too many people to sustain. But David, have we really reached that point yet? Or is it that our systems don't enable an equitable distribution of resources? Is it that industries degrade rather than protect the environment? David, we both know it's the latter. So why focus on overpopulation when the real issue is systems and industry?

Capitalism also enables the infinite accumulation of wealth. We have more millionaires (David, you are one of them) and billionaires than ever before. These people (often white men like yourself David) make money off the backs of oppressed workers, usually the poor and a higher proportion of POC. For many people with money, their wealth KEEPS GROWING. As the rich get richer, the poor are getting poorer.

David, as a rich white man, you benefit from the capitalist system that is in place. It has enabled you generational wealth, a good education, a platform to speak from, and likely many more privileges. You are a multi-millionaire...

You hold power David, and you choose to use that power to uphold the systems you benefit from.

Climate Solution: Dismantle Capitalism and Wealth Redistribution

In the first video linked above, you speak of the UK's growing population, then switch the conversation to compare the birth rates of women in countries of the global south, some of which have readily available contraceptive health care, while others do not.

in this snippet, you acknowledge your awareness of the large population in the UK - a country where family planning and education is available (something you advocate for globally)- so I have to conclude that you understand that while all menstruators should have access to family planning and sexual health care, having that access doesn't make a country more sustainable and better at mitigating climate change. The sustainability aspect comes from every person living a flourishing life, with access to everything they need, without overconsuming nature's resources. This can be achieved by dismantling capitalism's structures that are:

  1. Oppressive to women and marginalized people because they uphold patriarchy, white supremacy, ableism, and heteronormativity.
  2. Extractive to the Earth's resources in pursuit of profit.
  3. Enable a cycle of wealth disparity that makes the rich richer and poor poorer.

Capitalism has enabled the growing inequality between rich and poor, colonizers and previously colonized nations, white people and people of colour, men, and women, and so on, for every marginalization.

David, don't you agree that we need to reject this system of inequality that keeps so many people oppressed - mostly (but not exclusively) the poor, women, and POC, often those intersecting with all three.

Many people in the climate movement are calling for wealth distribution and an end to capitalism, but you have been strangely quiet. You could call on the government, on businesses, and anyone who holds power, to start a social change that protects people and planet above all else.

David, you could use your power to lobby governments into creating a more equitable society. Inheritance tax, mansion tax, high earners tax, bankers tax, bonus tax, wealth tax etc. are things you could support in order to limit the growing wealth inequality happening in the UK - and around the world. Limit the amount of wealth one can hold and distribute it to those who have significantly less. This would enable a just society for all and would help to limit the damage of climate change, by limiting the amount of carbon emitted by the 1% and 10%.


Climate Problem: Negligible Governments and Businesses

Despite 97% of climate scientists speaking so urgently to the issues we are currently and will continue to face, you would think that governments and businesses would buck up and start taking action. But no, unfortunately, David, the majority have sat idle and done the bare minimum. It's only in the last few years that a select few banks, universities, and governments have acted against climate change.

In fact, we've seen many governments choose to bail out fossil fuel companies during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite knowing the damage they cause the climate.

David, isn't it absurd that our social, political, and economic systems are ignoring climate experts, that governments are being negligible towards their citizens, and favouring an environmentally damaging economy above all else? Instead of focusing on overpopulation, shouldn't we place more pressure on governments to listen to climate science and put people first in their climate plan?

Climate Solution: Accountability and Environmental Justice

David, we need businesses that operate for social good first, instead of always chasing profits that make owners and investors richer. We need governments that operate with care for the most marginalized at the fore-front of policy. And we need those who make that policy to be held accountable, especially if the policy benefits themselves (or their rich friends, who incidentally own the businesses chasing profit), and not the most marginalized in society. Don't you agree?

David, you talk about enabling women with education and health care, services that should come freely from governments. Those in the climate movement want those things too! But we also want the oppressive structures that bar access to those to be removed. David, instead of spending time on overpopulation, will you commit more time to pressure governments to adopt policies that enable climate and social justice?

Will you commit to using your power and platforms to amplify the voices of the marginalized, those on the frontlines of the climate crisis? Imagine David, you could use your power to help teach people about environmental justice and its inextricable link to racial justice!


Climate Problem: Fossil Fuels and Green House Gas Emissions

Greenhouse gases (GHG) are emitted in the pursuit of fossil fuels and industrialization - whether its the over-farming of cattle, the fracking of gas, or the production of plastics, problematic gases are emitted.

While GHG, such as ozone, nitrous oxide, and methane are disruptive to ecosystems, carbon is the GHG we focus on as it is the one we emit more of. Scientists who estimate global warming trajectories base them on atmospheric carbon (carbon in the air, versus carbon captured in soils, oceans, or trees). We need to stay below 1.5C warming to mitigate global climate catastrophes and we do that by limiting our carbon and other GHG emissions.

As far as I'm aware (and I could be wrong here David) but the total emissions from fossil fuel companies is unknown and remains based on estimates from scientists and investigate climate journalists. However, the EPA has broken global GHG emissions down by the economic activities that lead to their production, see the nifty little graphic below.

Pie chart showing emissions by sector. 25% is from electricity and heat production; 14% from transport; 6% from residential and commercial buildings; 21% from industry; 24% from agriculture, forestry and other land use; 10% from other energy uses.
Image from EPA. Data Source: IPCC (2014) based on global emissions from 2010. 

Although energy is the largest global contributor to emissions, most of the other sectors can also be traced back to energy. For instance, the emissions from industry 'primarily involve fossil fuels burned on-site at facilities for energy', similarly the emissions from transport also involve the burning of fossil fuels for air, road and sea transportation. The 6% of global emissions from building comes largely from construction and the burning of fossil fuels to heat homes and cook food. The 10% of emissions from other energy 'refers to all emissions from the Energy sector which are not directly associated with electricity or heat production, such as fuel extraction, refining, processing, and transportation.'

David, I understand working out who is responsible for carbon emissions is difficult. Do we equate the emissions to the country/business that extracts fossil fuel, the country/business that processes it, or the country/business/people that consume it?

According to a recent report by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute, it is the world's richest who are 'exhausting the world’s “carbon budget”.

The report also found:

  • Emissions rose by 60% between 1990 to 2015.
  • The increase in emissions from the richest 1% (those earning over $100,000 per year) was three times greater than the increase in emissions from the poorest half of the global population.
  • The richest 10% of the global population (those earning $35,000 per year) are responsible for 52% of global emissions over the 25-year period.

Furthermore, the Carbon Majors Report found that 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. That same report states that 'ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron are identified as among the highest emitting investor-owned companies since 1988. If fossil fuels continue to be extracted at the same rate over the next 28 years as they were between 1988 and 2017, global average temperatures would be on course to rise by 4C by the end of the century. This is likely to have catastrophic consequences including substantial species extinction and global food scarcity risks.'

David, I ask you to think about who is driving the consumption that leads to the use of energy and therefore holds more responsibility for emissions. I would personally say that while individuals have a responsibility to curb their overconsumption, the onus is on governments (and businesses) to change the systems that perpetuate, enable, and encourage overconsumption. This includes the fossil fuel companies that actively destroy habitats and lobby against environmental policy.

Both reports mentioned above clearly indicate that the issue is less about population and more about who the key consumers and emitters are, and it's always the rich and/or businesses. Linking this back to capitalism, the poor - of which the majority of the population can identify - are not responsible for climate change, and therefore population at this point is a non-issue, especially compared to fossil fuel use and consumption.

Think about it, David.

Climate Solution: Divestment from Fossil Fuels, Investment in Renewable Energy.

Money matters, there's no doubt about it. Sustainable/ethical purchases are important, but so is sustainable and ethical investment. Not only does it matter where you move money, it also matters where you store it, where you save it, and where you invest it. It also matters where intuitions, such as banks, university's, and even governments, put their money.

The sad truth is that many of these institutions invest in fossil fuel. We need them to divest, and make big investments into renewables - Wind, hydro, and solar.

David, will support the divestment of fossil fuels and pledge to lobby for investment into renewables?


Climate Problem: Industrial Agriculture

Roughly, 24% of GHG emissions arise from agriculture (cultivation of crops and livestock) and deforestation. The way we grow our food and extract from the land is highly disruptive, not just in terms of the atmosphere, but also to biodiversity.

Mono crops and mono livestock actively reduce the biodiversity in a local eco-system, not just the animal and plant species, but the microbial biodiversity in soil too.

For a short overview... Soil is alive, a living thing that contains insects, microbes, and roots - which help to store carbon. However tilling soil, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides kill that life and therefore kill the soil, in the processes release stored carbon and becoming unable to sequester more. The soil quickly becomes unfertile dirt that makes growing food harder and harder. This land is then more prone to flooding and drought because the microbial systems aren't in place to mitigate those weather patterns.

David, I know that you understand preserving the biodiversity of nature and halting climate change is important. I also know that you know our agricultural techniques need to change in order to allow biodiversity to thrive and sequester carbon rather than emitting it.

David, we already have enough food to feed the global population, so really farming is related to two issues. One being that the food/fertile land is disproportionately distributed - Again usually the rich and white have access to the most fertile land and a broader choice of food. Second, our current agricultural practices degrade the soil, and therefore every year we loose eligible land to farm on. So, David, if we have enough food, shouldn't we focus on how to protect and regenerate our soil, focus on sustainable growing practices and how to distribute that food, instead of talking about overpopulation?

Climate Solution: Regenerative Agriculture and Permaculture.

For a far more interesting overview of regenerative agriculture watch The Need to Grow and Kiss the Ground.

But basically… Ditching mono-crops and chemicals in favour of planting an ecosystem that allows the soil to thrive in a process that provides food, enables biodiversity, and helps to prevent climate change with a natural form of carbon capture.

David, instead of talking about population frequently, will you advocate for regenerative farming practices and ask global governments to start the process of regeneration?


David, I am unsure, why, of all the issues you could have chosen to focus on, you have chosen overpopulation.

As an educated man, you are likely aware that overpopulation and its link to climate change are tenuous (at best) and that there are issues more pressing, such as those detailed above. Each of these issues has solutions that you can, and sometimes do, advocate for. These issues and solutions are more beneficial for everyone and less likely to bring harm to the same people who are harmed by overpopulation narratives.

David, I'm asking you to stop touting overpopulation in your films and on your platforms. You need to recognize the harm it brings to people of colour and other marginalized folks. At the beginning and throughout this letter, I have asked you to shift your focus from overpopulation. I'm asking again, will you use your power and privilege to bring justice, at a governmental level, to the real threats of climate change?


I am honoured to have been involved in the creation of #PassTheMic campaign which asks Sir David to Pass the Mic to to frontline MAPA (Most Affected People and Areas) activists. David Attenborough holds the record for the fastest growing Instagram account, which reached over 6 million followers in under a month. The account, created by a team at Silverback Films, was created to promote Attenborough's latest documentary A Life On Our Planet. Now the promotion for the documentary has ended Silverback Films has decided to "close" the account. There will be no further content published and comments have been disabled.

This silencing is a missed opportunity to reach over 6 million people with the stories of those on the ground undertaking essential climate work.

If you think David Attenborough should keep the account active with a focus on frontline activists, please sign the open letter.


Header photo shows Sir David Attenborough. Copyright BBC 2019.

Chelsea

Activist and organizer with Greenpeace Vancouver. Writes about climate and social justice, feminism, greenwashing, and fossil fuel fuckery.

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