Eve Brennan

Last month, we saw a new documentary released on Netflix hosted by our Nation’s sweetheart, warning how a sixth mass extinction could be on the horizon within the next century due to the climate crisis. The documentary throughout records a correlation of an increasing population, from 2.3 billion in 1937 to 7.8 billion in 2020, with a simultaneously increasing number of carbon emissions and decreasing percentage of remaining wildlife. 

Simply put, Attenborough is saying that larger populations have negatively impacted the environment. He continues, “every other species on Earth reaches a maximum population after a time – the number that can be sustained on the natural resources available”. Is Sir David really trying to convince us that there are not enough resources available for everyone? When in fact, the problem is not that there are not enough resources for the ever-increasing population, but that the distribution is exploited, creating soaring wealth inequality. 

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Attenborough even touches on the unsustainability of “our banks… investing in fossil fuels when these are the things that are jeopardising our future”. Briefly mentioning the capitalist economic system which prioritises profit and investment, with total disregard to sustainable living or the natural world, surely isn’t good enough. This could have, and should have, been explored more than the overpopulation myth. 

It is no news that countries in the Global South, like Nigeria or India, contribute far less to carbon emissions in our atmosphere than the western world, despite their populations being larger overall. In fact, just the richest 1% of the world’s population emits double the amount of CO2 than the bottom 50%. If we look at the carbon emissions per capita for each country, it is obvious that capitalist western societies like the US and Canada emit far more than countries with larger populations like Indonesia, Pakistan – and even China with a population of nearly 1.4 billion. In just five days, the average Brit generates the same amount of carbon emissions as the average Rwandan does in a whole year. Evidently, there is a weak correlation between population growth and global warming. 

The overpopulation myth is racist, eco-fascist and rooted in white supremacy. In the latter half of the 20th century, overpopulation was blamed for poverty and environmental issues. The narrative was, if there were less mouths to feed, then there would be more food to go around. When it came to curbing populations to tackle these social problems, it was BIPOC women who suffered the most. Forced sterilisation was implemented by governments across the globe, and even praised for curbing populations. 

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At the turn of the 20th century, the eugenics movement had peaked in the US and Canada. The Canadian provinces British Columbia and Alberta created the Sexual Sterilisation Act in 1928 to implement the sterilisation of indigenous women and preserve Anglo-Saxon nuclear families. Between 1966-76, over 1000 indigenous women were sterilised in Canada. Sterilisation is still not illegal in Canada and more than 100 indigenous women have come forward since 2018 with their stories of being coercively sterilised. 

Similarly, in the mid 90s, the Peruvian government under Fujimori forcibly sterilised 200,000 indigenous women, adhering to the narrative that a lower birth rate would decrease poverty rates. Many women died from the procedures. 

Ethnic minority women are currently being sterilised in the Chinese province of Xinjiang to curb the population of Uighur Muslims. Uighur women are being threatened with internment in concentration camps for refusing to abort pregnancies. Consequently, population growth has fallen in Xinjiang significantly more than in other Chinese provinces.  

Evidently, overpopulation is not the biggest contributor to global warming, and believing this myth has resulted in extremely grave consequences. Eco-fascism pushes eugenics to save the planet, but the victims have only ever been marginalised communities.  David Attenborough is hugely influential for the environmental movement, and it’s important to hold him account for spreading this message supporting white supremacy. 

On Thursday, Attenborough was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 and backtracked on his warning against overpopulation showcased in his documentary. Instead, he said that the western standard of living taking a pause, and capitalism curbing, is paramount for saving nature. It would seem that the backlash against Attenborough’s documentary for perpetuating racist eco-fascism succeeded in holding him to account, and had forced him to reconsider the overpopulation myth by exploring the capitalist exploitation of the environment.

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Last Update: October 19, 2020