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Italian matron speaks out about overpopulation

From a nice suburban garden ....

I am sorry to interfere with world affairs, which have no repercussion outside the English speaking community (or maybe just a little disturbance for the few Italians who have been alerted, count them on the fingers of ONE hand !)

I am referring to the interview of Sir David Attenborough by the witty Camilla Long, which appeared on the News review of the Culture International of the Sunday Times (19/4 /2009). It has been a big surprise for me to hear the complete unabridged views of our great naturalist , which have delighted my spirits with his nature documentaries.

When Sir David Attenborough was promoted Patron of the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), we all have a reason to rejoice.
He has been quoted as saying:

“there are three times as many people in the world as when I started making television programmes 56 years ago. It is frightening. . We are seeing the consequences in terms of ecology, atmospheric pollution and in terms of space and food production.”

He may say obvious things that nobody in his right mind can deny, - yet oddly, increasingly, most dare not speak - but then, it’s ok, because it comes from the mouth of one of the most respected and famous personalities worldwide, and that counts, for sure.

To have Sir David Attenborough as a spokesperson for the “thorny” (his own words) problem of overpopulation is a great idea, because he is a decent, intelligent, not extremist, all virtues that make him and his views non-threatening, acceptable and almost mainstream. Maybe a bit too much…

Attenborough comes from educated, middle class, English traditional background. He may be labelled as DWM (Dead White Male), but for the fact that he is still, well, alive. He sees life through a retrospective mirror, stuck bang in his childhood: “…idyllic, a time in the Thirties when you could just get on your bicycle and be out in the country in half an hour…”

Today, he implies, the artificial world in which our children are immersed is so far removed from that love-affair with the natural world, and the real tragedy lies in the fact that society as a whole is not aware of the abnormality of the situation, to which we have been adapting so fast and so well. It is the parable of the boiled frog. It has changed the way we live, the way we think, we dream, we make love. The way we see nature, which has become the “environment”, has become profane and banal.

Now, I do not think that nature, in the good old days, was not raped, plundered, ignored but for the things she could provide. The good old days are obviously frozen by a sort of foggy and misericordious memory, which gives us the illusion that there was a Golden Age, and that we have actually belonged to it. For some lucky individuals, like an English curious boy born into a privileged environment, of course, it was. But around him, if he tried to look up from the wildlife and see the human life, the occasions for relaxing and seeing nature were of necessity nil.

Anyway, in later life, Attenborough had more than a chance to see slums and poverty, and, though used to look with complete moral indifference, required by the scientific approach, at the brutal fight for survival of the non-human species, he couldn’t stand the scene of that equivalent horror that is human life. It was life that in a deep sense belonged to him. If he now finds culture to be more determining than evolution, he finds human behaviour morally intolerable although he is well aware that for nature it is quite normal.

Finally the refusal of procreation is an act of charity, a teleological mission, to stop the horror of the futility of millions of wretched existences.

I understand this feeling, I, too, am a white woman, the type of personality described with some humour by another white man, a certain Brendan O’Neill (see, Wednesday 1 April 2009, Brendan O’Neill Mixing with Malthusians):

“spiked editor Brendan O’Neill ventured into a pit of population-controllers, and found himself holding his nose. Looking around the lecture hall of the Royal Statistical Society (A fitting venue for a conference that reduced everything to statistics), I was struck by the make-up of the audience: white-haired demographers; ladies-who-normally-lunch-but-who-today-were-discussing-the-coming apocalypse; comparatively young but equally posh Soil Association supporters.”

Etcetera etcetera.

I am not resentful of irony, it is healthy to look at oneself from somebody else’s perspective, but O’Neill misses the point. As I found out with some dismay, Sir David doesn’t agree to the credo of the OPT. The OPT propaganda hasn’t told the real story, as revealed in toto by the Sunday Time interview. At one moment, the interviewer asks more pertinent (or shall we say “impertinent”) questions. She wants to know, for example, what is the ideal figure for the human inhabitant’s of earth? Sir David is not sure, as I am not sure either, and I would like to challenge anybody to swear that he/she knows for sure. So far, so reasonable.

After a while Sir David stumbles on a rather big and unavoidable obstacle- or shall we say, he falls into an equally big hole ?
But let’s hear it from the lips of the Great Old White Man.

Distracted by the vision of a blue butterfly he slips unaided into a declaration on immigration:

“We have to keep our borders open it’s a worldwide problem… you want a free movement of people round the world because it’ the only way to stop wars …”

I won’t go on, out of embarrassment, but you are familiar with the refrain.

It is clear that the same ethically correct reasons that drove him to deny, in the name of an enlightened Western culture of which he is a brilliant example, the destructive life and death carousel, drives him to extend the liberty. that he himself enjoys to far away strangers.

Though these are noble views, they are dangerous in more than one way and smell of complacency and wishful thinking, They ignore the consequences which will be felt for generations to come, and ruin forever that earthly childhood Paradise which he nostalgically endorses while enabling its destruction.

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Wonderful article, Marisa. I wish I had more time to criticise the position that Attenborough takes, but I will do it quickly just here.

I have also read William Rees (who invented the 'Ecological footprint') making similar unjustifiable assertions. It's like saying, "Give a mugger your wallet and he won't beat you up." We can guess that it comes from the highest colonialist and big business echelons. They are the expert muggers of the world and they also own the press which manufactures 'consent'. Tim Murray has long criticised David Suzuki on a similar attitude. Perhaps Attenborough and Rees simply have flown too high, like Icarus, and now their wings have been politically clipped; they have lost their independence. In a world of steady states immigration was always a given, but never the problem it is in our time of massive overuse and overstocking of the world by humans. Mass immigration is now a huge problem for democracy and human rights. It cannot happen without destroying local democracies and denying people the right to settled self-government and control over their environment. For this reason free borders are championed by big business, which is anti-democracy.

Mass immigration is now so close to invasion and a constant source of international friction, exploitation and downright wars and massacres. Think of the overflow from Britain - the first hugely overpopulated country - from which the fossil-fuel-fed diaspora led to the total takeover and massive land-stealing and destruction of biodiversity and democracy, of so many steady-state polities - India, Africa, Australia, Pacific Islands etc.

Think of the overflow from Rwanda (a victim of colonisation and big business and the servants in the pulpits) to neighboring countries, or of El Salvadorian immigration to Honduras, or of the problems created in the Costa Rican social welfare system by the overflow from neighbours and the impact on land-prices from North American immigration. And David Attenborough's words simply promote more of the same chaos. There are peace-keeping solutions, both commercial and humanitarian, that are effective and stem the push for immigration. One of the most effective ways to stop overpopulation and exoduses is to give back land which has been taken by commercial and colonial interests - but you will hardly ever read of this in Aid literature.]

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
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Copyright to the author. Please contact sheila [AT] candobetter org or the editor if you wish to make substantial reproduction or republish.

I am always keen to explore recommendations based on sound analysis as Sheila has offered.

So how does a country effect the giving back of land to its indigenous?
The idea would seem to offer a genuine reason for refugees not to flee, assuming all their other threats are removed. Take the Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka currently forced to retreat down to a beach refuge; not dissimilar to the plight of a third of a million Allied troops at Dunquerke in May 1940 early in WWII, cut off by a German armored advance.

While indigenous citizens will demand indigenous rights to land, birth citizens will demand birth rights, legal immigrants will demand immigration status rights. An attractive and popular country like Australia will, indeed long has, become crowded and busy with all these versions of land rights claims. If truejustice says that indigenous have higher moral jurisdiction, how does a country compensate the rest morally? For the indigenous saying to the rest: 'bugger off home' would be the most simplistic option. But human culture rejects such simplicity and one must bare in mind that human culture (especally the religious tainted) has been the spark of nearly all wars.

The hurdle for colonists morally honouring land sovereignty rights to indigenous people lies in the token framework of international justice that is the United Nations. Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia and almost every war-affected (impoverished) country since WWII (when the UN was formed) has experienced gross moral and legal neglect at the hands of the UN. The UN has a reputation as a toothless, politically correct and grossly underfunded watchdog of international justice.

If only the UN had a similar sense of urgency that Thatcher committed to in 'national' defence the Falklands; irrespective I might add, of glaring immoral justification by the British Tory Government to preserve a distant outpost of an Victorian empire for nothing but political ego and voter distraction.

For indigenous to reclaim just sovereign rights, the UN as a colonist power base is an anathema - the wolves minding the chickens, so the UN must be wound up. A new international organisation of justice should replace the UN with indigenous only members - perhaps the 'IN' (Indigenous Nations) with the English included as indigenous inhabitants of just...England!

The short answer is that redistribution of land is the general cause of revolutions, because those who have it do not give it up easily and those who do not have it must be desperate to try to take it back. The French revolution was all about land redistribution. The Fijian revolutions are all about not allowing land to be bought and sold and thereby conserving land within the original islander bloodlines - which is the basic notion of citizenship.

Another way to redistribute land is to allow populations which have blown out during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries to gently decline, stop land-sales, retain leasing, reform inheritance laws to make it impossible to dispossess children and to make people realise that if they have children they must provide land for them. No child should be born without sufficient land to find shelter and subsistence on. This was Roman citizen law under Justinian and the basis of the European Napoleonic code, which greatly widened citizenship to include all those born in a particular territory rather than only those of certain clans.

Land used for community good, possibly for industry, could still be leased out with the agreement of the affected community, but it could never be alienated.

Effective management of land and effective self-government work best locally.

Roman/Napoleonic codes are based on subsistence societies and the notion of membership of a tribe that has a specific locality. In Europe land-rights have been abstracted to rights to shelter, social security, health care, income etc. But all those rights, of course, come from the product of the land originally. Europe has a lesser divide between rich and poor than the Anglophone nations, and less dislocation from the land and less disruption to clans and regional settlements than do the Anglophone nations, which guarantee virtually no rights of shelter, social security, health care, income where work is not available etc. It is very hard for the Anglophone national populations to organise and in England there has been a huge portion without land and with precarious rights for centuries, who are encouraged to believe that they can somehow boostrap themselves up continuously merely as wage-earners or investors whilst paying banks all their lives for the privilege of shelter at exorbitant rates.

Those people need to take the land back from the banks.

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
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Tony Boys's picture

..."allow populations which have blown out during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries to gently decline"... Absolutely agree that this is necessary, but manufactured 'consent' will allow nothing of the sort until (probably) the situation gets so desperate that we are all up to our necks in organic matter and the people who are currently running the shop finally realize we're up organic matter creek with no paddle. How do we start the movement back to sanity when we can't find the starting line - can't even see the bars of our own cages (as Daniel Quinn put it)? I've spent well over 15 years searching for the way to the "soft landing" through dialogue, democracy, human understanding and objective data on where 'we' are heading. Meanwhile, our wonderful manufactured consent keeps people in the dark about Burma and Tibet and all the other good causes you and others have mentioned. Although I now know a lot more than I did 15 years ago, I'm really no closer to finding any kind of 'solution' than I was in 1993/4 (or in 1971, I think it was, when I was a very early member of FOE). We talk to each other while no one else is listening as the current elite fills the airways and newsprint pages with (mostly) drivel. Sorry, I'm not in a wonderful mood today...

Just as I am always keen to explore recommendations based on sound analysis, I challenge ambit claims like:

* "redistribution of land is the general cause of revolutions"
* "The French revolution was all about land redistribution"
* "The Fijian revolutions are all about not allowing land to be bought and sold and thereby conserving land within the original islander bloodlines"

Claims like these are alarming, but without source and argument are hollow ambit claims.

Reasonable questions.

Where to start? I'm a land-use planning and population sociologist, so I tend to notice these things. I have been writing a book on a subject which leads me to study traditional land tenures, changes during colonisation, and revolutions in Britain and on the continent. I'm not inclined to preview my entire book here, of course, so you will have to be satisfied or dissatisfied with a few info-grabs and refs.

Citizenship was originally membership of a community and was defined by land-rights. In a subsistence community, any child born without land would die. There were rules to limit the production or survival of children beyond the capacity of land to provide.

Until a few decades into the 20th Century in Australia no-one who did not own land could vote. And British and British colonial women's ability to inherit or own land was compromised between the 11th C and the 1920s - coinciding with their not being able to vote.

The Roman Empire started off with about 2% of people citizens and finished up (for a variety of reasons) with about 9% citizens. Citizenship was defined by right to own land, and, not always, right to vote as well. (Women couldn't vote, for instance, but they could own land). Most people in the empire were tenants, serfs or slaves, and could not bequeath their land to their children, only their [lowly] status. You might say that the French revolution was an enlarging of the Roman model rights to all people born to a polity. (More further down.)

Note that medieval systems of land-ownership were different from private ownership, but most people were still excluded from dominion over land. God actually owned all the land and the king was his real-estate agent, and he let lords dominate parcels of land and the people on it into perpetuity, and bequeath this, in return for services in time of war. The serfs were the people who provided the means for this system, but they were chattels with some basic rights, like horses.

The 1381 Peasants' Revolt, with Wat Tyler and 60,000 landless peasants, in England was a demand for land. Anyone without land was obliged by law to work for anyone with land. People demanded land as their right and as the basis on which to refuse to work for the incumbent landed. (This was after a lot of land became available following the black plague but nobles got the king to make sure that lots of people remained dispossessed and obliged to work for them.) Unfortunately Tyler and his supporters were massacred.

The Puritan revolution associated with Cromwell was fought on two levels. The bourgeois who had benefited from Henry VIII's repossession then selling off of the monasteries (which the bourgeoisie had purchased with bullion circulating from South America) wanted more power in parliament. They ultimately beheaded Charles 1 in 1649. However, the Modern Army, led by Cromwell, relied in large part on common soldiers who thought they were fighting for land-rights and voting rights. Famously they were done out of these, even though Cromwell had led them in a massacre against the Irish among others, whose land was divided up for speculators. (Another good reason to revolt).

Among the English soldiers were Diggers and Levellers. Both these groups wanted land-rights and voting rights. The Diggers wanted a return to common land and cooperative living. They quoted from the Wat Tyler revolt 261 years prior. The Levellers tended to be land-owners already but landowners who did not have parliamentary representation. None of these people got what they wanted, but Cromwell used them up.

Here is a quote from a typical document of the time:

Leveller Colonel Rainborough wrote to Cromwell's son-in-law, General Ireton,

"For really I think that the poorest he that is in England that a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sur, I thinkt's clear, that every man that is to live under a government out first by his own consent to put himself under that government… I should doubt whether he was an Englishman or no, that should doubt of these things."

General Ireton replied as follows:

"… no person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom … that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom'. When pressed, he added this: "All the main thing that I speak for, is because I would have an eye to property. I hope we do not come to contend for victory – but let every man consider with himself that he do not go that way to take away all property. For here is the case of the most fundamental part of the constitution of the kingdom, which if you take away, you take all by that."

"If you admit any man that hath a breath and being, a majority of the Commons might be elected who had no local and permanent interest. … Why may not those men vote against all property?… Show me what you will stop at; wherein you will fence any man in a property by this rule.", E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Pelican, England, 1968.

With regard to the French Revolution:

Once again, only people with land were citizens with political rights. There were still a lot of serfs in France and those who had bought out their lords, were still saddled with taxes and charges and duties, yet no representation. They fought for these reasons. (Note that the right to inherit and bequeath is fundamental to property rights.)

Here is a translation from a document about the situation of the French on the Eve of the Revolution, which I translated from F.A Aulard, La révolution francaise et le régime féodal, Paris, 1919:

“They paid tithes [taxes] to the lord. They were not allowed to marry except between serfs of the same lord. They could not have inheritors beyond those in the same community. They could not get rid of their contract of serfdom except to serfs from the same lord In the custom of Nivernais, they could not inherit from each other if during more than one year they had not had the same dwelling. In Burgundy custom, they could no longer inherit from each other, even if they had constantly occupied the same premises, if it could be proved that they no longer lived ‘by a common fire, bread and salt’. Some were ‘under pursuit’. That is to say that they could be pursued by the lord for payment of tithes they owed him, wherever they went to live Serfs could cease to be serfs by unswearing themselves, which [also] meant renouncing the [land], furniture, [tools, buildings which they had inherited from their parents] within the lord’s landholding.”

The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was the original document of the first days of the Revolution, precised property as a fundamental right in the 2nd and the 17th article.

Article 2: The aim of every political association is the defense of man's natural and imprescriptible rights. These are liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression.

(Article 2 - Le but de toute association politique est la conservation des droits naturels et imprescriptibles de l’homme. Ces droits sont la liberté, la propriété, la sûreté et la résistance à l’oppression.)

Article 17: Property, in as much as it is an inviolate and sacred right, no-one may be deprived of it, unless there is a public necessity, legally constituted, which necessitates it, on condition that there first be paid a fair indemnity.

(Article 17 - La propriété étant un droit inviolable et sacré, nul ne peut en être privé, si ce n’est lorsque la nécessité publique, légalement constatée, l’exige évidemment, et sous la condition d’une juste et préalable indemnité.)

The French Revolution enlarged citizenship/the right to own and inherit property to all those born in France instead of to just a few families. Women and men could inherit equally. The Napoleonic Code codified this (although it disallowed management of their land by women if there was a man around. Repealed only in the late 20th C.)

With regard to the Fijians. As Pacific Islanders they practised Pacific Islander land-tenure - i.e. they did not buy or sell land, although they could lease it. Unlike their treatment of many islanders, the British rulers showed some pity and allowed the Fijians to keep their land-tenure system, as they also allowed the Cook Islanders and a few others. This meant that the Indians and other immigrants who had been imported by the colonisers to provide larger quantities of cheap labour, were unable to buy and sell land. (Many sources, but here is one: "Tenure", in The Pacific Islands: Environment and Society, ed. M. Rapaport, "Tenure": Exerpts from Chapter 17, This meant that Fiji did not get sold off and alienated from the control of the Fijians. For this reason Fijians have land and self-government. It is unfortunate for the Indian Fijians that they do not have land-rights, but, if they did, the island-land would soon be bought and sold internationally and there would be a lot of dispossessed Fijians, just like the Aborigines of Australia and so many other islands in the Pacific.

Here is a revealing document about the mentality that imported mass labour to the Islands of the Pacific for colonial purposes and the impact this had.

"Depopulation is a distressing reality in most of the islands despite the fact that labour for tropical agriculture is so urgently required; and Asiatics have had to be imported in large numbers. The future development of the islands will demand much labour, but here are the facts about declining populations. In 1870 it was estimated that Polynesia contained 690,000 native people. In 1930 there were about 200,000, but 145,000 Asiatics and 37,000 whites had come in. Melanesia was computed to have three million natives, but recently numbered scarcely one million. Micronesia declined from 273,000 to less than 90,000. In fifty years two-thirds of the native population have disappeared." Gordon L.Wood, The Pacific Basin, OUP, 1930

The struggles in Fiji always boil down to land rights and the Murdoch press keeps getting thrown out of Fiji. My guess (but not my knowledge) is that the Murdoch press infuriates the Fijians because it is always going on about 'democracy' but it is also a big advocate of land-privatisation and just happens to do a lot of business in international land sales. I don't agree with the Murdoch Press's notion of democracy. If I were a Fijian, I would hold onto my land-rights above all else. That is what is at stake if the Fijians 'embrace' "our" version of 'democracy'.

You can also read about the struggle to retain communal land-rights in Papua New Guinea, against the constant propaganda from World Bank economists to privatise land and sell it off in Jim Fingleton (Ed.), "Privatising Land in the Pacific, A defence of customary tenures,” June 2005,

I cannot say that I have studied every revolution but I would be most surprised if there were one that did not boil down to struggles between landless and land-monopolists. Communist revolutions are typically about land-rights, with the notion of returning to common-land, but on a huge scale.

I guess you could say that the US revolution was about no taxation without representation, but if we were to investigate this, would we also find that representation was only available to those who had land? (I'm not sure here, although I am sure that US citizens have few remaining real rights through citizenship. They have to buy power - health care, land, housing, education etc. Australia is of course going that way too.

Land-rights have been commuted to more abstract and less secure rights, such as right to work, right to unemployment benefits - which we now see disappearing - in Anglophone post industrial democracies. And our right to vote has been very watered down, hasn't it, since the media broker the election candidature.

In France and Continental Europe (and Britain since 2008) citizens have the right to shelter which the state is obliged to provide. So do immigrants as long as they are legally present in a country.

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
home page

Dear Sheia, I wish I could answer to all of you that have commented on my article, thank you so much.

What I think is that Attenborough is just naive, as I pointed out.
The trouble is that he can be seen as pleasing everybody, he is the ideal spokesman for everything- pro and against, left and right, cynics and realists,he just muddles through happily in his suburban garden looking at butterflies ....


Is David Attenborough is being politically correct, or just naive? Globalisation is the way to conflicts, disease, population increases, unemployment, crime, drugs and human vices. Also, it dilutes national identities and culture. This is what went wrong in Europe with immigration! Natural ecological forces and stresses from over populated nations will eventually force than to limit their own size and off-spring, like non-human creatures.
Society should be allowed to evolve, as in Japan, to new values rather than achieving identity from offspring. Opening borders encourages the extention of the problems, and thus immigration. Animals have territories, and so should we!
The human herd instinct is strong, and we see more people as security and strength, and it makes us blind to the threats we cause to ourselves and our own habitat.