Conservation Legends Decry Overpopulation

Published on March 30th, 2011

By Leon Kolankiewicz
March 21, 2011

In recent weeks, two conservation giants – American Dave Foreman and Englishman Sir David Attenborough – have denounced the threat human overpopulation poses to untrammeled nature and biodiversity. They have also questioned why so many continue to downplay and dismiss the menace it represents.

Dave Foreman is a denizen and defender of the American Southwest; he co-founded Earth First!, the Wildlands Project, and now runs the Rewilding Institute. The Institute promotes scientifically-credible, continental-scale conservation throughout North America, and in particular securing a permanent place for the large carnivores such as wolves, bears, jaguars, and mountain lions at the apex of food pyramids in North American ecosystems.

The younger brother of director, producer and actor Richard Attenborough, Sir David is a celebrated broadcaster and naturalist whose career as a writer and presenter of natural history programs spans more than half a century. He is most widely known for the "Life" series, which he prepared for the BBC’s Natural History Unit. The Life series is a wide-ranging and riveting review of Planet Earth’s extraordinary pageant of life.

Even while making conservation and environmental history as an activist, Dave Foreman has become one of the foremost historians and thinkers of the contemporary American environmental and conservation movements. In the current issue of his column “Around the Campfire with Uncle Dave Foreman,” he weighs in on the “never-ending squabble” over whether it is population or affluence (high per capita consumption, or “wastefulness and highlife,” as Foreman dubs it) that more heavily impacts wild things.

Declares Foreman: “Those environmentalists, who think we can double or triple U.S. population without wiping out wildlife and scalping our last wildernesses, are living in a fool’s paradise – not in the real world where we either will or will not keep the other Earthlings hale and hearty in our shared neighborhoods.”

Foreman’s sentiments echo those of the late Senator Gaylord Nelson, founder of Earth Day. In a 2000 speech, Nelson warned of the perils of unabated U.S. population growth. “With twice the population, will there be any wilderness left? Any quiet place? Any habitat for song birds? Waterfalls? Other wild creatures? Not much,” he lamented.

Foreman cites recent research showing that for those couples concerned about not only their own “carbon footprint” but their cumulative, multi-generational “carbon legacy,” foregoing additional offspring achieves far more than any amount of conservation frugality, such as commuting on a bicycle instead of in a car, living in a smaller house, or lowering the thermostat.

He concludes that “without lowering population, cutting back on the highlife can’t do the job.”

Speaking to the Royal Society of Arts in London on March 11, Attenborough said, “I meet no one who privately disagrees that population growth is a problem. No one – except flat-earthers – can deny that the planet is finite. We can all see it in that beautiful picture of our earth taken from the Apollo mission. So why does hardly anyone say so publicly? There seems to be some bizarre taboo around the subject. ‘It’s not quite nice, not PC, possibly even racist to mention it.’”

Even as Sir Richard applauded the notable efforts and successes of the World Wildlife Fund (now known as the Worldwide Fund for Nature or WWF) on its 50th birthday, he cautioned that serious problems remain, in no small part because Earth’s population has more than doubled from three to seven billion over the same 50 years.

He said: “Over twice as many [humans] – and every one of them needing space. Space for their homes, space to grow their food (or to get others to grow it for them), space to build schools and roads and airfields…most of it could only come from the land which, for millions of years, animals and plants had to themselves.”

Attenborough quoted the visionary American economist Kenneth Boulding, who once remarked, “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet is either mad – or an economist.” And he asked everyone, especially members of environmental groups and churches, the Catholic Church especially, to “break the taboo…whenever we speak of the environment – add a few words to ensure that the population element is not ignored.”

In speaking out about overpopulation, Foreman and Attenborough join a distinguished list of conservation and science legends and leaders who were not only deeply concerned about the damage inflicted by excessive human numbers on our fellow “Earthlings,” but felt strongly enough to speak out publicly about it. This list includes oceanographer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau, primatologist Jane Goodall, the aforementioned Nelson, legendary environmentalist David Brower, Greenpeace co-founder and "Whale Wars" celebrity Paul Watson, among others.

For these icons, the slogan "“Pro-life" really means pro-life – respecting all living things – and not just pro-human life, and the rest of creation be damned. Let us strive for the day when the ethics of all Americans and citizens of the world have caught up to the expansive ethics of these heroes.


Leon Kolankiewicz is a Senior Writing Fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (www.CAPSweb.org), a wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner.

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