The ‘taboo’ they can’t stop talking about

Article after article after article now tells us that human overpopulation of the planet is the Great Unmentionable. Hmm, something doesn’t add up.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Overpopulation is the ‘great unmentionable’ in the debate about climate change, declared the UK Guardian this weekend, in a 2,500-word feature article splashed across three pages.

This followed Sir David Attenborough’s claim last year that talking about overpopulation has become an ‘absurd taboo’, shortly after his decision to join the weird Malthusian sect the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) was covered by the BBC, The Times, the Telegraph, the Belfast Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Sun, and far too many international newspapers to mention. ‘No one is brave enough to say there are too many people…’, said celebrity posho Otis Ferry, son of Bryan, in a full-page spread in The Sunday Times, complete with a massive photo of him in full foxhunting regalia looking both concerned about the human virus infecting Gaia and ‘handsome’ (apparently).

I have a question. If overpopulation is taboo, unmentionable, so inflammably risqué, then why can you not open a newspaper, switch on the box or listen to any one of millions of green activists without hearing someone say: ‘There are too many people’? Overpopulation is in fact the Great Mentionable, the Continually Mentioned, the Mentioned So Frequently It Almost Makes Me Want Me To Do My Own Bit For Population Reduction And Top Myself. Both the mainstreaming of Malthusian thought, and the simultaneous insistence that it is a non-mainstream, out-there, super-brave point of view, reveal much about the pessimism and defensiveness of contemporary eco-thinking.

Taking irony, or perhaps witlessness, to new heights, everywhere one looks these days there is someone saying ‘the planet is overpopulated!’ but ‘no one will talk about it!’. It has become ‘taboo over recent years’ to talk about ‘the population timebomb’, said green activist John Feeney, in yet another article about the population timebomb. ‘Greens need to grasp the nettle: aren’t there just too many people?’, said Madeleine Bunting, in yet another article about greens needing to grasp the nettle of overpopulation. (We must ‘grasp the nettle of overpopulation of the planet’, says another British green; we must ‘grasp the nettle and begin to address population growth directly’, says an American one; we must ‘firmly grasp this nettle of reality’, says a left-leaning journal. With all this nettle-grasping it’s a wonder these people are still capable of using their hands to write yet more articles about the lack of articles on the population timebomb.)

‘Human overpopulation: the taboo topic’, says one headline. ‘The overpopulation taboo’, says another. ‘Population: the great taboo’, says yet another. ‘Overpopulation, the taboo subject at the climate change talks’, said the headline to a piece by Jane Goodall, famous for hanging out with chimps, in reference to the Copenhagen climate summit at the end of last year – the summit at which the vice-minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission of China declared that ‘population control is key to reaching a climate deal’ and who in the process cited the work of Britain’s very own OPT (of ‘overpopulation is an absurd taboo’ fame) and whose comments gave rise to articles in serious publications making seriously demented claims such as: ‘The whole world needs to adopt China’s one-child policy.’

It is time to ‘say the unsayable’ said the Glasgow Herald this month – the unsayable being that there are too many ‘thoughtlessly breeding automatons’. Country Life magazine – read by people who live in parts of Britain with more sheep than people – says we all ‘feel the inconvenience of overpopulation’; for example, ‘we can’t book a clown for little Hannah’s fifth birthday because there are more Hannahs than there are clowns’ (I’m not making this stuff up). And yet, says Country Life, these terrors of overpopulation are ‘unsayable’. Population-reduction campaigners call on greens to start ‘saying the unsayable’. Seriously, how many times can you say that something is unsayable, while also saying the thing that is unsayable, before it becomes ridiculous?

Some people get so carried away with the myth of the taboo of overpopulation that they find themselves lambasting global institutions for not reprimanding those ‘thoughtlessly breeding automatons’ when in fact they do it all the time. The UN is frequently attacked for ‘ignoring overpopulation’ – the same UN which has a wing called the United Nations Population Fund, which has given awards to China’s Ministers for Birth for their efforts in ‘tackling the problem of rapid population growth’, which has overpopulated Africa and Asia with ‘population advisers’, and which holds regular Conferences on Population and Development to discuss how to solve the alleged problem of ‘too many people’. For a taboo and unsayable issue on which not nearly enough work is being done, overpopulation sure gets a lot of funding and airtime.

Overpopulation is not a taboo topic – it is the precise opposite. A taboo is a ‘social or religious custom placing prohibition or restriction on a particular thing or person’. There is absolutely no prohibition, formal or informal, against banging on endlessly about the ‘screaming shit machines’ (as a feminist writer recently described babies, under the headline ‘No more babies, please’) that are apparently overpopulating our planet. The acceptance of overpopulation is now so widespread, so uncritical, such a casual dinner-party prejudice as well as an organising principle of radical activism and global institutions, that the Guardian could recently publish an article about a new campaign allowing wealthy Westerners to offset their carbon emissions by funding population control in the Third World and illustrate it with a photograph of 12 little black babies – and nobody batted an eyelid. No one. Except spiked.

It takes a serious intellectual fist fight to smash a proper taboo and get the ‘thing or person’ being prohibited into the open air of democratic public debate where it can be assessed in a meaningful manner. By contrast, all the population scaremongers need to do is set up a daft website allowing Prince Charles or some other toff to offset his carbon emissions by funding the provision of condoms to the fecund savages of Botswana, and hey presto, they hit the headlines, get a thoughtless thumbs up, and win a shoulder-shrugging nod of approval (if those two movements can be executed at the same time). Far from labouring under a taboo, the idea of overpopulation is one of the most lazily accepted intellectual prejudices of our age.

The rise and rise of neo-Malthusianism speaks to today’s powerful sense of misanthropy and lack of social imagination. Everyone from royals to republican commentators, from feminists to fascists (the neo-fascist BNP says ‘The planet is overpopulated!’), accepts there are too many people. Increasingly, social problems such as poverty and inequality, and practical problems such as pollution, are recast as demographic problems, brought about not by the irrational organisation of society, but by people’s own stupidity and fecundity. So the solution becomes, not to have more debate, more politics, more development and more brainstorming for social leaps forward, but to demonise people who have large families, to make fertility into a new f-word, to cajole people into having fewer children, and to limit freedom and choice rather than expand them.

Yet the neo-Malthusians, despite facing no serious challenge from mainstream thinkers, feel defensive about their arguments. Recognising that Malthusianism has a very chequered history – not only in terms of making wildly incorrect predictions but also in terms of its origins in the racist and eugenics movements of yesteryear – today’s Malthusians present themselves as brave intellectual warriors daring to rescue what look like sullied ideas from the past but which are actually (allegedly) sensible. They have discarded the discredited language of eugenics, the outdated talk of ‘too many little black babies’, and even the seemingly PC but actually duplicitous discussion of ‘family planning’ introduced in the 1960s, and now justify their misanthropic people-bashing in the new language of environmentalism. And of course, presenting themselves as taboo-busters also gives the impression that they’re at the cutting edge of public debate and policymaking when in fact their miserabilism is mainstream.

The craziness of the idea that talking about overpopulation is taboo was brought home to me when I debated Roger Martin, chair of the OPT, in London at the end of last year. Martin introduced his speech by telling the audience he was going to say something shocking, taboo, disturbing, but then, of course, they absolutely lapped up his scare stories about a planet poisoned by too many human beings. When I spoke, they screwed up their faces in horror, shook their heads, and one woman, almost in tears, accosted me at the end to inquire if I was deranged. The ‘taboo-breaker’ (Martin) was cheered; the supposedly ‘mainstream thinker’ (me) was mocked. I know from experience that the true taboo today is saying the world would be a better place if we stopped viewing all our problems as natural or demographic and gave people absolutely unfettered freedom to make their own reproductive choices. Now, who wants to grasp that nettle?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. 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).)

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

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