The human population explosion is a tricky subject to handle; not least because having children, for many people, goes to the very heart of what it means to exist.
Parenthood, motherhood, child-birth, creating a family, and a biological legacy, are some of the most natural things that a person can do. And being part of a family is probably the most emotional experience that a human being can have.
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Like all emotional topics, and especially ones that are connected to the well-being of our planet, it can be difficult to engage people on an individual level without appearing to criticise their decisions. And that’s because the overpopulation environment problem represents a dilemma that we all face: do we allow an ever growing mass of humans to consume the resources of the planet at the expense of every other living thing on it?
This debate can stir up heated emotions which then dominate the discourse and inevitably frame the discussion differently. When our emotions are involved it can take up the airtime in which a more rational discussion might have occurred. Sometimes it can help to look at the world from another perspective, which is why Chris Packham lends a unique voice to the increasing noise around the population environment problem.
Packham was diagnosed as having Aspergers in adult life, later broadcasting his experience of life with asperger’s in the BBC programme Chris Packham: Asperger’s and Me.
And it’s this perspective that allows this programme to pose uncomfortable questions. The emotion is there, and at times Packham seems tearful at the wanton destruction being inflicted on the natural world, but the emotion is heartfelt and honest; it’s not used to suppress or frame the narrative in a way seeks to protect the feelings of other people.
In one scene Packham survey’s a hospital that he’s just dropped his elderly father off at musing that it is slightly ‘perverse’ that the monumental efforts of all the brilliant people inside have enabled us humans to reach an age ‘when people are meant to die’ and one that is essentially ‘anti-nature’. In another scene he sits down with a couple, desperate to have a child biologically, to ask them why they are so keen to give birth naturally and, in a sense, to question if they are truly aware of the increasing danger that a growing human population will have on the world.
Packham travels the world, a fact clearly embellished through-out the programme as large white location names that pop up on the screen periodically as a new place and it’s population challenges are introduced. We learn the Earth’s population is now around the 7.7 billion mark, up from 3 billion in the 1960s and with a staggering 16,000 new babies born in just the short duration of this documentary: that’s 16,000 new people on the planet in one hour, every hour. Predictions indicate a realistic likelihood of the human population reaching 10 billion in number by 2050. And as Packham tours the globe to discover what problems this might entail a growing sense of resignation seems to pervade.
In São Paolo we discover that wealthy private residents are paying to drill up to 13,000 wells across the city, exacerbating the water shortages already being experienced, whilst their poorer neighbours protest and riot in the streets. Packham’s helicopter ride high above the city, and his proclamation that traffic is so bad that rich business men have had to resort to helicopters, seems somewhat excessive in lieu of the fact that documentary is about human numbers and our excesses.
Residents in Lagos, meanwhile, have constructed homes raised on stilts above rubbish dumps, in which poorer women given birth to huge families. This is underscored by cut-aways to research that, rather predictably, indicates when you empower and educate women and give them access to resources, employment and independence they decide that perhaps they might want to do something other than raise 15 hungry children.
In Brazil Packham attempts to explain to a Brazilian farmer businessman, who is busy obliterating the rainforest to grow soy, the uneconomic nature of rapid, large-scale soy production, and its impact on nature. He argues the inefficient of burning rainforest to feed livestock to feeds us when we could just eat the soy directly. And whilst, at times, the interviews (and tone of the programme) feels slightly lost in translation, eventually Chris and the farmer/businessman come to an agreement that it will be impossible to change the eating habits of people the world over and what we must do is reduce our number. Duh.
And it’s this exchange with the farmer/businessman which reflects both the main question that should have underscored the programme through-out but is also perhaps the missing focus of this documentary. The overpopulation subject is so big and there are so many myriad different ecosystems that the human population firebomb is incinerating that, at times, this documentary feels un-focussed; sprawling account that, like the global communities it covers, does not deliver a clear call to arms, but instead a more pessimistic, dire outlook on an uncertain future.
One social commentator remarks that his view is much less optimistic now than it was 5 years ago, (on account of the changing political landscape, undoubtedly a reference to the election of Trump) and that’s perhaps why the documentary seems unfocused. There isn’t a clear call to action because the political willpower is not there at a global, or national, level.
Whilst the focus may be somewhat fuzzy here, and the future uncertain, Packham’s passion for the natural world, in the face of ongoing destruction, is abundant. A strength of feeling that is clear as he surveys plantations devoid of life and mummers, almost to himself, an extract from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence as an aside:
To see a World in a Grain of SandWilliam Blake, Auguries of Innocence
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
It’s a message we should all heed; we need to hold our politicians to account (and to make sure we elect the right ones to begin with), we need to understand our position in the natural world and appreciate it in relation to all other living things because when Chris Packham deplores the situation, asking ‘What right have I got to vandalise that beauty’, we know that he’s speaking for all of us.