Who’s afraid of billions of people?

In the run-up to the UN’s World Population Day, spiked argues against all attempts to cajole, coerce or convince people into having fewer kids.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Science & Tech

It is UN World Population Day on Saturday 11 July, when various United Nations bodies will try to convince us that population growth is the cause of much of the planet’s economic and environmental crises. Here, we publish an edited version of a speech given by spiked editor Brendan O’Neill in London on 3 July, in which he argued against all attempts to curb human numbers.

Today, I want to argue that there should be absolutely no limits on population growth and no attempt whatsoever to cajole, coerce or convince people into having fewer children. I hope that in my lifetime the human population on Earth will reach the tens of billions, and it will not be a problem if, in the future, it rises to hundreds of billions.

The reason I say this is because our attitudes to the population level fundamentally reflect our attitudes to human ingenuity. The population debate is frequently dressed up in demographic and scientific clothing, but really it is a political issue, reflecting different political attitudes. Where you stand on population today tells us a lot about where you stand on the idea of progress, of civilisation, and of humanity itself.

It’s worth asking what drives the population-control and population-reduction lobby. These people have been around for a few centuries and their arguments have changed over time. For one of the first population scaremongers, Thomas Malthus in the eighteenth century, the main problem was that if too many people were born then there wouldn’t be enough food to feed them. He vastly underestimated the ability of industrialised society to create more and more food.

In the early twentieth century there was a racial and eugenic streak to population-reduction arguments: some claimed that there were too many Africans and Asians, who might weaken the power of white European nations.

More recently, the population-control lobby has adopted environmentalist arguments. It now says that too many people are demanding too much of Mother Earth, using up all of her resources and destroying her biodiversity. Some greens even refer to humans as a ‘plague on the planet’ and a ‘pathogenic organism’. In other words, humanity is a disease making the planet Earth sick.

The fact that the presentational arguments of the population-reduction lobby can change so fundamentally over time, while the core belief in ‘too many people’ remains the same, really shows that this is a political outlook in search of a social or scientific justification. It is an already-existing prejudice, held by certain kinds of people, which looks around for the latest trendy or respectable ideas to clothe itself in.

It is time we questioned, if not demolished, some of the supposedly respectable ideas that today’s Malthusians surround themselves with. There are three areas in particular I want to look at: the question of resources, the question of space, and the idea that human numbers cause poverty and destitution.

First on resources: the argument frequently made by Malthusians is that there is a fixed, finite amount of resources on this ball of gas and water that we call Earth, and that if the human population reaches a certain number then those resources will be all used up.

This is a deeply disingenuous depiction of what a resource is. There is little fixed about resources. The question of what is a resource and what isn’t a resource changes over time, depending on the level of development reached by any particular human society.

Resources are not some numerically measurable thing; they have a history and a future. For example, for much of human history the oceans were considered a terrible obstacle. People looked at them as barriers, as the unpredictable destroyers of human communities; the most they dared to do was live on the coastlines of seas and oceans. But when humans reached a higher level of technological and social development, really from the sixteenth century onwards, the oceans came to be seen as a means of travel and a deep well of resources. Today we travel across the oceans and fish and mine within them for food and oil.

Similarly, coal was previously seen as the key resource for Western industrialised societies. Now it is seen as less important. However, it is still important for a developing society like China. The nature of that resource has changed. Likewise, for the vast majority of human history, uranium was not a serious resource. There was very little that people could do with it. Ancient human communities, going back 2,000 years, used uranium to make glass look more yellow. That was all! Today, in our potential nuclear age, uranium can be used to create vast amounts of light and energy and to power whole cities.

Resources are not in any serious sense fixed; their discovery and usage depends on the nature of society itself. Who knows what we will consider to be a resource in the future? Who knows how much further we can push our use of uranium or when we will discover that other elements, too, might transform human existence?

On space, it is simply not true that the Earth is overcrowded, as you will frequently hear Malthusians argue. Humans inhabit only tiny parts of this planet.

Take Britain as an example. Lots of people, from environmentalists to the British National Party, describe Britain as overcrowded, with too many people, too many migrants, too many chavs, or whatever your prejudice is.

In fact, only about seven to eight per cent of Britain is ‘settled’ – that is, only about seven to eight per cent is built environment. Forty-six per cent of British land is used for agriculture (and much of this could be done far more intensively), 29 per cent of it is semi-natural, and 11 or 12 per cent of it is woodland. There is plenty more space in Britain for more people, if we were serious about building new cities across the country.

On a worldwide scale, one American writer has estimated that you could fit every human being on Earth into the Former Yugoslavia, where they could live quite comfortably. This planet is not remotely overcrowded. With the right vision and determination, and with a view of resources not as finite things that don’t really belong to us but as elements we should fully explore and exploit, we could comfortably multiply the current human population 100 times over.

Then there is the idea that human numbers cause poverty or destitution. Not only is this wrong, it is also one of the most poisonous arguments of the Malthusian lobby. Some of the most populous places in the world – for example California – are wealthy, healthy and happy, while some of the most sparsely populated places – to take a European example: Ireland – remain relatively poor and largely dependent on EU handouts. A very crowded place like Manhattan can thrive, while parts of Sudan with relatively small numbers of people experience poverty and hunger.

The nonsense of focusing on human numbers alone can be seen if you take an historical example like the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s: one of the first human tragedies when it was widely argued that overpopulation was the problem. Many said that two million people starved to death because there were too many of them and not enough potatoes: simple maths. In fact, this ignores the powerful political and social factors that contributed to the famine: it was not Ireland’s population levels but its subservient role as a British colony that caused and intensified the famine.

Today, too, those who discuss famine and deaths from poverty as being caused by overpopulation are really – quite disgracefully – letting society itself off the hook and distracting attention away from the actions of governments that are incapable of coming up with serious solutions to social and developmental problems. They are effectively blaming people’s own breeding habits, their fecundity, for bringing on hunger and destitution. The habit of presenting fixable social problems as demographic disasters is one of the most backward trends in contemporary public debate. And this is the fatal distraction of Malthusianism: it diverts people’s attention away from arguments and visions for overhauling society and towards the supposed catch-all solution of reducing human numbers.

So if the resource and space arguments are nonsense, and the overpopulation-equals-poverty argument is a massive distraction, what really drives the population-control outlook? I would say that what is really finite is not resources, but the Malthusians’ faith in humanity. It is that which is running out and drying up.

For them, another human being is never anything more than ‘another mouth to feed’. ‘Each year in Africa brings another 10million mouths to feed’, they argue (1). Yet human beings are not simply the burping, biological users of resources; they are also the discoverers of resources, the creators of resources, the makers of communities, cities, history. A human being is not only a mouth that must be filled but a brain that can think and a pair of hands that can work. Today’s Malthusians have the temerity to present their own finite faith in people as something scientific, despite the fact that their ‘facts’ don’t add up: Malthus was wrong when he said people would starve to death as a result of population growth running ahead of food production; so were the 1970s population-controllers who said massive famines would sweep the populous Third World and wipe out millions.

If you want to know what really motivates Malthusians, behind all the science and the big numbers, then consider the words of one of the best-known contemporary population scaremongers, Paul Ehrlich, a professor of population studies in America and patron of the Optimum Population Trust. In the 1970s, he put forward various theories about population levels. And in 1971, during a visit to New Delhi, he wrote the following:

‘The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, the dust, noise, heat and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get to our hotel…? Since that night I have known the feel of overpopulation.’ (2)

That is what really lies behind Malthusianism: not any science of overpopulation, but the feel of it, campaigners’ own warped sense that there are simply too many ‘people, people, people’, especially over there in the hot dusty Third World. Anyone who thinks people are a good thing rather than a menace, and who believes humans can find solutions to our problems if we put our minds to it, should reject the population-control argument and make the case for full freedom of choice on reproductive matters.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. This is an edited version of a speech he gave at the Debating Matters final in London on 3 July, in a debate with Adrian Stott of the Optimum Population Trust. For more on this debate, and on the issue of overpopulation, visit the WORLDbytes TV channel.

Previously on spiked

Adrian Stott of the Optimum Population Trust explained why we need population reduction. Frank Furedi asked why the British elite is so scared of babies?. 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 Population.

(1) Blood of innocent on his hands, Michela Wrong, New Statesman, 11 April 2005

(2) Quoted in Ignore this missive from our downbeat doctors, by Frank Furedi

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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