News Review Interview: David Attenborough—The naturalist is frightened by the number of people in the world and says the human race needs to be reduced

News Review interview: David Attenborough

The naturalist is frightened by the number of people in the world and says the human race needs to be reduced

Camilla Long
From The Sunday Times
April 19, 2009

Bending gingerly over a deep, green pond in the garden of his home in Richmond, southwest London, Sir David Attenborough and I are inspecting a great crested newt. Triturus! he says, pointing. Look. Looook . . . the bosky voice creeps past gas mark 4 he is waaafting his hormones at her. And in a minute . . . The animal (unfortunately I had been looking at a reed) flicks in the water. Shes off! Whuuuhnderful!

It is the first proper day of spring, and after a short scuffle with the double doors we have come outside the posh way ie, not through the kitchen cantered briskly onto the lawn, past a large mossy patch on the patio (Dont step on that or youll end up in a sewer) and straight up to the pond to see his new toys.

At 82, Attenborough is a vision in taupe, with talcum-powder features, a surprisingly firm handshake and a manner that is occasionally brusque, shading to sarcastic (Yes, its a bird). His daughter Susan offers me a drink of water, before disappearing into an office. She lives three-quarters of an hour away, he says, alighting on a small garden seat. My wife died 12 years ago, so she comes here and restocks the fridge and, as she puts it elegantly, mucks me out.

I had been hoping his house would be something like the set of the film Jumanji parting aspidistras and parakeets going eek, eek but it is in fact a spartan dwelling, with African pots, gently crisping books, Danish furniture and the cool, desiccated hush of a fossil room at the Natural History Museum. He has lived here for 55 years, although theres not much wildlife.

Nevertheless, we are constantly being distracted by robins (Hello, darling), butterflies (Oh gosh, look at that! A blue butterfly. The first of the season) and blackbirds.

Turdus merula, I say. Well done, he says, thrilled. You can see how he nearly became a teacher.

Attenborough is not here to discuss wild-life. He is here to discuss humans, and how there are far too many of them. Earlier last week, when it was announced that he had become a patron of the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), he explained that there are three times as many people in the world as when I started making television programmes 56 years ago. It is frightening. We cant go on as we have been. We are seeing the consequences in terms of eco-logy, atmospheric pollution and in terms of space and food production.

He is the first to admit the problem is a thorny one. Indeed; indeed it is, he says, but we can make sure women have the choice as to whether they have children. If you spread literacy, education, a decent standard of living, the population increase drops. Thats why the notion, the ability, to restrict population growth should be around. I dont believe women want to have 12 children where eight of them die, as they did in this country 150 years ago. Now they have a choice, and that is the reason we have an almost static population here if you discount immigration. But isnt it a bit too late for all this, now that the global population is nearly 7 billion and rising fast? Oh yes, yes, he says.

Besides, whats the ideal figure for human life on Earth? Attenborough is a little soft-focus on details. I dont know how youd calculate . . . optimum-ness, but certainly, the mere fact of what were doing to the natural world makes it perfectly clear were way past it. Half the worlds starving.

He has seen this for himself countless times in African slums, South American slums. Little kids playing with open sewers, rats, filth, disease, poverty, terrible. The best number of children is obviously two and a half, he adds, laughing. I dont know about the right number. He wouldnt put a limit on the number of children a woman may have, as they do in China, but obviously, having a large number of children is putting a strain on things.

So whats a large number? Attenborough has two: Susan, who is unmarried, and Robert, an anthropologist, who has two children. The great naturalist pauses to think. Five. The fact is, he sighs, the human race ought to be reduced.

You cant just get rid of people, though. No, no, he says. Well, you say that, but you do get rid of people there are famines, and people are very good at getting rid of each other. Im not for a micro-second suggesting thats a good thing, but there are all sorts of diseases and disasters that can happen to humanity.

So if we dont take control of the problem ourselves, then nature or self-interest will. None of this is really applicable to Britain, of course. Here the problem is not overpopulation, but the ageing population.

Yes, it presents great economic problems, says Attenborough. Its a question of the lesser of two evils. He will be 83 next month: presumably he wouldnt like it if there was no one to look after him? Of course you wouldnt, because youre selfish . . . Its that blue butterfly again! He pauses. What was I saying?

Keeping the population down. Getting old. Closing our borders? We have to keep our borders open: its a worldwide problem, he says. You want a free movement of people round the world because thats the only way youre going to stop wars. Because if you put walls around yourself, you tend to think youre the only people who are important, and that people on the other side of the wall are the enemy. And you only realise they arent the enemy if you travel among them.

The most charming people he has met, he says, are the Cambodians, although he doesnt like going back to places, because its not as it was. I went to Bali in the Fifties and there was only one hotel on the whole island. I slept on the beach, with turtles coming up and nesting, and now on that beach there are a dozen 30-storey hotels. So going back is not much . . . He looks sad.

How the world has changed since his youth. The son of a university principal, he says his childhood in Leicester was idyllic, a time in the Thirties when you could just get on your bicycle and be out in the country in half an hour, go youth-hostelling for three weeks at 14 and nobody saw any problems. These days, he adds, you have to go a long way to get rid of human beings and see the natural world as it is. He knows hes been lucky.

Even getting into television was pure chance. I was a trainee at Alexandra Palace. There were two studios and everyone did everything. They were short of an interviewer one day Would you do it? Sure. The rest is natural history.

However, I happened to discover 40 years later that they had concluded, He could be a perfectly pleasant chap, might be a perfectly good producer, but he shoul-dnt be used again as an interviewer on camera because his teeth are too big.

Attenborough says he is not bothered about his looks Youd like to think people are impressed by what you said, not what you look like but I think he just comes from that sort of background: long on heroic achievement, short on emotion. I can see from some of the pictures in his autobiography, Life on Air, that he was very handsome when he was younger, I say.

Is the tense right? he titters quietly.

Generally, he is extremely modest, refusing to acknowledge his status as a beloved icon at all. A few years back he was voted the most trusted celebrity by a magazine.

Did you see the criteria? he explodes. The people they considered were rather bogus, with reputations because of the mass media. People only really watch his programmes for the animals, he says. If I didnt have king penguins, birds of paradise, gibbons or gorillas . . .

At first, he tells me hes not bothered about getting old I ignore it, he says, stiffly but later he admits the only thing he would change about his life would be to shed some years. He certainly doesnt like the idea of not working. Hell go on until the voice goes. Voices do go. You get croaky. Teeth are quite important: if you lose your teeth, you sound funny.

So hes doing some radio scripts for the summer, and working on the natural history series The Frozen Planet. Next month he is off to the Antarctic and after that, the Arctic, he says gleefully. Itll all be wonderful, provided nothing goes wrong. In the Arctic, if it goes wrong, youre not just in mild trouble. In the jungle you can get lost and all sorts of silly things and walk out the other side, but in the Antarctic . . . Dropping a glove can mean losing your fingers. Besides, he says, Im not doing that Captain Scott stuff you have to be posh to a degree.

He doesnt strike me as the sort to demand first class but how does he keep his carbon footprint down with all that travel-ling? Well, I dont see what . . . I dont think . . . You have to be realistic about this. Being sensible with energy means only use it when you need to. You cant suddenly suggest were going to stop moving around.

Does he worry about infirmity? Oh yes, of course. Losing your marbles. Its happening to my contemporaries. I can think of all kinds of inadequacies, like not being able to put down a coherent sentence. Ive had that all my life, but I now tell myself that its because Im old.

Also, My knees are rubbish, he says. I cant climb trees and look for birds nests as much as I used to Im impressed thats still on the menu at all but there you go. If youre sitting here in your eighties, you cant very well say that everyone should be snuffed out in their seventies.

What is his position on euthanasia? Gosh . . . I think it is desperate that people with terminal illness and in extreme pain shouldnt be able to control their future. There should be legal clauses sufficient for it not to be abused, however.

Would he consider it for himself? It seems dreadful even to speculate, he says.

His older brother, Richard Lord Attenborough, the film-maker is recovering from a coma after a fall at home. Oh, hes getting on reasonably but its a long job, he says. Were very he corrects himself prettyclose; I go and see him in hospital fairly regularly. Three times in the past five days.

Ive always been slightly astonished that Dickie and David are even related. Weve enjoyed one anothers careers, he says, but neither of us would wish to have the other ones. I wouldnt be in a feature film for all the tea in China. But then he wouldnt want to go travelling in the Borneo rainforest.

The younger Attenborough lives alone, with no pets. When the children were young the family kept snakes, monkeys, lemurs, chameleons, monkfish . . . all sorts. Now, if you live by yourself, you cant properly deal with them.

Jane, his wife of more than 40 years, died suddenly in 1997 from a brain haemor-rhage. He doesnt talk about this, and he certainly doesnt want to write about it. I dont think Im very good at it; I find it quite hard, being mawkish, he says. And why would you want other people to know about it?In his autobiography, he covers his marriage in minimal space. Does he miss her? Oh come on. Forty years. He looks at me like an angry koala. What else do you want while Im at it?

A photographer appears, just in time, to take his picture. Hate it, he says, springing up. Dont you?

If tonight is an ordinary night, hell be at home perhaps watching Porridge or Yes Minister, playing the piano or thinking about the next development in the garden.

Theres something stoic about his existence. Take his attitude to money: he is hopeless, he says. But I have my spending money. He pauses. I am very like the Queen, from many points of view