It does often seem as if the planet is overpopulated… by Malthusians. It often seems as if hardly a day goes by without some public figure declaring that the human population needs to be curbed.
At Davos last month, environmental campaigner Al Gore once again called for the imposition of ‘fertility management’ in Africa. The unashamedly Malthusian campaign group, Population Matters (PM), spoke out in favour of cutting benefits for families who had more than two children because ‘the single biggest thing you can do for the planet is to have a smaller family’. And PM patron David Attenborough continues to insist, in interview after interview, that fecund human beings are a ‘plague upon the Earth’.
The optimism in the most recent annual letter from Bill and Melinda Gates, then, comes as a breath of fresh air. In Three myths that block progress for the poor, the Gates celebrate human potential and do not pull their punches when it comes to Malthusian misanthropists (they also criticise the idea that ‘Foreign aid is a big waste’ but, in this instance, two out of three ain’t bad).
‘By almost any measure’, their letter begins, ‘the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives. Extreme poverty rates have been cut in half in the past 25 years. Child mortality is plunging.’
And yet, the Gateses assert, ‘at international conferences and at social gatherings’ they repeatedly hear from politicians and CEOs that things are getting worse. ‘[This reflects] a dim view of the future, one that says the world isn’t improving but staying poor and sick, and getting overcrowded.’