A prejudice in search of a scientific disguise

The Royal Society’s two-year study of population seems to have already decided that there are ‘too many people’.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

The Royal Society in London, the prestigious, 350-year-old scientific institution, is launching a major study into the alleged problem of overpopulation. It will spend two years and thousands of pounds employing a working group to find out what is likely to be the impact of the twentieth century’s unprecedented growth in human numbers on politics, economics and the pursuit of ‘sustainable development’.

RS, take a tip from me, a friendly critic: in this era of belt-tightening, save yourselves loads of time and oodles of cash by simply writing down and press-releasing the following words: ‘Overpopulation is NOT the cause of social or economic problems.’

I’m not being a philistine. I’m not opposed to having big, deep, profound studies into the issues that impact, or don’t impact, on society. But when it comes to evidence for the fact that overpopulation is not the driving force for social disarray, there is already an embarrassment of riches.

There’s the fact that life has improved for the vast majority of humanity even as population has grown exponentially. When the original population scaremonger Thomas Malthus (a member of the Royal Society, funnily enough) predicted in the 1790s that if people didn’t stop breeding then ‘premature death would visit mankind’ – that there would be ‘food shortages, epidemics, pestilence and plagues’ which would ‘sweep off tens of thousands [of people]’ – there were a mere 980million human beings on Earth. Today, there are nearly seven times that number – 6.7 billion – and while there are still problems of poverty and hunger, especially in parts of the Third World, for most of us living standards and life expectancy have leapt forward.

In China, for example, there are now more people than there were on the entire planet in the era of Malthus, and yet their lot is better than it was for most of the unfortunate souls alive in the 1790s. In 1949, the population of China was 540million and average life expectancy was 36.5 years; today the population of China is 1.3 billion and average life expectancy is 73.4 years. And there are now six times as many cities in China (655) as there were five decades ago and around 235million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty in the past 15 years alone. All in the most populous nation on Earth. Where there are more ‘mouths to feed’ on a daily basis than there were across the entire globe in the period of Malthus’s food-shortage panicmongering. Clearly there is something other than human numbers which determines people’s fortunes.

There is also the fact that it is often people in the most overpopulated parts of the planet who have the nicest lives. Take Manhattan. There are 1.7million people crammed on to that tiny island and their lifestyles are the envy of millions of people around the world (including me). Yet in Africa, which is far more sparsely populated than some would have us believe, there are still major problems of poverty and malnutrition. Despite the claims of cranky outfits like the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) – which has argued that in order ‘for the whole planet to avoid the fate of Rwanda, Malthusian thinking needs rehabilitation’ (nice) – Africa actually contains 11 of the world’s 20 least densely populated nations. And some of these not-very-densely populated African countries have severe social problems. It’s not human numbers that cause them; it’s something else, something social and therefore eminently fixable.

Unfortunately, however, despite the rich factual, anecdotal and theoretical evidence that human numbers do not determine human beings’ fortunes, it seems unlikely that the Royal Society’s ‘comprehensive study’ will come to this conclusion. Because this smells a lot like advocacy research rather than actual research – that is, it’s an already-existing conclusion in search of supporting facts, rather than an exploration of facts in the name of reaching some open-ended, enlightening conclusion.

So the RS working group contains not one, but two leading members of the OPT: Jonathon Porritt, who has sung the praises of China’s one-child policy because without it ‘there would now have been 400million additional Chinese citizens’; and David Attenborough, who says he has ‘never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people and which doesn’t become harder to solve when more people are involved’. (Er, what about building dams? Or launching revolutions? Or building gleaming new cities? All those things are better done with more people rather than fewer. These Malthusians seem ignorant of the fact that human society has advanced more in the past 200 years than it did in the previous 20,000, precisely when there was an ‘explosion’ of people. That sweeping progress both created the scope for having more people, while at the same time being facilitated by those increased numbers of people.)

Even the supposedly sedate and objective chair of the working group – Sir John Sulston of human genome fame – said at the launch of the study that if we don’t get to grips with ‘where we are going in relation to population’, then ‘we may survive but we won’t flourish’. The difficulty of being properly objective on this issue in our era of widespread, unquestioned, utterly conformist neo-Malthusianism was captured in the media coverage of the RS’s announcement. ‘Population explosion scrutinised as scientists urge politicians to act‘, screamed the Independent, next to a picture of lots of people on a crowded high street. ‘The human population is far higher than any other primate at any time in history’, said the BBC, next to a picture of thousands of people at a rock gig (hard evidence, surely, that the planet is overpopulated).

Given the Malthusian affiliations of some of the members of the working group, the scary-sounding pronouncements of its chairman, and the pre-emptive expectation of the media that this study will find that there has been an ‘explosion’ of human primates who are causing all manner of ecological disasters, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is an exercise in dressing up the trendy prejudice that the planet is swarming with too many people in some pseudo-scientific garb. It’s a search for serious-sounding Facts, with a capital F, with which the Malthusians marauding through the corridors of power and influence might make their prejudices sound a bit more profound and a little less prejudiced. I hope I’m wrong. But the signs aren’t good.

The rise and rise of neo-Malthusianism is one of the most depressing trends of our age. It captures, above all, the severe lack of social and cultural and political imagination today. In essence, influential people’s inability to imagine new ways of organising society, or new ways of delivering affluence and plenty to humankind, leads them to view all problems as a consequence of there being limited, finite resources and too many bloody human beings hoovering them up. Miserabilist mathematics takes the place of social experimentation and debate. In truth, the real problem today is the limits that have been imposed on human thinking and ambition, the sustainability-obsessed straitjacket we have all been forced in to. Once we wriggle free from these intellectual handcuffs, who knows, we might find that there is no limit to how many people we can have on this planet, or to how full and free and satisfying their lives can be.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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