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Sending food to famine-ridden countries is ‘barmy’–Attenborough

April 27, 2019

By Paul Homewood


h/t Phil Salmon


Admirers of “cuddly” David Attenborough might like to recall what he said in 2013:



Sir David Attenborough has attacked the idea of sending food aid to countries enduring famine as “barmy” and has urged for more debate about population control, it has been reported.

The natural history broadcaster warned that the world was “heading for disaster” due to the threat of overpopulation, in comments made to the Daily Telegraph.

He said that unless human beings do not act soon the “natural world will do something”.

He added that the natural world has been doing it “for a long time” and more discussion is needed.

Raising the example of Ethiopia, Sir David said that the famine there was down to there being “too many people for too little piece of land”.

Speaking ahead of his new series David Attenborough’s Rise of Animals, he suggested that humans are “blinding ourselves” to the problem, claiming, “We say, get the United Nations to send them bags of flour. That’s barmy”.

  1. RICHARD JARMAN permalink
    April 27, 2019 11:33 am

    When Methuselah met Malthus

  2. The Man at the Back permalink
    April 27, 2019 11:45 am

    Yes I remember this statement back in 2013. Somewhere I saw I comment a day or two later with the headline-

    “David Attenborough – Loves Polar bears, Hates Ethiopians”

    He has always been part of the movement which sees humans as disposable and would be happy to see massive famines wipe huge numbers out (or perhaps all of us?) A thought provoking riposte to him and others was published soon after –

    • April 27, 2019 1:42 pm

      When I heard this, I took my copy of his book from a PBS series in the 1980’s, threw it on my large brush pile and returned it to the CO2.

  3. Malcolm Bell permalink
    April 27, 2019 11:51 am

    Malthus was right about evolution, Malthus was right about economics.
    Malthus was right about the structure of human emotions.
    Malthus was exactly right in predicting Irish famine.
    Malthus was right in predicting our present crisis.

    Read his book, not what people tell you it says. His brilliance is breathtaking.

    In principle Attenborough is right too (even if perhaps not quite so about ignoring immediate human crises, but definitely about preventing others arising).

    • HotScot permalink
      April 27, 2019 1:57 pm

      Population will always expand to the limit of subsistence. Only “vice” (including “the commission of war”), “misery” (including famine or want of food and ill health), and “moral restraint” (i.e., abstinence) could check this excessive growth.

      Malthus didn’t consider wealth as an effective means of population control. The western birth rate is falling, sometimes alarmingly.

      • Malcolm Bell permalink
        April 27, 2019 3:03 pm

        Hot Scot
        Is it wealth?

        Or is it education, middle-class debt or greed? Or is it insecurity of cohabiting couples and women not wanting to be dumped with many children? Then again is it the rise of feminism and women not wanting to be trapped in domesticity?

        Wealth almost certainly is not the cause: Royalty breed like rats and very rich Catholics like Rees-Mogg (six children) think it is good to replicate at speed.

      • TinyCO2 permalink
        April 27, 2019 3:19 pm

        Wealth is tied up in those things Malcolm. Men and women want to maintain a certain level of comfort and having too many kids is a severe detriment to that unless you can afford staff. By almost any measure, most Brits are now wealthy. In some ways wealthier than the kings of old. Staff have become expensive too and so few people have them. Feminism has nothing to do with the cause of women not wanting to trapped in domesticity. It’s just not entertaining or particularly rewarding.

      • Phoenix44 permalink
        April 28, 2019 11:11 am

        Of course it’s wealth, as every study shows. There is an extremely strong and consistent link between wealth and things like woman’s education as the value of women changes. Feminism only succeeds where there is wealth to allow choice.

    • mikewaite permalink
      April 27, 2019 5:07 pm

      We have to remember that Malthus wrote his seminal essay in 1798, when his only experience of industrial manufacturing would have been the earliest factories sites located near rural water power ( eg in Derbyshire or at Styal in Cheshire). The major industrial centres of Manchester and Birmingham were yet to reach the importance that they had in the Mid Victorian period .
      Malthus said that population growth increased geometrically, but the food supply only arithmetically so short periods of glut would soon vanish.
      That may have been true of the pre industrial era but the massive increase in productivity per capita that came with industrialisation meant that the wealth generated (not necessarily enjoyed equally by the workers of course) could pay for the increase of agricultural production elsewhere , eg Canada, Australia , where the opportunities for food production were not limited by land or climate as they are in England. Also, factory work meant incomes for millions of women who were previously tied to the land or the kitchen giving them some independence away from biannual child bearing.
      So urban populations rapidly increased, and any resultant malnutrition amongst the working population was due to unequal distribution of money and goods, and not a fundamental unavailability of food as Malthus would have claimed.
      To take up one of Malcolm’s points ,many people who have researched their family history will have seen far larger family sizes in the past when their ancestors were much poorer than today. In recent years affluent Europe has imported millions of people because the indigenous and relatively wealthy population is not producing enough children.

      • manicbeancounter permalink
        April 28, 2019 8:26 am

        There is an additional point about Malthus coming out of his belief “population growth increased geometrically, but the food supply only arithmetically”. That starvation would reduce the population to sustainable levels. No need for any intervention, economic forces would complete the task.
        In 1800 the world population was less than 1 billion. In 2019 it is estimated to be 7.7 billion.

        The theory misses a few points. Most crucially it misses out the incredible rise in output per person. If Malthus had understood the implications of the division of labour, that Adam Smith described in the opening pages of the Wealth of Nations (published 22 years before the first edition of Malthus’s work) then he would not have reached such a dismal conclusion. Further, he was already able to observe the productivity increases in agriculture through various sources that had occurred in the eighteenth century.
        Over 200 years later there is no excuse. Per capita income in nominal terms is in the UK well over 200 times greater, and in purchasing power terms at least 35 times greater than before the industrial revolution. What is as important is that even the poorest 10% have better living standards than the average person of Malthus’s
        As for Malcolm Bell, he seems a typical left-wing troll, making dogmatic claims that he cannot support – or only support with someone else’s unsupported opinions – not by the global empirical evidence. He then makes inflammatory statements to distract from the emptiness of his dogmas.

    • Phoenix44 permalink
      April 28, 2019 11:03 am

      No, Malthus was wrong about everything. He didn’t we can get population right, failing to see that as we got wealthier we would have far fewer children. You have to have a delusional view of the world and history to think he was right about anything.

  4. fretslider permalink
    April 27, 2019 12:01 pm

    Dellers has an article up at BB on Packham and his imposition of his ideals on rural avian pest control. I notice that Packham is a patron of “Population Matters”.

    Other patrons include David Attenborough, Jonathon Porritt (President), and Paul R Ehrlich.

    If I were misanthropic as these people clearly are, I’d suggest shutting down all health services worldwide. Back to the faith healers and witch doctors.

    I guess that fits in nicely with their world view.

  5. john cooknell permalink
    April 27, 2019 12:05 pm

    This is the real world where the hero has feet of clay.

  6. Colin Brooks permalink
    April 27, 2019 12:33 pm

    Thia is about the only thing Atters has said that does contain some truth IMHO. It depends on the country and its politics or lack of them.

  7. Stonyground permalink
    April 27, 2019 12:39 pm

    Population explosions aren’t a problem in the wealthier regions of the world. Keeping the poorer parts poor would seem to be a good way of exacerbating the problem. As for Mr. Attenborough, anyone who thinks that helping famine victims is wrong deserves to bricked up in a cellar and allowed to starve to death themselves.

    • Colin Brooks permalink
      April 27, 2019 1:34 pm

      The problem is that families are having children even though they know they can not feed them, it is not a simple situation

    • alexei permalink
      April 27, 2019 7:37 pm

      “Population explosions aren’t a problem in the wealthier regions of the world. ”
      Not yet perhaps and not amongst their “indigenous” populations, but if they keep importing groups from ethnic backgrounds whose culture advocates maximising their progeniture, it may well turn out X number of years from now to have become a problem.

  8. Harry Passfield permalink
    April 27, 2019 1:47 pm

    Over-population is a problem that is exacerbated by Greens and their policies. Having large families is a means to an end if you don’t have cheap, available, reliable energy – and have to rely on your children foraging for food and fuel (firewood, dung, etc) and/or begging for money. Large families are also a hedge against poor medical facilities and childhood mortality. Cheap, available energy would also help with health-care.

  9. Mike Jackson permalink
    April 27, 2019 2:12 pm

    The point has been made several times — drought is weather; famine is politics. It is now almost 10 years since I blogged on a report, the full details of which now escape me, which argued quite cogently that the whole of north-east Africa had the potential to feed the entire continent, lacking only the technology (mainly around irrigation and desalination plants) and freedom from rampaging war lords and their thugs.

    Since then we have discovered the major beneficial effect of our increased CO2 levels, the greening of much of the planet’s desert and marginal land by as much as 11%.

    The world population in 1850 — 16 years after Malthus died — was around 1.1 billion. The best estimate for 2018 was 7.6 billion. And yet we are better off, better fed, healthier, longer lived than we have ever been as a species. UN estimates are that world population will peak during the second half of this century at a little over 10 billion and will start to decline before 2150. Some projections are even positing that by 2200 there will be regions that will be unsustainable due to lack of population.

    Malthus and all his disciples since have been wrong for the simple reason that they have reduced the argument to simple mathematics and ignored human reactions to circumstances. We know (what they deny) that history teaches us that the best way to limit population growth is to end poverty while they simply extrapolate the current birth rate in poor countries and assume that the answer is contraception and then wonder why it doesn’t work.

    We are not overcrowded (unless you choose to live like termites in places like the south-east of England). There is sufficient land on earth to give every living human being one-quarter acre of Australia. Overall, and allowing for deserts, mountains and tundra there is enough land for the current population to have two acres each! And, to go back to my initial point, we have the technology to turn all but the worst of that land to productive use.

    There is simply no justification for the bleak pessimism that afflicts us.

    “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

    “The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.”

    Where would we be without HL Mencken?!

    • Malcolm Bell permalink
      April 27, 2019 3:34 pm

      Mike Jackson

      You almost have a point, but as Mencken said “Complex problems always have simple answers which are always wrong”.

      Presciently he also said: “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” That too came true.

      So, dealing with your simple answer; I am one of those who have contributed to helping us create more resources to keep more people alive. If you read Malthus properly he discussed that issue and the consequent “drone” population it would produce. Indeed has already produced. Hence his economics which turned into Keynesianism. He understood exactly what would and could happen. Hence his discussion about potatoes and Ireland. We can go on solving the demand of sustaining more people and fouling the nest, but as the Club of Rome demonstrated that must eventually hit the limits.

      In short: why do we prefer to have more people and destroy the forests and waterways, wipe out the large animals and reduce our average standard of living when we could live so much better in harmony with the full glory of the Planet? If you want to try to live (die!) on quarter of an acre of Australian desert I am sure that can be arranged for you.

      In the meantime do not insult those of us who you do not know as not understanding the Malthusian case. Some of us have worked a life time trying to manage the consequence of the world population trebling in our life times and the world has become a much worse place in consequence of that growth.

      • John F. Hultquist permalink
        April 27, 2019 5:24 pm

        M. Bell says: “the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.””

        I’m glad we got rid of that guy in the last election.

      • Mike Jackson permalink
        April 27, 2019 6:26 pm

        Sorry you chose to take my analogy literally, Malcolm. I was demonstrating the simple fact that the entire population of the world could be comfortably accommodated in an area the size of Australia, leaving the whole of the rest of the planet for food production, industry, you name it. In simple terms the planet is not overcrowded and is not likely to become so if we learn the simple lesson that history has taught us time and again that as societies become more affluent their birth rate falls.

        A much more productive and human(e) approach than eg, Michael Oppenheimer’s:

        “The only hope for the world is to make sure there is not another United States. We can’t let other countries have the same number of cars, the amount of industrialization, we have in the US. We have to stop these Third World countries right where they are.”

        He claimed never to have said it but there is ample evidence that he did or at least he believed it.

        As Harry Passfield says, Malthus was writing for his time. Not only do we “not know what magical inventions and advances will be made in the next century”, Malthus died when the railways were barely six years old. Try to catalogue the explosion of discoveries and technological advances that have been made since then. Things that we “couldn’t do without” that our grandparents couldn’t even envisage as science fiction.

        There is no reason to be pessimistic about the future!

      • Bob permalink
        April 28, 2019 7:33 am

        I’m with you. Whilst it is possible to feed the world it comes at at a terrible cost to our wellbeing. Who doesn’t like open spaces and a rich diverse environment. I have just got back from South Australia and felt claustrophobic in their large towns and looked on In dispair at the ruined agricultural land and over stressed forests.

      • angryscotonfragglerock permalink
        April 28, 2019 9:33 am

        I like Mike’s 2-D example. My own 3-D one is that you could fit (at only 6billion humans, from babies to the largest of our species) all the population into a sphere RADIUS ~ 1000m! We are actually pretty insignificant in the big scheme of things but have a quite a large impact (but not when it comes to CO2 🤣 – 3% of the total)

      • Harry Passfield permalink
        April 28, 2019 10:46 am

        Having read the Club of Rome’s ‘Limits to Growth’ in the 70s I’m now old enough to see the proof of wrong it was. I’m also quite surprised to find it used for reference here.

      • Phoenix44 permalink
        April 28, 2019 11:15 am

        Because the Potato Famine could not have been just a failure if a crop had the British not at least partly thought like Attenbrough and Malthus.

        There was plenty of opportunity for the Famine to have been prevented in terms of people dying. Malthus was wrong. There was plenty of food, it just never got to the places it was most needed.

  10. Stephen Lord permalink
    April 27, 2019 2:48 pm

    Going back to the previous “Popuation Bomb” scare as the climate change hoax is losing steam.

  11. Jeff permalink
    April 27, 2019 2:54 pm

    It is barmy.
    It’s like feeding pigeons at the park, its creates continual dependence and means the suffering will be much greater if the free feed is ever stopped.
    It’s bad for the local farmers who with hard work and great skill were able to produce a crop in difficult conditions, which would have been extremely well valued but is completely devalued by a flood of free food aid.

  12. Harry Passfield permalink
    April 27, 2019 2:55 pm

    Well said, Mike.

    We must also allow for the fact that Malthus was pitching his arguments based on the knowledge (ignorance, actually) of his day, when cholera and typhoid, polio and smallpox (to name a few) were life-threatening diseases that had yet to be near-eliminated. That is why I despair of the cultists of the climate-change ‘we-must-do-something’ brigade who, if there is a real problem cannot get their minds to think that the future will take care of itself. We – they – do not know what magical inventions and advances will be made in the next century, before the believed 1.5 Deg C increase in temps, and which will neutralise that increase (should it still be a problem!).

    Personally, I don’t believe anything should be done, over and above the basic needs to keep the planet pollution-free – which has nothing to do with ‘Man-made climate-change’.

    • angryscotonfragglerock permalink
      April 28, 2019 9:34 am


    • Colin Brooks permalink
      April 28, 2019 2:08 pm

      Well said Harry!

      It is the mistake the whole world is making that you have highlighted: We can not predict future technological advances. What we can say is that it DOES advance and by doing so it solves many of the problems we have. ^.^

  13. Broadlands permalink
    April 27, 2019 3:54 pm

    Read again the small 1987 paper by Newell and Marcus, “Carbon Dioxide and People” to see where the dilemma resides about population. Correlations are clear between the sum total of human activities and almost anything within human control…e.g. wildfires, deforestation, cement and concrete, asphalt road and runways. The correlation fails with respect to climate and weather.

  14. It doesn't add up... permalink
    April 28, 2019 12:08 am

    Three cheers for Natascha Engel:

    I hope she does something sensible next, like draft some policy for the Brexit party.

  15. Andrew Dickens permalink
    April 28, 2019 1:22 am

    He’s so right about population but so wrong about climate change

    • Phoenix44 permalink
      April 28, 2019 11:17 am

      Funny how those who think there are too many people never think they are one of the “too many”.

  16. rah permalink
    April 28, 2019 1:29 am

    Many incidents of famine occur due to strife and war. Famine or denial of water are the original weapons of mass destruction. It is “barmy” to ignore that fact. Recently the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide was noted in the news. I saw plenty of references to the various atrocities but relatively little concerning what was by far the greatest killer used in that genocide, STARVATION!

    • dave permalink
      April 28, 2019 10:44 am

      “The moral problem” originates – it may be surmised – in the conditions under which our species developed. Some animals are individualistic (think amoebae) and some are collectivistic (think ants). Primates veer between the two approaches.

      If a fellow human in the wild suffered a temporary injury (think twisted ankle) it was in the personal interest of others to help him, so that he could contribute again to the group. If the injury was permanent (think broken ankle) it was in the personal interest of the others to leave him to die.

      And so we have built-in, contradictory, impulses, one to help others (compassion) and one to ignore others (callousness). The first is immediate and radical (send food parcels!) and the second is delayed and conservative (they bring the famines on themselves!)

      I just wish the fools of the world took better care of their ankles! Then I would not need to decide the issue.

    • Phoenix44 permalink
      April 28, 2019 11:19 am

      There is plenty of food in the world and could be much more if necessary. Land has been removed from farming in many places as it is not economic. Famines are always short-term problems.

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