Columnists

If you love wildlife, stop eating all its food
Camilla Cavendish January 24 2013

David Attenborough calls humans a plague. But it’s consumption, not population, that’s
spiralling out of control
That nice, mild-mannered David Attenborough has called humans a “plague on Earth”. Good for him.
Strong language from a national treasure is the only way to shake us out of our apparent determination
not to think about our responsibility for the devastation that he so tirelessly catalogues in his films.
So far, the response has been that Sir David is wrong to be concerned about population, because new
technologies can feed the world. This is a little optimistic, given that one billion people already go hungry
and that we are about to add two billion more. When I lived in Bangladesh 20 years ago, people were
eking out an existence on land that climate change is now making increasingly marginal. Since then
human ingenuity has brought us drought-resistant and flood-resistant GM crops. But it has not yet
brought strains that can cope with weather that will flip increasingly between extremes.
The response also seems to assume that only humans matter: that we should not worry as long as we can
feed the newcomers without completely wrecking ecosystems on which we depend. I find that sad and
foolhardy, since we don’t know enough about how ecosystems interact.
It’s important to realise, though, that while Sir David is right about the strains that human numbers place
on the Earth, the population bomb is already being defused. The average number of children per couple
has fallen dramatically, from 5.6 in the 1970s to 2.4 today. The overall numbers are still growing, because
as a result of medical advances more children are living long enough to have their own kids. But the world
population is expected to peak in 2050, at nine billion. The education of women has brought almost every
country much closer to the natural replacement rate.
As countries get richer, they have fewer children. That’s good. But rich people consume more resources
than poor ones. That’s a problem. If we want to avoid the annihilation of other species on the planet, we
must drastically change the way we consume the resources on which they, and we in turn, rely.
I have always found it extraordinary that people who avidly watch nature programmes on their HD
screens, their takeaway dinner on their tropical hardwood coffee table in front of them, seem to make no
connection between these films and their lives. We shed tears for the baby elephant or monkey whose
parent must forage farther and farther for food because of mankind’s overwhelming need to feed himself.
We watch their last moments in sorrowful reverence.
But as soon as we switch off we lose that connection. We trot to the shops and buy soap, ice cream and
margarine containing palm oil, whose cultivation has led to the widespread destruction of the rainforests
where the monkeys live. We buy fish that has been trawled to the verge of extinction, leave it in the fridge
and forget to eat it. We leave a third of the world’s food unharvested. We are utterly cavalier with the
natural world, which viewing figures would suggest we care about.
Worse, it’s not even under discussion. In the past three years the science has hardened in ways that
should have led to huge concern. Animal species are becoming extinct a hundred times faster than fossils
record; we have lost a third of known vertebrates since the 1970s. Oceans are warming faster than

predicted. Fresh water supplies, which are vital to food production, are under strain. In North China, in
India, in the high plains of North America, humans are extracting water faster than nature can replenish
it.
Yet the more alarming the science becomes, the deeper the silence grows. It’s as if this is all old news,
stuff we’ve already internalised, stuff that is best left to a heroic old man roaming the last desolate
wildernesses on Earth with a throaty intonation and a BBC camera crew.
This national shrug is partly a consequence of powerlessness in the face of such overwhelming problems.
And it is partly an assumption that technology will bring solutions. Mankind has been remarkably clever
about inventing substitutes for natural resources, or finding new reserves of them. Nylon replaces cotton;
palladium replaces platinum. The “peak oil” thesis has been blown out of the water by new techniques of
processing shale gas and oil. Until recently there were concerns that phosphate, a vital ingredient in
fertiliser, would run out in 30 years. Now, it turns out that the Western Sahara is a veritable ocean of
phosphate.
Yet new reserves are usually more costly to extract than the old ones. Take copper, which is used in
almost every electronic product and in the wires in your home. Copper ore grades have declined
twentyfold since the 1850s, increasing the amount of energy and water needed to mine and refine the
metal — as does mining it from ever more remote locations, such as the middle of the Pacific. And
processes that suck up water lead to conflicts over water: go to Chile’s Atacama desert and see the fields
stricken with drought because water is being diverted to the copper mines. Europeans who think they
have reduced their impact on the environment rarely see the consequences of their purchasing power on
other countries.
Whenever he is tested, mankind becomes more efficient. Our computers, our cars, our packaging use far
less energy and raw materials than a decade ago. The problem is that we can’t stop ourselves wanting
more: the second car, the extra laptop, the latest model, the richer diet. We prefer to buy the cheap
washing machine that consumes more energy and breaks down quickly, than the one that will not need
replacing. We have to get back to an older concept of value: one of longevity and efficiency. We have to
price products accordingly. We should force companies to label food that contains palm oil and make it
easier for people to make the right choices.
Those who express horror at the idea of curtailing population must make space for the extra 2.5 billion
people who will soon be arriving. If we are to accommodate them all without condemning other species
and ecosystems to destruction, we are going to have to place as much value on the resources we use as we
claim to place on those cuddly animals we enjoy watching. Some viewers may be content to watch reruns
of David Attenborough in the future, once all the species he has filmed are wiped out. I’m not.

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