Saturday, 28 September 2013

Attenborough and the uncomfortable truth

The term “national treasure” applied to a human being doesn’t sound right to me. And from what I know of David Attenborough, I can’t imagine it rings true for him either.
But if there has been a wiser, saner, more admirable person in the history of television than Sir David, I can’t think who it might be.
For almost all my life he has had a profound influence on the way I – and millions of other people – see the world.
His name on any programme guarantees that it will be worth watching, for natural spectacle, fascinating insight, the “wow” factor. And for a thoroughly humane, intelligent – and well informed – attitude to humans’ relationship with the world’s other species.
When David Attenborough speaks, in that warm, familiar voice, you know he speaks from both the heart and the brain. To put it bluntly, you know he speaks the truth.
Which is why he has politely declined every invitation – and there must have been a lot of them – to lend that voice to advertising.
“My stock in trade is dealing in the truth as far as we can see it,” he says. “If I say that dinosaurs have feathers I hope people believe me.
“So if in the next five minutes people hear me telling them to buy a brand of margarine they’ll probably presume I’m telling lies about one of these things.”
And of course the truth – unlike advertising – is often uncomfortable.
Attenborough was decades ahead of most of the media in drawing attention to mankind’s often devastating effect on the natural environment. The threat to the rainforest and the coral reef. The extinction of increasing numbers of animal and plant species.
And he’s ahead of most, too, in pushing past the taboos to state the almost unsayable truth about the world’s catastrophically huge human population.
Earlier this year he said: “We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde.
“Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us.
“Until humanity manages to sort itself out … it’s going to get worse and worse.”
Well, yes. The combination of more and more people and more and more desert is a certain harbinger of those apocalyptic horsemen War, Famine and Death.
Those of us born in the affluent West since the end of the last world war are probably the luckiest generation of human beings ever to have lived. That luck cannot last forever.

Attenborough walks dodgier ground when he says, “the last sensitivity - and the most tricky of all - is the fact, when you talk about world population, the areas we're talking about are Africa and Asia”.
Well, yes and no, David. It’s all of us. And not just the sheer numbers in those “developing” areas of the world, but the fact that they – understandably – aspire to the way of life we in the West already enjoy.
There are, arguably, enough resources in the world to sustain a population of seven billion humans – but not to give them all American cars, a European diet and a new iPhone every two years.
Who are we, though, to enjoy those things ourselves while denying them to others?
When he says it’s “barmy” to send food to famine areas, Attenborough risks offending human decency.
As did Indira Gandhi, the former prime minister of India, with her compulsory sterilisation programme in the 1970s. Or China’s ruling Communists with their one-child-per-family policy.
All of them, though, were at least trying to address humanity’s biggest and most intractable problem. Posterity may view them more kindly, as visionaries.
If the Apocalypse doesn’t come first.


A friend of mine stunned me today by describing Britain as a “capitalist meritocracy”.

That phrase sounds to me like “bright darkness”, “military intelligence” or that staple of football-reporting, “narrowly wide” – an oxymoron. A contradiction in terms.

Yes, we live in a capitalist society. Mostly – and getting more so with the flogging off of vital services such as the Royal Mail.

But a meritocracy?

In what conceivable way do David Cameron, George Osborne, the governor of the Bank of England or the boss of Tesco have more merit than my plumber, your old mum, or the woman at the checkout?

They’re certainly richer, they’re certainly more powerful. They might, in some instances, be cleverer – though not, by any means, in all. Privileged access to a certain kind of education can make them seem cleverer than they are.

But better people? More deserving? More trustworthy?

Young Prince George may be a very “good” baby – but is he a better baby than one born yesterday at the Norfolk and Norwich?
My dictionary defines meritocracy as “an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class, privilege or wealth; leadership by able and talented persons”.

You could hardly have a more precise definition of what we don't live in.

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