More people, less wildlife

Sir David Attenborough

I have never yet seen a problem that would not be easier to solve with fewer people, and ultimately impossible to solve with ever more. I find myself saying this increasingly often as the sheer pressure of human numbers, and our need to consume more of this little planet’s natural resources, eats into the natural world.

Whether it’s tigers in India, pangolins in Southeast Asia, dolphins in the Atlantic, or gorillas in Rwanda, habitat and food supplies are shrinking, and numbers are dwindling, because ever more people need ever more land, water, timber, fish and money to help them prosper. And as, one by one, we drive our fellow creatures to extinction, our world becomes poorer, and the shadows lengthen over our own prospects.

So what is to be done? Well, the first thing is very easy, and costs us nothing. We must simply recognize, as an intelligent species, that population growth is one of the main causes of all our environmental problems, including climate change. Because all of us, rich or poor, consume carbon, produce greenhouse gases, and will suffer as our planet heats up.

The next thing is to learn from success stories around the world, and happily there are several: in Kerala in southern India, for instance, where the state has invested heavily in giving every girl a decent education, and giving everyone access to family planning.

So often less fortunate women in poorer countries suffer endless unwanted pregnancies, their children hungry because they cannot afford enough food, and the surrounding land stripped of trees for firewood, and barren.

It would be so easy to give all these women the means to control their own fertility, that I simply cannot understand why this is such a low priority for their governments and aid donors. With a stable population, they could invest in improving lives, instead of simply running up a down escalator without end.

And we should not fool ourselves that this is only a problem for poor countries. In the UK too, we already rely on the rest of the world to keep us fed; and our growing numbers, currently projected to add the equivalent of ten more Birminghams over the next twenty years, are eating into the countryside, while our farmland wildlife, from lapwing to field voles and butterflies, retreats and dwindles.

I am increasingly convinced that all of us, politicians, journalists and wildlife charities alike, owe it to our children to do all we can to stabilize and indeed reduce our numbers, here and abroad, so future generations can enjoy the rich world we inherited. I know how harshly nature controls populations. That is the alternative we do not want.


Hard Rain: What'll You Do Now? Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 2011

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