The national treasure and naturalist, David Attenborough, has been pronouncing, yet again, on the subject of world population growth. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph he opined that the famines in Ethiopia are about too many people competing for too little land and in the circumstances it’s ‘barmy’ to address the problem by sending them bags of flour. The great thing about being 87 is that you can stop worrying what people think but Sir David seems unusually alert to the ‘huge, huge sensitivities’ about his opinions. And one is that:
‘When you talk about world population … the areas we are talking about are Africa and Asia. To have a European telling Africans that they shan’t have children is not the way to go about things.’
It’s a useful admission. Because almost all the people who obsess about population – the Lib Dem conference was, I expect, full of them – and the environmentalists who sound off about big families, belong to the class – white, middle class, anguished liberals – who are themselves least likely to have children to excess or to have children at all. In terms of British population growth, as MigrationWatch points out, one reason why the population is heading towards 70 million in 15 years is not that the likes of Sir David are promiscuously breeding (he has two) but that foreign born migrants are having quite large families (last year, nearly two in three London births were to couples where one or both of the parents was born abroad; in Britain as a whole, a quarter of births were attributable to mothers born outside the UK – dunno about fathers).
And indeed in the bit of London I live in, the only big families I encounter are the children trooping behind mothers from – I think – Somalia. The middle classes round me are constrained by the most effective contraceptive known to humankind: the price of housing. I should make clear here that my tone here is envy, not condemnation.
I am an only child and I could write volumes on the drawbacks. And as the most recent pamphlet from the think-tank Civitas, Sticking Up for Siblings, makes clear, the number of only-children in the UK as a percentage of all dependent children rose from 18 per cent in 1972 to 26 per cent by 2007 – poor little souls. Sir David is probably sounding off in the wrong outlet when he gives Telegraph readers his views about a population explosion.
In Britain, population growth is to a large extent attributable to immigration, both direct and to the higher birth rate in immigrant communities. Abroad, it’s a problem for sub-Saharan Africa. Of the roughly 20 countries where women have on average more than five children, almost all are in the region. In Latin America, fertility rates have fallen quite sharply in recent years to just over two children for each woman; ditto in Asia. As you’d expect, and as Sir David has acknowledged elsewhere, one reason for it has been the better education and employment opportunities for girls and women.
All of which makes more puzzling Sir David fingering the Catholic church as a culprit when it comes to population growth – a bit like Dan Brown, in his latest, Inferno. ‘The Catholic church doesn’t accept…that you should control the population.’ He said much the same a couple of years ago in a speech to the RSA. But the church doesn’t oppose limiting family size; what it does take a dim view of is artificial contraception, which, I may say, most Catholics seem to ignore entirely, and abortion. I’m not quite sure why Sir David doesn’t remark on overpopulation in Islamic countries, other than it being easier to pick on the pope. But to pluck a couple of examples at random, family size is not larger in Christian south Sudan than in Muslim Sudan; in Nigeria women have slightly more children in the Muslim north than in the Christian south.
As Sir David says, there are ‘huge, huge sensitivities here’. Is there a sensitive way of saying that the only people who are listening to him are the ones who should probably be having more children, not fewer?Tags: David Attenborough, migration, Population