David Attenborough Deserves Our Adoration. His Future Deserves Our Antipathy

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If David Attenborough were an animal in one of his own documentaries, he would be introduced as a friend. He would be soft and warm and altogether unthreatening. He would be a herbivore (obviously), one whose daily routine involved little more than moving from one spot to another in search for some acorns. He’d be scored using a quaint and tottering accompaniment (woodwind most likely) with the occasional blast from a clumsy trombone. He’d potter and he’d plod and he’d go about his daily tasks with a charming resolve. By the end of the section we’d be completely won. We’d be in love with a creature so content in his mission and so pleased in his manner of showing its beauty. But we’d also be scared. We know how these shows end. We’d know that predators lurk in every shadow and that the world grows more dangerous with every passing moment. We’d fear for our friend’s life.

This is something close to the true impression given by David Attenborough’s seven-decade career as a broadcaster and naturalist. Since his first appearance on camera and the inside of our ears, we have been besotted with a man so bewitched by our planet. We have been charmed by his quiet and humble demeanour, and we have been inspired by his determination in pursuing his values. But as those decades draw longer and surpass half a century, we grow anxious for a man whose very essence appears bonded with our world and its future. As one grows older and progressively more frail — as one sees senescence and the spectre of life’s end — we are left with the worry: what of the other?

I believe Attenborough is well aware of this perception. His newest documentary (and book!), A Life On Our Planet, is proof enough. If the distinctly retrospective tone of the title were not clear, Attenborough wastes not time in making things explicit.

“I am 93.” He says. “This film is my witness statement.”

It is immediately apparent that Attenborough is treating this feature-length foray as a kind of swansong: an account of a life and a life’s work at the closing moments of both. But make no mistake: this twilight episode is no exercise in narcissism nor sentimental decline into reverie and nostalgia. Attenborough has no time for such things, and despite his received status in the hearts of his viewers, has never lost sight of his singular focus: the natural world.

For him, his life has been a wonderful privilege, one that has afforded him happiness in exploring some of nature’s greatest marvels. But it has also been a terrible curse, condemning him to a singular vantage as such wonders succumb to a world at the mercy of people. He takes the latter personally, and uses his own experiences as a window into that decline. This is seen in the film, where each milestone in his life (including his own childhood in 1937) is rendered totally impersonally, with intimate statistics including global population, CO2 concentration and wilderness land coverage. It goes to show, even when Attenborough dares to speak about his own Life On Our Planet, he does so only as a means to speak about all of it.

I for one welcome this distinction. My initial fear was that Attenborough would double down on his spiritual connection to a world near its end and embrace a kind of fatalistic personification. That would be a tragedy for me, a Brit who has grown up with the man and the voice but has grown disillusioned with its disparaging message. I want nothing less than for David Attenborough, the man, to become fatally entwined with the misanthropic environmentalism he champions. So when I finally saw A Life On Our Planet, I was relieved — not because he performs a glorious u-turn to embrace a rational and truly optimistic vision of the future, but because he removes his own person from his inability to do so. He allows his ideas to stand on their own and, in the process, might allow for their fallacy to die in his place. Here’s how.

Resource Pessimism

In 2011, Attenborough gave a speech at The Royal Society of Arts affably titled People and Planet. Despite its warming designation, however, he opened the talk with a protracted lament to the catastrophic species loss first witnessed in the 1950s (the Arabian oryx, imperial eagle and California condor to name just a few); and while honouring the considerable conservation efforts mounted in response, he went on to explain how extinction rates only worsened over the six decades that followed. He attributed this decline to a single, unifying factor: human population growth.

“Then there were 3 billion people on Earth. Now there are almost 7 billion — all needing space.”

Nothing has changed in the 9 years since Attenborough made that speech. In A Life On Our Planet, he reiterates:

“The planet cannot support billions of large meat eaters — there simply isn’t space.”

Many will recognise this distinctly spatial discouragement as Malthusian resource philosophy. Indeed, Attenborough is directly quoting Malthus in his RSA talk and continues to echo his sentiments today.

“There have been prophets who’ve warned about this impending disaster of course; one of the first was Thomas Malthus. His most important book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, was published over 200 years ago, in 1798. In it, he argued that the human population would increase inexorably until it was halted by what he called misery and vice.”

Both Malthus and Attenborough argue that rising production can never sustainably keep pace with rising demand. As production increases with increases in labour, population increases much faster, inevitably surmounting the increases in yield. I stress sustainably and inevitably here because, as Attenborough points out in his RSA talk, Malthus failed to predict the near-term inadequacies of his own logistic functions. He failed to foresee the bounteous influence of the Third Agricultural Revolution of the mid-20th century and, with its rapid increases in wealth and abundance, would appear to have refuted his own differential.

But Attenborough isn’t so easily dissuaded. While he concedes that Malthus was wrong in the short-term, he maintains that his thesis holds strong to this day. He says:

“It’s true that he did not foresee the so-called “Green Revolution” which greatly increased the amount of food that can be produced in any given area of arable land. And there may be other advances in our food producing skills that we ourselves still can’t foresee. But such advances only delay things. The fundamental truth that Malthus proclaimed remains the truth: there cannot be more people on this planet than can be fed.”

I find this somewhat confusing. While Attenborough’s ultimate point is true enough (we really can’t feed more people than, well, the amount that we can feed), is this really the ”fundamental truth” Malthus was proposing? Is his Principle of Population based on one senseless tautology or an explicit relationship between supply and demand? There’s nothing within Attenborough’s statements nor Malthus’s principles to explain a limit to agricultural progress. There’s nothing prohibiting a second green revolution arriving tomorrow. This could very well happen, by the way, given the advent of both vertical and cellular farming just around the corner. The former, the practise of cultivating vegetation in climate controlled towers, recently showed an increase in yield of 600 times for wheat production compared to traditional farming methods; and the latter, the process of growing meat and other food stocks in laboratories, could free up 26% of all ice-free land and a further 33% of all croplands, previously required for livestock grazing and feeding.

This proves that all our resources — space included — are subject to progress. There is nothing stopping us from continuing to free up valuable real estate with the advent of new and exciting technologies, decoupling land use from both energy and food production. Earlier this month MIT announced a breakthrough in fusion energy that could produce cheap, renewable energy on a minuscule footprint. This has the potential to power the entire world’s population with zero emissions. And thanks to some nifty napkin calculations, we can know that all those people — all 7 billion of them — could conceivably fit into the state of Texas. I’m not sure why we’d want to do that (we could always dip our toes into Oklahoma), but it stands as proof that the problem of accommodating ourselves is open and, in principle, achievable.

But what’s most bewildering in all this confusion is how flippantly Attenborough rejects such advancements. He is well aware of the historical and contemporary potential of innovation to solve problems; yet he imposes arbitrary limits without explanation. He disregards 200 years of empirical refutation on the promise that Malthus was merely shortsighted, whereas, in truth, he was fundamentally blindsided by a future beyond his own understanding (as we all are). He could not foresee the advent of tractors let alone tokamaks. And even if he were right and we’re inevitably curbed by some impossible barrier, there’s nothing to say that we have already reached it. Attenborough admits that the Malthusian prophecy will not occur tomorrow nor even the next day, and yet he insists on preparing for it today, at terrible cost, and at the risk of the very future he purports to defend. Why?

Natural Worship

I think both Malthus and Attenborough are under the influence of a deeper misconception. It is the central fallacy of Malthus’s principle and the central philosophy of Attenborough’s career. The mistake is in thinking that the Earth provides anything in the first place. As Malthus writes:

“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”

Notice how Malthus attributes subsistent potential to raw materials — the Earth — as opposed to people and the resources they create. To him, we have a finite supply of food, water and land given to us by nature. In reality, we grow our own food, pump our own water, and make our own space for every person that requires it. We created tractors and tokamaks — not the Earth — and we refuted Malthus’s every prediction. It’s no wonder that in the 200 years since his first publication, extreme poverty (Malthus’s very own ruin and vice) has fallen from well above 80% to well below 20% globally. We did that, too.

But Attenborough takes this even further. He takes the false assumption of natural-born sustenance, mixes it with a lifetime’s career of wildlife conservation, and fashions it into a fundamentalist religion. It has become so embedded in the fabric of our culture that we’ve neglected to question it for going on two centuries. That religion is nature worship, often characterised as the “naturalistic fallacy”, where everything natural is thought to be good. It is implicit in most of Attenborough’s more recent projects and is apparent in his defence of Malthusian pessimism. Why else would he disparage human efforts in favour of natural reclamation?

In A life On Our Planet Attenborough states:

“It’s quite straight forward; it’s been staring us in the face all along. To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity — the very thing that we’ve removed. It’s the only way out of this crisis we have created. We must rewild the world.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s focus on “stability”.

Over the course of the film, Attenborough places a curious emphasis on the relatively gentle characteristics of the holocene, our current geological epoch. On multiple occasions he likens such conditions to our very own utopia.

“The holocene was our Garden of Eden. It’s rhythm of seasons was so reliable that it gave our own species a unique opportunity: we invented farming.”

Notice again how Attenborough, like Malthus, attributes agricultural development to abiotic factors in the place of human ingenuity. By his reasoning, human society would have been wholly incapable of creating the knowledge required for simple farming in, say, the Carboniferous period, where the presence of monolithic oceans and land masses decreased seasonal variation. This rightly seems absurd, and more than a little bit ironic, for a senior climate activist to suggest that people don’t have the power to alter the natural world around them. If that were true, climate change and all its terrible consequences would be impossible.

But it gets worse. When Attenborough praises the stability of the holocene, he goes further than merely commending its seasons; he explicitly promotes a vision of the wild based on childish notions of balance and harmony. This is perhaps the greatest and most pernicious myth perpetuated by natural worship. In reality, the holocene, like all other precivililation eras, was a living hell. We only need look towards the logic of evolution itself to see why: its primary mechanism of progress — of variation and selection — is death. This is apparent in every wildlife documentary Attenborough has narrated: whether by predation, starvation, disease or senescence, the results are always the same. The utopian harmony naturalists idolise is that of a never ending war, dog-eat-dog, kill or be killed. The dystopian growth they despise is our humble attempt to escape it.

As a quick side note, this reveals an interesting tension between environmentalism and animal rights. If you believe that animals can suffer, and that animals in the wild do suffer, then the most intuitive point of recourse would be to remove those animals from their greatest threat — the environment — that has tortured and killed some five billion species to extinction. Do we support that natural order of agony and death or the overall well-being of all conscious creatures?

Attenborough’s conception favours the former, tyrannical regime. It argues that natural torments are the virtuous destiny of all non-human life, and, through its eloquent appeals for degrowth and rewilding, would argue for a return to that same armageddon. I for one object — I’d much rather find myself in a Citystate Texas, powered by starfire, rewatching A Life On Our Planet with quiet satisfaction. And if you think that sounds like some techno-futurist fantasy, remember that plumbing once sounded the same. If you think that sounds wholly impossible, attempt to explain the impassable barrier. Neither Malthus nor Attenborough have.

***

If David Attenbrough really were an animal in one of his own documentaries, he would be every bit as lovable as the one I describe above. He would be every bit as unthreatening as the one you knew before. But as often is the case with such documentaries, not everything is always quite as it seems. Attenborough’s humble and quiet appearance belies a dangerous secret. His pessimism, if taken literally as it is, would spell an end to all progress, condemning billions to the very misery it seeks to avoid. His naturalism, if followed as religiously as we do, would spell the same for all natural life.

And yet, despite his many errors, Attenborough remains as one the most noble and ethically motivated people working today; he is one of the most gracious and humane figures in television history. This may be, in truth, his most dangerous quality, shrouding his errors in sophistry and charm. But as I write above, he refuses to embody that suffering, working to embolden every person he influences. It is for this reason that my argument remains unchanged: we must separate the man from his myopic despair. We must do so without equivocation. This is especially true for Attenborough, a man whose person shall be remembered with love, but whose vision of the future we should forever avoid.

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