Mixing with Malthusians

spiked editor Brendan O’Neill ventured into a pit of population-controllers, and found himself holding his nose.

Now I know what Greg Dyke, former boss of the BBC, meant by the phrase ‘hideously white’. At the Optimum Population Trust’s invitation-only conference at the end of last week, ‘Environmentally Sustainable Populations’, there was a sea of white faces, grey hair, purple-tinted rinses and blue blazers, as men and women of a certain hue, age and class gathered to discuss the ‘problem’ of population growth. In plummy voices – and in between House-of-Lords-style catnaps, perhaps taken to re-energise their prejudicial streaks – the attendees spoke darkly of ‘decimation’, ‘apocalypse’ and ‘tipping points’ (which is enviro-speak for apocalypse) in a world plagued by ‘too many people’.

There is something unavoidably spooky about people who spend their waking hours fretting about overpopulation, and who hand out leaflets saying ‘How many is too many?’ illustrated with a picture of an innocent-looking schoolgirl (white, of course) doing population sums on a blackboard (black, of course). In a Frequently Asked Questions section – frequently asked by whom? Benito Mussolini? – the leaflet informs us that there is a severe shortage of water and land on this ‘beautiful planet’ of ours and then ponders: ‘What’s the problem?’ The answer, in case you hadn’t worked it out from looking at the programme of talks on everything from ‘Scientific solutions in contraception’ to ‘Population policies for the UK’, is us: ‘Sadly, we are. Humans. Every year around 75million of us – a population nearly as big as Germany’s – are added to the Earth’s surface. That’s another Birmingham every five days.’ And God knows, one Birmingham is enough.

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. There was, I think, one person of not entirely white extraction: he was operating the sound system. You can bet that when these well-to-do worriers about the human plague on the planet talk about burdensome people causing ‘congestion, overcrowding and loss of green space’ (1), they aren’t talking about themselves, or their friends, or their neighbours, or their mistresses; they’re talking about ‘them’. You know ‘them’! The breeders, the not-sufficiently-educated, the dwellers of teeming cities, not only in Africa and Asia but in Europe and America too.

The conference confirmed that, while groups like the OPT (founded in 1991) have tried very hard to spin population control in terms of ‘choice’ and ‘environmentalism’, and to move away from that nasty eugenics of old, still some of the dark prejudices lurk beneath the surface. In her welcome address, Sara Parkin, a former leading Green Party activist and OPT patron, set the tone for the day by complaining: ‘There are no Nobel Prizes for preventing births, only for preventing deaths.’ Yes, that is because, call us crazy, mankind has traditionally valued the creation of life over the destruction of it. Perhaps the OPT should set up its own annual Malthus Prize, to be awarded to the man or woman who does most to **shudder** prevent people from having as many children as they choose.

Parkin went on to say that, while death remains a taboo topic, ‘birth is not seen as taboo’. I looked around the audience, desperately hoping to make eye contact with someone, anyone, to whom I might raise an eyebrow as if to say: ‘Oh my God, they actually want to make birth into something shameful, unspeakable, stimagtising!’ But there was nobody. Everyone nodded. Everyone agreed. This is the programme of the OPT: to transform birth into a taboo; to rehabilitate, perhaps, the shame that was heaped on single mums in the 1950s and 60s and apply it to all women (and their partners) who think it is acceptable – even wonderful, they are so deluded – to get pregnant and give birth.

At times, such was the shrill problematisation of birth – especially births amongst ‘them’ – that I felt like I should go home and take a shower. Professor Tim Dyson spoke loftily on ‘The demographic transition’, which is when populations tend to balance out. In Europe and Japan, he said, the demographic transition is largely complete, but it isn’t in West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. He reported that in recent decades, population in Europe has increased by a factor of 2 or 3; in China by 5; in India by 5 or 6; and in some parts of Africa by 11. To illustrate what this means in massive, scary blocks, he put up a powerpoint graph to show what population rises would look like in Russia and Nigeria in the coming decades. In Russia, it would be steady: the graph was a bit wobbly but generally self-contained. In Nigeria it would be exponential: the graph ballooned out like a piece of obese mathematics bursting at its seams. Much like Nigeria itself, apparently. A woman sitting next to me actually gasped, which confirmed at least two things: 1) graphs can make anything look scary, and 2) to these people, this is what new people in Nigeria represent: not individuals with needs and aspirations, or potential problem-solvers, but merely the suckers-up of resources, faceless, nameless blobs on a graph.

Robin Maynard of the Soil Association – sounding like a trendy public-school teacher – said too many people are scared to mention ‘the P-word’ these days in case someone accuses them of being ‘British National Party supporters’ or ‘extreme ignorant racists’. Then he said that if ‘there were to be two more beers per person in China, [then producing that beer] would take the entire Norwegian grain harvest’. I make no judgement. Suffice to say that judging the Friday-night drinking habits of the populous Chinese by the impact they will have on a responsible, sparsely populated Scandinavian country just about sums up the scientific vacuousness, scaremongering and fetishism about everything being finite that run through the veins of the modern Malthusian lobby.

However, this was not simply an old-fashioned demonisation of sexual shenanigans amongst Johnny Foreigners – there were attacks on greedy, breeding, consuming Westerners, too. Professor Andrew Watkinson, director of Living Together with Environmental Change, said the issue is not only how many people there are, but how much they consume. So you could have a similar positive impact on the environment by having ‘one billion fewer people in North America’ as you would by having ‘four billion fewer people in Asia and Africa’, because Americans consume and thus pollute more. A little while later he corrected himself: there are, of course, nowhere near one billion people in North America; ‘I mean one billion people in the developed world’, he said.

I was simply startled that – with the aid of brutalist block graphs once again – billions of people were being wiped out here and there in order to work out how much their disappearance might benefit the planet. Such casual fantasies of destruction; such thoughtlessly whispered dreams of extermination. I felt like standing up and shouting ‘We are not plots on a graph, we are human beings!’, but I thought I might end up the victim of an angry, hands-on population-reduction measure. That this conference could not even see much value in relatively comfortable, frequently happy Western lives – and which in fact sometimes treated Western life as more foul than the lives of the foreign ‘them’ – confirmed that the New Malthusianism is, if anything, even more odious than the old. Old Malthusians treated certain forms of human life – the poor, the foreign, the criminal – as less worthy than others, while the new brigade, newly emboldened by the creed of environmentalism, treats all human life as potentially draining and destructive.

The OPT fancies itself as a rebel group, the only green-leaning gang that dares to utter the P-word. It says ‘saying the unsayable is part of our remit’ (2). In truth, Malthusianism is making a mainstream comeback. It may have changed over time – shaking off the language of ‘eugenics’ and ‘population control’ and replacing it with talk of ‘reproductive choice’ and ‘planetary strain’ – but fear and opposition to population growth is widespread today. Under the heading ‘The Malthusian Question’, the Guardian recently put a classic Malthusian argument: ‘[H]uman numbers continue to swell, at more than 9,000 an hour, 80 million a year… [and meanwhile] land for cultivation is dwindling.’ (3) New Malthusians include everyone from stuffy old royals (Prince Phillip says there are ‘too many people’) to republican commentators (one of whom recently wrote of the ‘swelling billions’). A guest on BBC Radio 3’s polite discussion show Nightwaves recently said ‘I hope we have bird flu or some other thing that will reduce the population’, and no one batted an eyelid (4).

There is one thing that the New and Old Malthusians unmistakably share in common: both make the schoolboy error of treating population growth as the only variant, and everything else – food production, progress, human ingenuity – as fixed entities. That is why every Malthusian, from Malthus himself to Paul Ehrlich to today’s doom-mongering poshos, has been wrong in his dire predictions of collapse: because he didn’t take into account humanity’s creative streak. The OPT, utterly unable to see humans as the potential makers of a better, more fruitful society, says that on its currently existing resources Britain can environmentally sustain between 17million and 27million people, way less than its population of 60million (5). But what if we create more resources? Build more cities? Invest in nuclear? Build factories? I reckon if we did that, Blighty could take around half a billion people. No, that isn’t a ‘scientific fact’; it’s an optimisitc guess.

Leaving the stuffy confines of the Royal Statistical Society, I squeezed into a crowded café for some lunch, relieved to be away from the alien arguments of the alienated elite and instead pressed up against the hungry, seething mass of humanity.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement - Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas - is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked James Heartfield attacked the Optimum Population Trust for seeing people as a plague on the planet. Rob Lyons asked if there were too many people. Frank Furedi confronted the new misanthropy and was unafraid of the population bomb. Daniel Ben-Ami disputed the over-crowded world of ‘Safe Sachs’. Or read more at: spiked issue Environment.

(1) OPT leaflet

(2) OPT leaflet

(3) The Malthusian Question, Guardian, 21 March 2009

(4) Malthusian snobs pray for cure to overpopulation, Brendan O’Neill, The First Post, 14 November 2008

(5) OPT leaflet

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.


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