In the President’s Lecture 2011 to the RSA Sir David Attenborough challenges us to confront the global human population crisis

May 14th, 2011 by Richard Lord

Sir David Attenborough‘s gave the President’s Lecture 2011 on the subject of ‘People and Planet‘ to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).  His powerful presentation focused on the unprecedented growth of the human population.

He began his presentation speaking about the growing number of endangered species, which gave the impetus for the creation of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) about 50 years ago.

Even though many species were saved from extinction by captive breeding programs and the establishment of National Parks, he said “today there are more problems, not less, than there were 50 years ago.”

“The disasters impacting the natural world has one element that connects them all – the unprecedented increase in the human population.”

Thomas Malthus‘ essay on the principle of population in 1798 stated that the human population would be halted by “misery or vice.”

Sir David Attenborough said that although Thomas Malthus didn’t foresee the Green Revolution that greatly increased the amount of food that could be produced in a given area of arable land, “the fundamental truth that Maltheus proclaimed remains the truth.  There cannot be more people on this earth than can be fed.  Many people would like to deny that this is so.  They would like to believe in that oxymoron ‘Sustainable Growth‘.”

Dr. Norman Borlaug, often called the father of the Green Revolution “warned us that all he had done was give us breathing space in which to stabilise our numbers.”

He said it was tragic that the only current population policies in developed countries “are perversely attempting to increase their birth rate in order to look after the growing number of old people.  The notion of ever more old people needing ever more young people who in turn will grow old and need ever more young people, and so on ad infinitum, is an obvious ecological ponzi scheme.”

Sir David Attenborough said that it was difficult enough to feed the almost 7 billion humans on the planet, let alone feed the projected increase in human population.  He cited soil erosion, salination of the soil, depletion of aquifers, the spread of plant diseases as a result of globalisation, and “the absurd growing of food crops to turn into biofuels to feed motor cars instead of people” as some of the food production challenges to overcome.

He said “it remains an obvious and brutal fact that on a finite planet the human populations will quite definitely stop at some point.  That can only happen in one of two ways.  It can happen sooner by fewer human births – by contraception.

The alternative is an increased death rate through famine, disease or war over oil, or water, or food, or minerals, or grazing rights or just living space.    There is no third alternative of indefinite growth.”

There was one glimmer of hope, he said.  “Where ever women have the vote, where ever they are literate, and have the medical facilities to control the number of children they bare the birth rate falls.”

“Education and empowerment of women should be central part of any program to secure an adequate food supply for humanity.”  “Family planning and other reproductive health services should be freely available to everyone,” he said.

And he urged everyone to discuss the issue of human population growth.  He said that each one of us can break the taboo of discussing this issue because “until it is broken there is no hope of the action we need.”


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