Attack on Attenborough inaccurate

Alex Massie (Perspective, 24 September) makes some valid points about population and obviously “prosperity and decent politics could help tackle hunger” (William Sanderson, Letters, 25 September) but chicken and egg come to mind.

Both ignore the statistic given by global soil expert Dr Helaina Black’s article (Friends of The Scotsman, 24 September) that “more than 40 per cent of the world’s soil is severely degraded”.

Both also ignore the speed of population increase – even the UK’s will increase by more than 50 per cent between 1950 and 2050 – and the perceived infrastructure needs of all populations in housing, offices, factories, schools, hospitals, roads, railways, airports, leisure facilities etc, all causing extra pressure on agriculture and water resources.

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Medical and other advances in death control, introduced since 1950 into the developing world, have greatly increased life expectancies (as they did in the West in the previous 150 years), while birth control still lags well behind for cultural or religious reasons (and our fear of accusations of neo-colonialism, cultural imperialism and Western hegemony).

Nor do Messrs Massie or Sanderson mention arguably the most critical factor. In only the next 40 years, the populations of Egypt, the Sudans, Ethiopia and Uganda are forecast to double to around 500 million.

All these nations are entirely dependent on the waters of the White and Blue Niles for their existence; many other countries in both the developed and developing world have similarities.

Whatever the causes of climate variations, and their durations and effects on water resources and its conservation, disputes over water between many countries worldwide seem inevitable, evidenced already in the Nile areas.

John Birkett

St Andrews

Alex Massie’s criticism of Sir David Attenborough’s sincerely held views is not only offensive, but totally misrepresents the latter’s position on the significance of the human impact on the environment.

Attenborough is a man who combines immense humanity with an extensive knowledge of the flora and fauna of our planet, and does not deserve to be ridiculed for expressing his realistic concerns.

His primary concern is not just about the issue of food shortages, but also about the pressures imposed on other species by rapidly increasing human populations.

We have to ask ourselves if we’d be happy to live in a world in which the diversity of species with which we have coexisted for thousands of years was drastically reduced because of what Mr Massie terms “a catalyst to human ingenuity”, ie, population growth.

Many of us would see it rather as a potential catalyst to future warfare over dwindling resources.

Poverty is one of the major drivers of hunger in developing countries.

In fact, contrary to Mr Massie’s assertion, studies have concluded that access to contraception by women, whether or not they are “educated”, is not the primary factor in the reduction of birth rates in developing countries, but rather social and economic improvements which lead to improved life expectancy, and therefore to increased motivation to have smaller families.

Many of the other major root causes of hunger are related to human activity: poor farming practices, deforestation, over-cropping and overgrazing, widespread use of chemicals on agricultural land, and other short-sighted activities, are all damaging the Earth’s fertility and causing major problems, like serious land erosion and flooding.

In many countries, climate change is exacerbating already adverse natural conditions. Drought is now the single most common cause of food shortages in the world, and developing countries bear the greatest burden.

If human activity is even partly responsible for increased global temperatures, then we have to take seriously the exponential effect that we have on our planet.

It should be obvious to even the most die-hard climate change sceptic, or Malthusian sceptic, that an increase in human populations equates with increased environmental impact, though it’s equally true to say that those with the least resources cause the least damage.

Whether a despoiled planet would continue to support and feed future generations of humans is not, by any means, a certainty.

Carolyn Taylor



Alex Massie’s ill-informed and abusive piece deserves a response. I would like to correct a few of his errors.

Trade, by which Massie means a Western standard of living, does not result in “birth rate declines. Invariably. Everywhere.” The UK is at present experiencing a birth boom.

Rich countries from Singapore to Russia are introducing policies aimed at increasing female fertility.
Those who believe it is essential to reverse population growth are not “coy” about how they would do it. If Massie would look at the websites of the major relevant organisations, he would see they reject coercion and promote improved education, status for women, and availability of contraception, approaches which have achieved notable success in other countries.

Sad to say, there actually are “compelling reasons to think the world is perilously close to disaster”. For example, is Massie unaware of the present shocking rate of extinctions, let alone climate change?

Malthus was not wrong as claimed; he was merely premature, as he could not know the total area of productive land or the potential of technology.

We, however, know much about those things; we are already taking from the ecosystem at far in excess of its replacement rate.

We are mining the breeding stocks, as can be seen in the catastrophic decline of many fisheries.

We are also destroying habitat, so the maximum level of sustainable production is being reduced.

Massie is entitled to present his opinions. However, he is not entitled to make an ad hominem attack on anyone, such as he did on Sir David Attenborough.

George Long