Brendan O’Neill

Malthus’s children

Population panic is back in vogue

Malthus's children
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Two hundred years ago, the creepy Revd Thomas Malthus would take to his pulpit to rail against the copulating lower orders. Author of An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Malthus was one of the first promoters of the overpopulation thesis. If people — especially poor people — didn’t stop having so many babies, ‘premature death would visit mankind’. The demand for food would outstrip mankind’s ability to produce it, giving rise to famines, to ‘epidemics, pestilence and plagues’ that would ‘sweep off tens of thousands’. His scabrous sermons provided a satisfying shudder down the backs of his pious, prole-fearing followers.

Today, Malthusian sermons are not delivered in church but in the theatre — the Royal Court Theatre in London, to be precise, where for the past few weeks a modern-day Malthus, Professor Stephen Emmott of Oxford University, has been thrilling the chattering classes with his predictions of population-related global disaster. In Ten Billion, a one-hour lecture dolled up as a piece of drama, Emmott titillates his audience with tales of overbreeding. All these grasping human beings, these mouths to feed and arses to wipe, are putting an unbearable strain on nature’s limited larder. We are about to see a ‘perfect storm’ of resource depletion and pollution.

The audience lapped it up. The well-to-do theatregoers shook their heads and gasped when Emmott revealed how many resources go into making a Big Mac (apparently only the foods favoured by the less well-off contribute to resource depletion). They applauded his reluctant conclusion that, given the conflict overpopulation was likely to cause, the next generation might benefit from knowing how to use a gun.

Malthusianism is back in vogue. Not only in theatres in Sloane Square, but across the opinion-forming spectrum. Last year, the human population hit seven billion, giving rise to a boom in handwringing commentary. BBC reporters tell us that ‘uncontrolled population growth threatens to undermine efforts to save the planet’. The Guardian’s environment reporters are forever warning of the dangers of our ‘rapidly growing global population’. Then there’s much-loved celebs like David Attenborough, who recently signed up to the population-panic group the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) and frequently declares: ‘I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people.’

The New Malthusians are getting cockier. At the UN Rio+20 Earth summit earlier this year, 105 respectable institutions, including Britain’s increasingly Malthusian Royal Society, urged the international powers-that-be to look beyond the ‘ethical sensitivities’ around the population issue and ‘confront rising global population’. All those wailing babies mean we are now ‘living beyond the planet’s means’, they declared. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is pumping millions of dollars into the distribution of birth-control tools in the developing world. Well-off westerners can now even offset their carbon emissions by helping to prevent the birth of babies in less fortunate places. A website called Pop Offsets, launched by the OPT, allows you to work out how much carbon you emit in your daily life and then tells you how many births you must help to prevent in order to offset that carbon. You make a financial contribution to a reproductive charity; that charity encourages a woman somewhere not to have more kids; and, hey presto, your personal emissions are cancelled out by your contribution to the non-creation of resource-demanding babies. The Guardian’s report on this initiative was illustrated with a photo of babies, 12 of them, just lying there like the problematic drains on nature.

Malthusianism is so ingrained in the outlook of greens and other trendies that people can fantasise about loads of human beings dying off without anyone batting an eyelid. Population panic-merchants often claim that the ‘carrying capacity’ of the planet is two billion human beings, so at least five billion less than at present. In a discussion on Radio 3’s super-respectable Nightwaves a couple of years ago, the psychologist and writer Sue Blackmore declared: ‘For the planet’s sake, I hope we have bird flu or some other thing that will reduce the population, because otherwise we’re doomed.’ There were no complaints to the BBC: the idea that humans are a problem in need of a solution is widespread in respectable ­circles.

The New Malthusians dress up their anti-human miserabilism in scientific garb. But no amount of pseudoscientific posturing can disguise that these bleaters about too many babies are of a piece with Malthus and his 19th-century disciples. What they most explicitly share with the bad reverend is a profound lack of faith in humanity’s ability to find answers to its problems, to progress and grow and become better at making things and feeding folk. In the past century, even as the number of people has ballooned from 1.6 billion people to more than 6 billion, the real prices for rice, corn and wheat have plunged. Technological advances in crop cultivation have meant that real prices for food — notwithstanding the recent spike — are lower than a century ago. Even the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation says that ‘the world currently produces enough food for everybody.’ The problem is that ‘many people do not have access to it’. Meanwhile, the countries with the largest populations, such as the Brics — Brazil, Russia, India, China — are, along with several African nations, clocking the world’s fastest rates of economic growth.

Malthus, as most history students know, failed to foresee the industrial revolution, which transformed our ability to produce stuff. And even in his wildest dreams he could not have imagined the later nuclear revolution, the transformation of seemingly useless uranium, which earlier generations used to dye glass yellow, into a resource that could light up and power entire, teeming cities.

Malthus’s error was to believe that population growth was the only variable, always shooting up and up, while everything else, including mankind’s ingenuity, was a constant, never changing. His heirs cleave to the same fatal misconception. They are wrong. Mankind has proven itself capable of meeting the needs of ever-vaster numbers of human beings, and if we can shoot down the Malthusian miserabilism that has modern society in its grip, who knows how much farther we could go?