Our brave new world of Malthusian madmen

Much of the wacky authoritarianism of twentieth-century dystopian literature is now coming to life, from the promotion of homosexuality as a check on population growth to the celebration of childfree women as superior to ‘breeders’.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Reading an op-ed in an American newspaper last month, which argued that gay marriage should be legalised because it will help reduce overpopulation (homosexuals don’t breed, you see), I knew I had heard a similar sentiment somewhere before.


Cover illustration by
Jan Bowman

‘Given the social hardships of our era, the benefits of homosexual marriage could be immeasurable’, the op-ed said. ‘Even America, though its population pales in comparison to that of other nations, is considered overpopulated because the amount of energy each of its citizens expends in a lifetime is enormous. Obviously homosexuals cannot, within the confines of a monogamous relationship, conceive offspring.’ So, legalising gay marriage would ‘indirectly limit population growth’ (1).

Gays celebrated because they don’t have children… homosexual relationships culturally affirmed on the basis that their childlessness could help solve a planetary crisis… gay monogamy bigged up because it doesn’t involve conceiving offspring. Where had I heard such ideas before? Why did this promotion of homosexual relationships as a possible solution to the alleged problem of fertile, fecund heteros cramming the world with too many ankle-nippers sound familiar?

Then it struck me. It’s the storyline of Anthony Burgess’s Malthusian comedy-cum-nightmare, The Wanting Seed. In that 1962 dystopian novel, which I devoured during a Burgess phase in my teens, Burgess imagines a future England in which overpopulation is rife. There’s a Ministry of Infertility that tries desperately to keep a check on the gibbering masses squeezed into skyscraper after skyscraper, and it does so by demonising heterosexuality – it’s too fertile, too full of ‘childbearing lust’ – and actively promoting homosexuality.

It’s a world where straights are discriminated against because there’s nothing more disgusting and destructive than potential fertility, than a ‘full womanly figure’ or a man with ‘paternity lust’; straights are passed over for jobs and promotion in favour of homos, giving rise to a situation where some straights go so far as to pretend they are gay, adopting the ‘public skin of dandified epicene’, as Burgess describes it, in a desperate bid to make it in the world. There’s even a Homosex Institute, which runs night classes that turn people gay, all with the aim of reducing the ‘aura of fertility’ that hangs about society like a rank smell, as one official says. ‘It’s Sapiens to be Homo’ is the slogan of Burgess’s imagined world.

Now, nearly 50 years after Burgess’s novel outraged literary critics (one said it was ‘too offensive to finish’) as well as campaigners for the decriminalisation of homosexual sex (who were disgusted that Burgess could write of a homosexual tyranny while it was still illegal in Britain for one man to have sex with another), some of the sentiments of that weird invented world, of that fertility-demonising futuristic nightmare, are leaking into mainstream public debate – to the extent that a writer can claim, without igniting controversy, that ‘the benefits of homosexual marriage could be immeasurable’ in terms of dealing with the ‘social hardships’ of overpopulation. No, heteros are not discriminated against in favour of gays; there’s no Homosex Institute. But there is a creeping cultural validation of homosexuality in Malthusian terms, where the gay lifestyle is held up by some thinkers and activists as morally superior because it is less likely to produce offspring than the heterosexual lifestyle, in which every sexual encounter involves recklessly pointing a loaded gun of sperm at a willing and waiting target.

And this is not an isolated incident; Burgess is not the only imaginer of mad Malthusian worlds whose ideas have come to some kind of fruition. Such is the Malthusian tenor of our times, so deep-seated is the New Malthusian prejudice against fertility (the f-word of our era), and so widespread is the eco-view of human beings as little more than the hooverers-up of scarce resources, that bit by bit, unwittingly and unnoticed, some of the wackier authoritarian ideas of twentieth-century Malthus-infused literature are finding expression in our real world today.

The Wanting Seed was described as ‘perverse’ when it first appeared in the 1960s. Well, what could be more perverse than a world in which homosexuality is ruthlessly elevated over heterosexuality in the name of combating mass fecundity? Yet today, a columnist for the Guardian, the newspaper of choice of Britain’s chattering class, can argue that ‘in a world of diminishing assets, being gay is arguably more moral than being straight’, since ‘reproduction has a demonstrable impact on the welfare of others [through its] depletion of resources’ (2). This is precisely what the psychos running Burgess’s future England say – we’re facing a ‘planetary crisis’ in which ‘resources are running out’, and so men must be encouraged to ‘Love Your Fellow-Men… anything to divert sex from its natural end’. Yesterday’s mischievous imaginings of an author determined to shock and to stir are now the normal ideas of the liberal elite, consumed by Guardian readers alongside their muesli.

Burgess’s novel tells the story of Tristram and Beatrice-Joanna Foxe, husband and wife who live in a depressing world governed by the Population Police, where the rule is that you are allowed ‘one birth per family’ – ‘Alive or dead. Singleton, twins, triplets. It makes no difference.’ The Bible is banned (it’s an ‘old religious book full of smut’) and there are pro-contraception posters everywhere, advising people ‘Take a tablet instead of a risk’ (pre-empting today’s government propaganda warning of the risks of so-called unsafe sex).

The product of the Foxes’ ‘one birth’, a boy, dies, and they have to take his carcass to the Ministry of Agriculture (Phosphorus Reclamation Department) so that he can be buried in open ground for the benefit of Mother Earth. ‘Think of this in national terms, in global terms’, an agricultural apparatchik tells the grieving Beatrice-Joanna. ‘One mouth less to feed. One more half-kilo of phosphorus pentoxide to nourish the earth.’ (Today, green-minded people are increasingly opting to be buried coffinless in the ground, likewise in order to ‘nourish the earth’.)

Tristram is a schoolteacher constantly passed over for promotion because he’s straight and has, as his boss tells him, that unfortunate ‘aura of fertility’ that the Malthusian rulers so hate. A succession of ‘power-struck little Nancys’ (as Tristram calls them during an unwise outburst) are promoted before him. Tristram’s brother Derek is also straight, though he successfully masquerades as gay, carrying out a ‘superb mime of orthodox homosexual behaviour’, and is promoted to the top of the Population Police as a result. Yet he’s having a secret, very straight affair with Tristram’s wife, Beatrice-Joanna, and she ends up pregnant by Derek – her second birth – just as society is spinning further out of control and just as Derek’s Population Police decide to take more decisive and deranged action against anyone who breaks the fertility laws. Most of the pop police are gay, of course, but don’t be fooled by their effete violence – which is ‘swift, balletic, laughing… more tickling than hitting’: it still leaves any transgressors of the rules of this topsy-turvy world, such as a priest who yells ‘unnatural lot of bastards!’ at a gang of camp coppers, injured and bloodied.

Of course, in 2010, we don’t have a gay police force that beats up priests; heterosexuality is not outlawed; we don’t have a situation where ‘the homos virtually run this country’, as a character in Burgess’s novel says. But we do increasingly see an intellectual celebration of homosexuality not on the basis that men and women should be absolutely free to choose who they have sex and cohabit with, not on the basis of personal autonomy; but rather on the basis that homosexuality, being a generally infertile relationship, could be a useful tool for tackling the alleged overpopulation that is so feverishly imagined and fretted over by elite elements. So alongside the respectable American and British commentators arguing that being gay is more moral than being straight, others now call for the legalisation of homosexuality in African countries on the grounds that ‘those who decide not to breed become valuable members of society because they reduce the pressure on population’ (3).

Such is the mean-spiritedness of our age, such is the anti-breeding outlook amongst our moral betters who, like Malthus, erroneously believe that we have created too many people for nature to be able to sustain, that some of today’s supposedly liberal and tolerant celebrations of homosexuality make Burgess’s invented gay Malthusians seem almost level-headed by comparison. Psychology Today, the bible of the head-investigating medical elite, can now publish a piece arguing that ‘in an overpopulated world, it would be a good thing if there were more homosexuality’ (4). An American pyschologist has even said that we should try to ‘mass-produce homosexuality in a world overpopulated by breeding couples’ (5). Sociobiologists seek to counter anti-gay religious fundamentalists by arguing that ‘under some circumstances, such as overpopulation, homosexuality can contribute to overall species enhancement’ (6).

‘Overall species enhancement’… whatever happened to the old libertarian argument that men should be free to sleep with men, and women with women, because it is none of the state’s business what people do in their private lives? Now, it seems, gays are charged with protecting the world from the fallout of fecundity, their private choices transformed into super-politicised, species-saving decisions.

The upper echelons of the radical gay movement – not ordinary homosexuals but their self-styled representatives – have in recent years adopted these Malthusian arguments as a justification for their existence. Some gay activists refer to straight people as ‘breeders’ (7); it’s intended as an insult, of course, and it works as an insult because of the intellectual context in which it is used: a contemporary climate of discomfort with the ‘aura of fertility’ and with breeding itself. (As one of the gays says to another in The Wanting Seed, ‘You and me, we’re supposed to be above that sort of thing, huh?’.) As one modern writer on the meaning of motherhood has argued, there has since the 1970s been an alignment between gay liberation movements and ‘a growing ecology movement and concerns about overpopulation’, and ‘seen from this perspective, heterosexuals are sometimes denigratingly referred to as “breeders” who conspicuously consume the world’s limited resources whereas non-reproductive homosexuality is considered environmentally friendly’ (8).

What these modern thinkers don’t realise is that they are not only unwittingly playing out the warped morality of Burgess’s people-hating world – they are also echoing Thomas Malthus himself, that granddaddy of the population-control movement, whose Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) is the seed from which so much of today’s eco-misanthropy springs. Malthus also discussed ‘preventive checks’ on population growth, and one of them was homosexuality – it’s just that, as a reverend, he considered homosexuality to be a vice and therefore not an ideal way of stopping the poor from spawning yet more poor. He did, however, allegedly approve of homosexuality amongst African slaves being shipped to the New World on the basis that it would help to limit their numbers, racist lowlife that he was (9). What today’s Malthusian rather than libertarian champions of homosexual rights share in common with Malthus, and indeed with Burgess’s truncheon-wielding balletic cops, is a mindset so consumed by a nightmarish view of the baby-making masses that they can only conceive of homosexuality as a ‘preventive check’ – a preventive check on the breeders, on out-of-control humanity, on ‘proletarius, meaning those that serve the State with their offspring or proles’, as a character in The Wanting Seed says.

Not only is this a libel against the fertile, who are insanely depicted as the destroyers of the earth, as if every problem in modern society is the product of men and women’s reproductive choices rather than of social incoherence. It also denigrates homosexuals themselves, elbowing aside the libertarian argument for the right of people to pursue whatever sex lives they desire in favour of treating gays as instrumentalist objects, as ‘preventive checks’, whose sex lives become imbued with super-morality. Homosexuals become, not individuals with autonomy, but useful devices for offsetting the ‘social hardships’ of alleged overpopulation (10). The old moralistic judgment of homosexuality as a sin against God is replaced with a trendy-sounding eco-judgement of heterosexual fertility as a sin against the planet. The end result of both outlooks is similar, however – people’s choices are subjected to the scrutiny and raised eyebrows of an external, miserabilist morality police. It’s just that where yesterday’s Bible-moralists thought we should only have sex in order to produce children, today’s Malthus-moralists would prefer it if we never had sex in order to produce children. Perhaps they’d like it if we all wore ‘Malthusian belts’, like the women in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

It isn’t only Burgess whose nightmarish Malthusianism has poked its nose into reality – elements of Huxley’s nightmares (published in 1932) can also be glimpsed here in 2010. Set in 2540 AD, Huxley’s is a world in which babies are created in laboratories (hence the irritating tendency of today’s anti-choice lobby to describe every reproductive breakthrough as a ‘brave new world’) and where Malthusians rule the roost. Seventy per cent of female fetuses are injected with male hormones in order to make them infertile, to make them into ‘freemartins’ – women who are truly free, and truly beneficial to a Malthusian society, because they can never get pregnant (although on the downside, ‘they do have the slightest tendency to grow beards’). The other 30 per cent of the female population can get pregnant in very strict conditions, but the rest of the time they must wear a ‘Malthusian belt’ (a belt packed with various contraceptives) and submit to regular ‘Malthusian drills’ at which they are reminded of the urgency of always taking their contraception. The slogan in 2540 AD is ‘Sterilisation Is Civilisation’.

Since they are childless not through choice but in the name of a greater State ideal – keeping population levels down – the freemartins tend to be insufferable. They consider themselves superior to the other women, especially the lower orders that continue breeding (‘They’re having children all the time. Like dogs. It’s too revolting’, says one freemartin). Is it really a great leap of the imagination to see these freemartins reflected – I said reflected, that’s all – in today’s very real and increasingly vocal Childfree Movement, which also celebrates childlessness and even sterilisation (though voluntary) as a preventive check on overpopulation? The Childfree Movement’s slogan might not be ‘Sterilisation is Civilisation’, but many of them definitely believe that self-sterilisation is civilised.

Where the freemartins of 2540 AD are recognisable through their lack of a Malthusian belt – since they are sterilised/civilised – today’s Childfree activists can mark themselves out with anti-fertility t-shirts. In America, the Childfree by Choice movement argues that the most ‘valid reasons’ for being childfree are ‘overpopulation, living with a smaller footprint on the planet, and not wanting to raise fodder for the war machine’ (11). It sells t-shirts that say ‘Kids? No way! I’m having a life instead’; ‘Thank you for not breeding’; ‘Cats not brats’; and ‘Deeds not seeds’ (the wanting seed indeed). Some Childfree activists opt for sterilisation in the name of keeping a personal check (being one of Malthus’s ‘preventive checks’?) on overpopulation. They claim that ‘having children is about maintaining your genetic line at the expense of the planet’ (12). One US-based Childfree campaign group even discusses the problem of ‘breeders’ brains’, which apparently have a glaring ‘lack of concern for the environment’ (13). They don’t call breeders ‘dogs’, like Huxley’s freemartins do, but they aren’t far off.

Of course, for more than 40 years now women have been challenging the institution of marriage and the expectation that they should have a certain number of children by a certain age. Women tend to have children later in life, or don’t have any at all. And if you are pro-choice (which I am), then of course that means supporting a woman’s right to choose to have no kids or nine kids. The clue is in the title: choice. However, in taking on the Malthusian outlook, in wrapping their decisions in the language of ‘saving the planet’, the Childfree movement specifically becomes something quite different – it does become freemartin-ish, conceiving of itself as morally superior to breeders, and conceiving of breeders as reckless and destructive.

In her book Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness, American academic Elaine Tyler May traces how feminists shifted from using the world ‘childless’ to the slightly Orwellian-sounding newspeak word ‘childfree’, because the term childless ‘implies that one’s natural state is to have children’ (14). She also looks at how more and more Childfree activists adopted the neo-Malthusian outlook – taking on various ‘population and environmental concerns’ – as a justification for their decisions (15). Influenced by the writings of Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb (1968), being Childfree came to be seen as a form of planetary activism, not just different to but also morally superior to breeding, as surely as it is in The Wanting Seed and Brave New World.

Similar to the wrapping up of aspects of gay radical activism in Malthusian lingo, what the merging of feministic voluntary childlessness and overpopulation concerns really demonstrates is the weakness of liberationist politics and the ascendancy of social pessimism. Unable to justify childlessness in terms of choice, in terms of individual autonomy, in the language of rights and aspirations, many Childfree activists instead dress it up in a political outlook that does still have purchase today, and increasing purchase at that: neo-Malthusianism. Wrenched from the world of freedom of choice and plunged into the pit of actions necessary to protect the world from thoughtless breeders, the Childfree outlook does come to echo the freemartin outlook, Huxley’s ‘female warriors’ against population growth (though presumably Childfree activists don’t have ‘that slight tendency to grow beards’).

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Malthusian literature seems to be impressing on contemporary society. For modern Malthusianism is itself a work of fiction. I mean literally. It is a work of fiction not only in the sense that, as I have argued before on spiked, its adherents and promoters are always wrong about everything and seem to make things up as they go along – but also in the sense that it springs in very large part from actual fiction, from explicit attempts by influential modern Malthusians, such as Paul Ehrlich, to use fiction to transmit their concerns to the public.

Ehrlich is best known for his 1968 book The Population Bomb (which got everything wrong). It is less widely known now that he wrote a dramatised version of that book, a fictionalised account, called Ecocatastrophe (1969). And as The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature says, after Ecocatastrophe was published, ‘similar images of future social collapse became commonplace’: ‘Literary accounts of desperate holding actions multiplied with equal rapidity, producing a rich spectrum of futurological horror stories.’ (16) Ehrlich’s sinister Zero Population Growth movement (or ZPG as the trendy Seventies misanthropes called it) ‘attempted to make strategic use of dystopian fiction’ as a way of promoting its misanthropic population-panicking (17). It published an anthology of Malthusian science fiction called Voyages: Scenarios for a Ship Called Earth (1971), which inspired a veritable industry of overpopulation-concerned sci-fi novels and movies in the 1970s, which in turn helped to energise, reshape and refocus the real-world Malthusian movement itself. And guess what? Many of these 1970s sci-fi mish-mashes of Malthusian ‘fact’ and fiction were inspired by Huxley and by Sixties novelists, too – like Burgess. Neo-Malthusianism springs, not from scientific fact or evidence of human overpopulation, but from the caliginous minds of cut-off misanthropes influenced both by Malthus and Huxley’s dystopia. The theory of overpopulation remains the wild, fictional imagining of a cultural elite removed from, and disgusted by, the rest of us – the proles, the breeders, the straights, the scum.

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

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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