Sometimes it’s easy to allow yourself to think that Malthusianism, the idea that human populations grow like a virus devouring the earth, is only the preserve of buffoons like birdwatcher Bill Oddie and the Duke of Edinburgh. A few weeks ago, Oddie told BBC1’s Sunday Morning Live that British families’ breeding habits had to be ‘contained’ to stem overpopulation. The press and social-media users met Oddie’s statement with the ridicule it deserved. And back in 1988, Prince Philip was similarly lampooned when he said he hoped to be reincarnated as a lethal virus so that he could kill off some of the glut of humanity.
But something comes along every now and then to show that such odious ideas are not confined to the ramblings of clueless old cranks like Bill and Phil. This week, the Malthusians once again reared their ugly baby-hating heads with a new study published by two professors, hailing from the largely unpopulated country of Australia. Even by the standards of apocalyptic, Malthusian scaremongering, this report was something special.
Professor Corey Bradshaw of the University of Adelaide and Professor Barry Brook of the University of Tasmania, who both specialise in studying animal populations, argue in the report that the ‘growing and over-consuming human population, especially the increasing affluent component, is rapidly eroding many of the Earth’s natural ecosystems’. They see many positive social developments as major problems, namely longer life expectancies, lower infant-mortality rates and increased living standards. They argue that these have put an incredible strain on resources and that, if humans are anything like every other species on earth, we’re heading for trouble, perhaps even extinction. The panicked tone of the report was reflected in some of the coverage, with a write-up in the Guardian stating: ‘Bringing children into the world is an act of such environmental destructiveness that it requires mitigating.’
In his 1992 book, The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey outlined how the aloof, intellectual elite has fantasised about world wars and global pandemics coming along to thin the herd since the Victorian era. However, this new study warns that even if such Malthusian fantasies were to come true they would do little to slow down the ‘inexorable’ growth of humanity. The authors also lament that even a globally enforced one-child policy would do little to stabilise human populations before the end of the twenty-first century. Their answer to this perceived problem is to attack humanity on all fronts: female fertility must be curtailed globally, they argue, and for those of us already born, we must rein in our consumption habits. They believe this will lead to ‘hundreds of millions fewer people to feed’ by the end of this century.
Like so many Malthusians before them, Bradshaw and Brook mistake the problem of underdevelopment for the problem of overpopulation. As has been pointed out elsewhere, media coverage of overpopulation in the West is often adorned with images of foreign-looking poor people in very cramped environments. Pictures of people clinging to clapped-out, overcrowded trains are particularly popular. Such images show perfectly the flawed logic of population panickers. When a Malthus-minded individual looks at such an image they see too many people, not too few trains. And so it goes with the Australian professors’ desire to have ‘hundreds of millions fewer people to feed’. They do not see the problem of food shortages in some parts of the world as a problem of implementing the development necessary for a modern economy and modern agriculture, but rather one of too many mouths to feed.