Let’s Not Return to Dark Ages of Ignoring Overpopulation

Headline in The Sunday Times: Black Lives Matter: Attenborough video deleted amid racism claims

WWF pulls David Attenborough Video Over Population Footage Misassumptions

The most recent murders of black Americans at police hands have gotten our attention. It’s past time to weed racism out of our institutions and our society. At the same time, let’s beware the itchy trigger finger of the PC police.

Accusations of racism, when hurled carelessly and inaccurately, are nearly as ugly as racism itself. The effects of false accusations don’t compare to what black families in the U.S. have suffered over the past 400 years. But it will not serve Black Lives Matter or any other cause to make reckless or maliciously false accusations. We all have a responsibility to eliminate this cancer with integrity.

The scarlet letter of the “racist” label has for some time been wielded in attempts to exclude the role of human overpopulation from public discussions of overshoot — our condition on this planet that is wreaking havoc on the climate, biodiversity, formerly fertile soils and more. It was used recently by a handful of renewable energy enthusiasts in an attempt to keep the film, Planet of the Humans, from being widely viewed. The accusations were patently false (What Does Planet of the Humans REALLY Say About Population).

June 5 was World Environment Day, and unfortunately the occasion of the latest instance of a false racism accusation intended to banish the subject of human population. This is what I call “overpopulation shaming.” The subject: a video published on Twitter by environmental NGO WWF UK, commemorating the day and promoting the Netflix series Our Planet. Respected natural history filmmaker David Attenborough narrated the video.

According to a story in The Daily Mail, “Viewers were quick to slam the footage as racist, claiming it unfairly ‘blames people of colour for a growing global population.” WWF UK deleted the video and tweeted, “Earlier today we shared a video that could appear to support a narrative that people of colour are responsible for the pressures of a growing world population. This is not our intent at all.

IF Attenborough or the film was attempting to make the point that the only problem we need to solve is high birth rates in Africa and Asia, then the complaints would have some validity (though that kind of error might be more one of ignorance than racism; it’s hard to tell). But that is not the case here. Attenborough didn’t make his statement in a vacuum; he also addressed the overconsumption of the privileged class. And he didn’t “blame” anyone. He made it clear those of us living unsustainable lifestyles have essential work to do.

I don’t want to see racist messages about overpopulation, so I took a close look at the video. Here is the narration in question:

Suddenly, saving our planet is within reach. We have a plan. We know what to do. Stop the damaging stuff, roll out the new green tech, stabilize the human population as low as we fairly can, keep hold of the natural wealth we have currently got, and we’ll have built a stable, healthy world that we can benefit from forever.
— Sir David Attenborough

Part of the PC crime committed by David Attenborough is to list “stabilize the human population as low as we fairly can,” as part of his prescription to “build a stable, healthy world, that we can benefit from forever.” Is that statement or goal racist? Some people think so. The story in The Daily Mail listed a few tweets that disparaged both the video and WWF’s apology:

“Overpopulation being a driver for climate change is a racist myth in and of itself;”

“this pushed the dangerous narrative blaming black and brown people in the global south.”

“I would appreciate hearing what WWF UK will be doing to educate its staff on the inherent racism of overpopulation narratives….”

“The video blamed PoC for a growing global population, and asserted that this population growth is driving climate change (wrong, racist), and further that you would ‘control’ this growth (terrifying, frankly).”

I am calling these statements out. The first and fourth are scientifically incorrect. If any of our behaviors (driving, flying, leaving the lights on, eating meat) have harmful carbon footprints, then the number of us doing the behaving directly affects the total carbon footprint. It’s basic math. The second, third and fourth statements also jump to two unjustifiable conclusions:

  1. that the video is casting blame on someone for human population growth
  2. that the video singles out black and/or brown people as being solely responsible for the problem

The narration clearly does neither of these. So let’s look at the video footage. Did the shot selection make either of these inferences?

The three shots illustrating human population in WWF UK World Environment Day video

During the clause about human population, there were three video shots shown. The first is clearly a crowd of Asian people bathing in a river. The next two showed a human pyramid being built among a huge throng of people. It’s difficult to determine the ethnicity of this crowd, but The Sunday Times determined it to be white: “The video showed Asian people bathing in a river and then showed bigger crowds of white people.” If, indeed, two of the three shots were of white Europeans or Americans, one can hardly make the case the piece is singling out any race for blame or even just observation. It would appear the filmmakers went out of their way to be very inclusive here.

A crowd of people is pretty much the go-to shot to illustrate growing population or overpopulation. It is a huge stretch to interpret the shot selection here as attempting to “blame” anyone, except perhaps humankind as a whole. I expect the intent of the piece was to assign us all some responsibility, and there is absolutely no valid reason to assume otherwise.

The modern sustainable population movement is not an effort by white people to reduce black and brown births in order to avoid becoming the new minority. That is a very narrow view, which I’m sure is held by a tiny minority of people. Today’s sustainable population advocates are genuinely trying to improve the lives of all the children of the world. They are endeavoring to eliminate unplanned and unwanted pregnancies among the rich and poor, white people and people of color, people in the overdeveloped world and people in the global south. They are doing this with education and awareness, and with free choice — free not just of government dictate, but of societal and patriarchal pressure. Less population pressure improves lives everywhere. Attempting to impute ugly motives to this advocacy prevents progress in this arena.

The outcry about the WWF video is a case of a handful of people, most likely with good intentions, who assume that sustainable population efforts can only be applied to high-fertility nations in Africa and Asia. People with this misconception can benefit from honest and open conversations about the true nature of overpopulation and the benefits of more freely chosen small families throughout the world. Jumping to conclusions and branding compassionate advocacy as racist prevents the public dialogue that would correct those misconceptions.

I can’t be certain of all the reasons a handful of otherwise good-hearted environmentalists are dead set on engaging in this “overpopulation shaming” and thereby brushing the topic of human population back under the rug. One, I’m sure, is a fear that we might — if we attempt to address population numbers — repeat mistakes of the past, some of which had racist components. I agree with that desire. I’d like to think we’ve checked that box, lesson learned, and have moved on to solutions that fully respect all human life. Another might be the assumption that resolving the overpopulation crisis requires “control” — legislating or otherwise dictating family size, which is considered a violation of reproductive rights. We need to make sure racism and control are NOT on the agenda as we address human overpopulation.

Sadly, those misassumptions persist precisely because we’ve been avoiding public conversations around the subject. Ignorance and misassumptions thrive in the dark. I am asking the overpopulation shamers to be thoughtful and fair, not to jump to unfounded conclusions, and not to continue making human population growth “the third rail” of public discourse.

The shaming and unwarranted accusations of racism do more than just perpetuate ignorance. They also prevent us from providing family planning aid where it is wanted and needed. The ten nations with the highest fertility rate happen to be in Africa and Asia. But in this atmosphere, who will dare advocate for increasing aid for those populations and risk that scarlet letter? Just stating that they have a problem to solve gets you indicted by the PC police. I read every one of the 128 comments that posted as of June 12 to The Daily Mail story about this video. Nearly all the commenters thought this video takedown was “insane.” One of the most up-voted comments was this:

“What if there really is a problem with over population there. What if the issue there is that contraception isn’t affordable or available like it is here? His point has nothing to do with race or colour. Truth isn’t always comfortable but at least when we face it we can help."

Let’s get over the unwarranted misassumptions about the motives of anyone advocating for a sustainable population. Bring the conversation into the light, so we can educate those who are ignorant, weed out those who really are hopelessly racist, and help those who want it, to achieve exactly what Sir David Attenborough was imploring us to strive for:

“keep hold of the natural wealth we have currently got, and we’ll have built a stable, healthy world that we can benefit from forever.” 
— Sir David Attenborough

This is also published on Medium here.

More on this subject: Dear George Monbiot, Shaming Sustainable Population Advocacy Must Stop

Dave Gardner, Executive Director

Dave Gardner

Dave Gardner co-hosts The Overpopulation Podcast for World Population Balance, in addition to serving as executive director. He worked as a professional filmmaker for over 35 years. During his career he’s directed documentaries and other award-winning projects for a long list of Fortune 500 corporate clients and PBS. He eventually found a successful career serving big business and a life pursuing the "American Dream" were not his Holy Grail. Read more about Dave Gardner, Executive Director