Climate Change Racism

Why David Attenborough’s New Documentary Perpetuates Racism and Eco-Fascism

David Attenborough’s new documentary perpetuates the racist and eco-fascist narrative that overpopulation is to blame for the climate crisis.

Eve Brennan

Last month, we saw a new documentary released on Netflix hosted by our Nation’s sweetheart, warning how a sixth mass extinction could be on the horizon within the next century due to the climate crisis. The documentary throughout records a correlation of an increasing population, from 2.3 billion in 1937 to 7.8 billion in 2020, with a simultaneously increasing number of carbon emissions and decreasing percentage of remaining wildlife. 

Simply put, Attenborough is saying that larger populations have negatively impacted the environment. He continues, “every other species on Earth reaches a maximum population after a time – the number that can be sustained on the natural resources available”. Is Sir David really trying to convince us that there are not enough resources available for everyone? When in fact, the problem is not that there are not enough resources for the ever-increasing population, but that the distribution is exploited, creating soaring wealth inequality. 

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Attenborough even touches on the unsustainability of “our banks… investing in fossil fuels when these are the things that are jeopardising our future”. Briefly mentioning the capitalist economic system which prioritises profit and investment, with total disregard to sustainable living or the natural world, surely isn’t good enough. This could have, and should have, been explored more than the overpopulation myth. 

It is no news that countries in the Global South, like Nigeria or India, contribute far less to carbon emissions in our atmosphere than the western world, despite their populations being larger overall. In fact, just the richest 1% of the world’s population emits double the amount of CO2 than the bottom 50%. If we look at the carbon emissions per capita for each country, it is obvious that capitalist western societies like the US and Canada emit far more than countries with larger populations like Indonesia, Pakistan – and even China with a population of nearly 1.4 billion. In just five days, the average Brit generates the same amount of carbon emissions as the average Rwandan does in a whole year. Evidently, there is a weak correlation between population growth and global warming. 

The overpopulation myth is racist, eco-fascist and rooted in white supremacy. In the latter half of the 20th century, overpopulation was blamed for poverty and environmental issues. The narrative was, if there were less mouths to feed, then there would be more food to go around. When it came to curbing populations to tackle these social problems, it was BIPOC women who suffered the most. Forced sterilisation was implemented by governments across the globe, and even praised for curbing populations. 

Image from Unsplash

At the turn of the 20th century, the eugenics movement had peaked in the US and Canada. The Canadian provinces British Columbia and Alberta created the Sexual Sterilisation Act in 1928 to implement the sterilisation of indigenous women and preserve Anglo-Saxon nuclear families. Between 1966-76, over 1000 indigenous women were sterilised in Canada. Sterilisation is still not illegal in Canada and more than 100 indigenous women have come forward since 2018 with their stories of being coercively sterilised. 

Similarly, in the mid 90s, the Peruvian government under Fujimori forcibly sterilised 200,000 indigenous women, adhering to the narrative that a lower birth rate would decrease poverty rates. Many women died from the procedures. 

Ethnic minority women are currently being sterilised in the Chinese province of Xinjiang to curb the population of Uighur Muslims. Uighur women are being threatened with internment in concentration camps for refusing to abort pregnancies. Consequently, population growth has fallen in Xinjiang significantly more than in other Chinese provinces.  

Evidently, overpopulation is not the biggest contributor to global warming, and believing this myth has resulted in extremely grave consequences. Eco-fascism pushes eugenics to save the planet, but the victims have only ever been marginalised communities.  David Attenborough is hugely influential for the environmental movement, and it’s important to hold him account for spreading this message supporting white supremacy. 

On Thursday, Attenborough was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 and backtracked on his warning against overpopulation showcased in his documentary. Instead, he said that the western standard of living taking a pause, and capitalism curbing, is paramount for saving nature. It would seem that the backlash against Attenborough’s documentary for perpetuating racist eco-fascism succeeded in holding him to account, and had forced him to reconsider the overpopulation myth by exploring the capitalist exploitation of the environment.

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18 comments

  1. Equalizing our consumption to that of the developed world is not the answer.

    And anti-capitalist (communist and socialist) countries did not care a jot for the environment.

    Education of girls and women is the key to reducing our global human population so contraception results in smaller families.

    What is racist about spreading the benefits of education and contraception?

  2. Some countries in the Global South have done a great deal more for the environment than most capitalist countries in the west.

    Education of girls and contraception are still crucial but smaller families is not synonymous with reducing consumption and carbon emissions.

    Spreading awareness on the benefits of education and contraception isn’t racist – I never said it was – but blaming overpopulation supports eugenics, which is racist.

    1. In talking about who said what, perhaps you can refer us to where he advocates eugenics to reduce our earth’s human population?

      Or, failing that, how eugenics would be the only way of reducing population?

      1. I also want to emphasise that I mean his documentary gave into this narrative of the overpopulation myth – I’m not saying Attenborough himself is racist, and I also mentioned he did go back on himself in a recent interview where he included capitalism in the conversation, which he should’ve done before

      2. And your alternative to capitalism? Where in the world does it result in better outcomes than capitalism?

        At least an informed and well regulated market can punish polluters and enslavers. Given the information customers refuse to buy.

  3. I’m saying that he blames overpopulation and historically when overpopulation has been blamed for social problems, like poverty, it has resulted in eugenics. You just advocated for contraception but in the past this has been forced onto BIPOC women more than white women.

  4. I would say New Zealand or countries in Scandinavia have a better model in my opinion.

    You would hope that polluters would be punished within a well regulated market but at the moment it is capitalist corporations that are the polluters and ultimately control the market so how do you go from there?

    Have you even read my article? I gave 3 examples:)

    Eugenics was to limit certain populations, and by preventing a certain race/ethnicity to reproduce does not mean to perfect – and that’s actually a pretty racist statement to make.

    I thought I was having a somewhat respectable debate until you defended eugenics.

  5. Both New Zealand and Scandinavia are capitalist economies.

    And, it seems, I have to careful about stating facts otherwise you’ll accuse me of defending eugenics or worse!

    I know see what Sir David is up against.

    1. I know they’re capitalist economies but at least they have more regulation over the free market and tend to adopt more socialist policies for their populations – which often includes caring more for the environment.

      It is hard to compare with another model since there isn’t a perfect model that exists – but that doesn’t mean I can’t criticise the capitalist western models like the US and UK because they are the most detrimental for our environment – and I am basing this on the research I did for, and including in, this article.

      You haven’t stated many facts but eugenics never perfected anything – I get that it was a move to protect white families, but that’s why it is racist!

      And I’m not ‘up against’ David Attenborough – we’re all in this together. My criticism was constructive and, again, Attenborough himself later criticised the capitalist model in the western world as being detrimental to our environment too.

      1. Why not include China? After all this communist country chose capitalism to reduce the poverty of its people. But please continue your search for Utopia.

        Those of us who are trying to arrest global heating are unified on limiting family size. It has nothing to do with eugenics or racism.

        At least China tried. After several decades, their undemocratic one child policy has resulted in Chinese couples voluntarily limiting themselves to one child.

      2. And, by the way, Scandinavian counties are among the “high inequality” group, where the top 10% hold 60-70% of the country’s household wealth.

        Such is the perverse effect of high taxes and generous government welfare.

        Equality in these countries would require confiscation or state theft.

  6. Again – did you even read the article? Because I clearly included China when saying it emits less carbon than the US, Canada or Australia despite its’ population.

    That’s great for you making an effort to limit family size, I’m not against that, I’m clearly criticising that the narrative that overpopulation is dangerous has resulted in coercively limiting family sizes in the past, and we should be preventing history from repeating itself in this sense.

    Since you’re such a defender of the capitalists, are you trying to convince me that overproduction and overconsumption have no effect on the environment?

    1. I am among the many who have worked all our lives to remove the causes of waste and overproduction from design and production systems.

      Like your quest to create Utopia, the fight continues.

      And, when Communism finally failed in the USSR, reformers found untold numbers of toothbrushes stashed in warehouses out of sight of the Commissars.

      So, as well as poisoning their lakes, the anti-capitalist economies over-produced too.

  7. I never said there was a perfect model that isn’t capitalist that we should adopt – I think that the model we should adopt hasn’t even existed yet

    1. I wish you well in your quest to create Utopia or an alternative to capitalism.

      Including the cost of the damage us consumers cause in every companies accounts could help.

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