On David Attenborough’s 89th birthday this May, he somehow found himself in conversation with Barack Obama. And a rather strange conversation it was too, with the President of the United States somehow more in awe of David Attenborough than the other way round!

For an old population hand (and fellow Patron of Population Matters), what really impressed me was that David Attenborough managed to squeeze in two forthright references to population during the conversation. Barack Obama had little to say in reply, but at least the BBC kept those references in, without exercising a rather more familiar editorial line which sees any and every reference to population as either insignificant or politically suspicious.

After 40 years on the population front line, even I am getting a little bit worn down by the ‘COCCOP Factor’ when it comes to dealing with population in the media: the Collective Censorship Consensus on Population has been so effective at shutting population out of mainstream debate that I suspect most people (even compassionate, intelligent, plugged-in people) just don’t understand how every single one of their hopes and aspirations for the future of humankind are rendered entirely null and void by the inability/refusal of humankind to address the challenge of restricting further population growth.

Take food security, for instance. The quality of today’s debate about food security is laughable.

  1. Only in the last couple of years have policy-makers and scientists begun to acknowledge that it makes little sense talking about doubling the amount of food we’ll need in order to avert mass famine when roughly half the food grown today never ends up passing through a human being’s digestive tract. The consequences of this from the point of view of soil erosion, water shortages, biodiversity, pollution and climate change are quite staggering. According to a recent article on Triple Pundit, if the phenomenon of food waste was treated like a separate country, it would be responsible for the emission of more greenhouse gases than all the countries in the world put together except China and the USA.
  2. Only now are we beginning to understand that there’s a world of difference between the goal of providing enough protein for nine billion people by 2050 and seeking to achieve that goal with meat as the primary source of that protein. Today’s meat-intensive diets and long-term food security for humankind are (literally) mutually exclusive. Yet time after time, one ends up listening to experts on food security get through an entire lecture without once mentioning the fact that we cannot possibly sustain current levels of meat consumption.
  3. Most of the prescriptions that world leaders advocate in terms of doubling the amount of food required to ‘feed the world’ are oblivious to the impact of those prescriptions on soil quality, water consumption, energy balances, emissions of greenhouse gases and biodiversity. In other words, in a rapidly-warming, water-constrained, eroding world, heading inexorably towards an extinction spasm of some kind, such prescriptions are wholly duplicitous and almost wholly irrelevant.

Do you see how I haven’t even mentioned population yet? But just imagine that we started to have a rather more intelligent debate about food security. That we started to prioritise policies that addressed the first of those three challenges – which is wholly doable, by the way, and is at long last creeping into mainstream policy portfolios. That we then started to talk seriously about the second challenge – still a bit ‘out there’ at the moment, but not as far beyond the pale of rational debate as it once was. And that we then started to invest in the kind of global research programmes to address the third of those challenges, which would help bring the concept of truly sustainable food security back within the bounds of physical reality.

Even then, EVEN THEN, you’d still have to ask whether that emerging, much, much smarter approach to policy would provide enough protein and enough good nutritious food for at least nine billion people by 2050.

So why are we so ill-served by the very experts on whom our future depends? The truth of it is that most agronomists (let alone economists and policy wonks) live in the Land of Nod when it comes to addressing food security on a genuinely sustainable basis, taking human numbers properly into account rather than treating them as an irrelevance.

But at least those experts have got a few empirical datasets to work with to provide a patina of would-be realism. Which is a lot more than can be said for most of the world’s political and religious leaders.

And since the world is still agog with excitement at the recent papal encyclical (taking the strongest possible line on the need to address accelerating climate change from a moral perspective), let’s dwell for a moment on the continuing failure of the Catholic Church to change its archaic and fundamentally inhumane position on family planning and on the rights of women anywhere in the world to have access to a choice of artificial contraception.

The Catholic Church is quite properly concerned about world hunger, and the worsening threats to food security. But it still fails to see any connection between those concerns and the sheer number of human beings on planet Earth.

In his encyclical, the Pope fell back on that tired old either/or story (overpopulation versus overconsumption): “To blame population growth (for climate change) instead of extreme consumerism on the part of some is one way of refusing to face the issues.” As is blaming extreme consumerism instead of population growth! Carl Safina captured the absurdity of this position in an excellent blog for the Huffington Post back in June:

Human stress on the world results from what people do and how many people do it. Rich people have a disproportionately negative effect per person, but there are many poor people whose smaller personal damage to forests, wild creatures, reefs and waters all adds up. Certainly the rampant wastefulness of so-called ‘developed societies’ must be tamed. Yet in many of those same developed societies, population growth has greatly slowed because of progress in gender equality and female empowerment, where the Catholic Church continues to lag far behind.

One of the things that has most astonished me over the last 40 years is the comparison that can be drawn between the position of the Catholic Church and the position of most environmental NGOs. The continuing refusal of the vast majority of those NGOs to address the challenge of population growth is no less absurd than that of the Pope – without the excuse of being bound by centuries of implacable, intelligence-bypassing dogma.

(The results of a fascinating exercise ranking some of the most prominent NGOs operating in the UK on their responses to this challenge are illuminating.)

And that’s what makes David Attenborough such an important contributor to this debate. Almost without exception, he is held in the highest esteem by those NGOs, but they’d probably be rather less impressed by his trenchant views on population, the environment and economic development – if they ever took the trouble to listen to those views.

The simple truth is that trying to address issues like food security without even engaging in the debate about population is pure, unadulterated hypocrisy.

Photograph: JT

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