The return of the population panickers
In 2010, more and more of the supposedly great and good signed up for the misery-fest that is neo-Malthusianism.
2010 was the year good old-fashioned, blame-it-on-the-breeding-masses overpopulation theory re-entered the mainstream. Indeed, such has been the volume of prominent figures willing to mention the ‘great unmentionable’ of overpopulation there’s barely been room for any other viewpoint. There’s just too many bloody Malthusians.
Admittedly, the Something Must Be Done clamour had been building before 2010. In 2008, we had the hyper-intelligent, hyper-unreadable Stephen Hawking telling us there would literally be no room on the planet by 2600. And then of course, in April 2009, Sir David Attenborough came out as an adversary of procreation and promptly joined the Optimum Population Trust. ‘I’ve never seen a problem’, he announced, ‘that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people, or harder, and ultimately impossible, with more’.
But such public statements were just a foretaste of what was to come in 2010. Pro-hunt, pro-posh Otis Ferry, son of fringe-merchant Bryan, got in first with an impossibly obnoxious turn-of-the-year Sunday Times interview: ‘[I] hate the thought of being accused of depriving poor Mrs Punjab of her [right to come here] but we’re all packed on to this tiny island, and I genuinely believe we are maxed out. But no one is brave enough to say there are too many people in this country.’
Otis clearly hadn’t reckoned on the bravery of the Balanced Migration Group. Including amongst their visually prophylactic number the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, self-styled Labour maverick Frank Field and Tory MP Nicholas Soames, these brave public figures bravely argued that there were simply too many people trying to live in Britain. Terrible transport and a dilapidated housing stock were not problems of transport and housing policy, they pointed out (bravely, I might add); no, they were problems of overpopulation. Little wonder that Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting was busy urging us to ‘grasp the nettle of overpopulation’. Grasping nettles! Now that’s what I call bravery, Otis.
Britain was no isolated hotbed of neo-Malthusianism in 2010. In the US, Great American Novelist Jonathan Franzen went so far as to foreground overpopulation in his Great American Novel, Freedom. In an interview this December, he noted that ‘on a bad day, taking a drive and trying to find some place that isn’t covered with sprawl, I feel like we’ve experienced cancerous growth rates. There once were these functioning cities, there was farmland, there was the wild. It seems like there was once some kind of balance. When you see sprawl plotted out on maps, it really has this cancerous look.’
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And over in Australia, the Anglican church was busy asking itself if overpopulating the Earth broke the Tenth Commandment: ‘Out of care for the whole of creation, particularly the poorest of humanity and the life forms who cannot speak for themselves’, announced the General Synod, ‘it is not responsible to stand by and remain silent [on the issue of overpopulation]’.
The whole overpopulation argument appears to make superficial sense: the Earth and its resources are finite, therefore there needs to be a limit on how many people there are. The thing is, this whole notion of finitude is historically illiterate. The development of human societies has seen supposed limits transgressed time and time again. Whether it was the discovery that coal could be used not just for jewellery but for energy creation, or the discovery that uranium had a function besides being used to yellow glass, human history shows that the potential of human productivity to make hithero unprecedented use of the material world is limitless.
That is why, despite the massive population expansion since Thomas Malthus was spinning his ahistorical theory of overpopulation, people’s living standards across the globe have actually improved, not deteriorated. What might have appeared a limit to the eighteenth-century reverend looked like nothing of the sort to his industrial successors.
But then, overpopulation obsessives aren’t interested in the relationship between advances in human productivity and its natural, material substratum. Theirs is not an ideology grounded on a dynamic, explanatory theory. It is an ideology that always emerges on the ground of deeply entrenched societal pessimism, one that seeks to naturalise social and economic problems rather than overcome them. In Britain, for instance, in the aftermath of the First World War and amid signs of Britain’s imperial decline, the nation’s travails were grasped in terms of an expanding population of inferior lower-class types – ‘undesirable births’, as Ernest McBride put it in a 1931 edition of Nature. The politicians concurred: Britain can’t run an A1 empire with a C3 population (medical categories for army recruits) announced the then prime minister David Lloyd George.
For ruling elites unable to envision a better future, breeding always becomes the prism through which their problems are grasped. Demographic determinism stands in for any notion of transforming society, of developing society. It is fatalism writ large. The myth of overpopulation is the sustaining illusion of the defeated, the politically exhausted and the plain miserable. It belongs to those who can see no societal future – and certainly not a better one – except in terms of decline. In 2010, it is still a myth that tells us far more about the ruined worldview of its privileged propagators than it does about any actual population timebomb.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.