The definitive guide to modern-day Malthusians

With the human population heading towards seven billion, spiked challenges the miserabilists who say this is a Very Bad Thing.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

This year the human population will reach seven billion. And probably the same number of newspaper column inches will be filled with Malthusian cant. We can expect everyone from unreconstructed population-controllers to trendy-sounding greens to fret out loud about the swarm of people now raiding Mother Nature’s allegedly sparse larder. Already National Geographic has kicked off a year of commentary on the seventh billion human by asking, ‘Can the planet take the strain?’. The New York Times says we could be facing our ‘Wile E Coyote moment’: ‘over the cliff but not realising it yet’.

Malthusians are multiplying like rabbits. They’re everywhere. In respectable Western society you can’t swing a bat without hitting a Malthus-inspired misery guts. Yet while many of them are happy to talk openly about the plague of people making Gaia sick, some don’t consider themselves Malthusians at all. There are old-style Malthusians who doom-monger about frenzied fecundity in the dusty Over There, and newer Malthusians-in-denial who never, ever use the words ‘population’ and ‘control’ in succession, yet who still claim that humanity’s consumption habits threaten to bring about eco-doom.

Either way, the Malthusian attitude – the idea that every problem we face is a product of our temerity to try to live beyond nature’s means – is rampant today, whether it labels itself Malthusianism or something less likely to get people’s backs up. So to help you spot Malthusian thinking in its many guises in the year ahead, as we welcome the seven billionth human being, spiked offers this guide to the myriad of modern-day Malthusians.

UNRECONSTRUCTED MALTHUSIANS

These are the easiest to spot. Usually white-haired and posh, and ironically based in bits of Britain that have more sheep than human beings, they are not averse to quoting from Thomas Malthus’s 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. They have sleepless nights thinking about people in Nigeria having sex. They secretly wonder if we shouldn’t reinstitute the Raj and de-rust our bayonets to try to convince Indians to stop sprogging up with such demented abandon. They have lifelong membership of groups like the Optimum Population Trust, and before that Paul Ehrlich’s weird 1970s outfit ZPG (Zero Population Growth), and will sometimes spend hours on end staring at the World Population Clock on the OPT’s website as it counts up to 7,000,000,000 while wondering over a glass of sherry what anarchy will be unleashed by the creation of all these ‘mouths to feed’ and ‘arses to wipe’. (They don’t actually say ‘arses to wipe’, but probably think it.) Given to throwing their heads back in gales of laughter if you point out that Malthus was wrong in his predictions of societal collapse because he failed to factor human ingenuity into his so-called population mathematics.

Favourite reading material: An Essay on the Principle of Population, of course. For fun, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger.

Most likely to say: ‘For the whole planet to avoid the fate of Rwanda, Malthusian thinking needs rehabilitation.’ (John Guillebaud, former chairman of the OPT)

What you should say to them: ‘Marx got it right: that essay’s a libel on the human race.’

CELEBRITY MALTHUSIANS

It’s hard being a celeb these days, always being papped, having to do endless press conferences, being constantly surrounded by the pointless, panting human hordes that are a product of reckless sex. A mish-mash of wildlife TV presenters, sons of rock stars and plummy actresses, these Malthusians are defined primarily by their stupidity and will happily use words like ‘plague’ (Joanna Lumley) and ‘cancer’ (Jonathan Franzen) to describe human beings. Other human beings, that is, not the nice, white-teethed kind who make breathy travel documentaries about Inja and write Great American Novels. They have convinced themselves that bleating on about non-celebrities’ breeding habits – sorry, ‘raising the problem of overpopulation’ – is the most taboo-busting thing you could ever do, despite the fact that they do it endlessly on the front pages of the papers and not a single soul in the cultural realm so much as bats an eyelid. See aforementioned stupidity. ‘No one is brave enough to say there are too many people in this country’, said Otis Ferry, foxhunter and son-of-Bryan, in, er, a splash in The Sunday Times.

Favourite reading material: Hello!, The Population Explosion by Paul and Anne Ehrlich.

Most likely to say: ‘People say you’re Hitler if you say it, but the human population is growing so fast.’ (Joanna Lumley)

What you should say to them: ‘You sound a bit like Hitler.’

PSYCHO MALTHUSIANS

These people can usually be spotted on the fringes of climate-change demos, wearing a mac, waving placards imploring us to ‘Save the planet: kill yourself’. They never kill themselves. They celebrate things like 9/11 and bird flu on the basis that they help reduce human numbers. They’re card-carrying members of groups such as the Church of Euthanasia (which promotes suicide, abortion and sodomy as remedies for ‘humanity’s cancerous growth’) and the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (which says that ‘phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health’). In summary: they’re mental. And yet their barking ideas sometimes break into the mainstream, such as when psychologist Sue Blackmore said on the super-respectable BBC Radio 3 show Nightwaves: ‘For the planet’s sake, I hope we have bird flu or some other thing that will reduce the population, because otherwise we’re doomed.’ No one even dropped their macchiato. The reason loony dreams about nature pummelling mankind can leak from crazyville on to Radio 3 is because, fundamentally (with the emphasis on ‘mentally’), these different sections of society share the same outlook: one which sees human beings not as producers, thinkers and creators, but as brute consumers whose antics are a drain on nature’s bounty.

Favourite reading material: Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide, by Derek Humphry.

Most likely to say: ‘Great Spirit, let me die, that the Earth may live.’ (Church of Euthanasia)

What you should say to them: ‘You go first.’

FEMINIST MALTHUSIANS

Feminists once promoted contraception and abortion rights as things that would allow women to live fuller lives. Now they promote them as things that will allow Gaia to live a fuller life by protecting her from the smog-producing spawn of unprotected sex. One commentator kicked off the new year by arguing that if all women have reproductive choice, then ‘the world’s population will grow more slowly, as will carbon emissions’. And confirming that trendy neo-Malthusianism is infused with the prejudices of older, uglier Malthusianism, his article was illustrated with a photo of a pack of African women squeezed into a waiting room clutching their carbon emissions (babies) to their chests. An American feminist says: ‘To understand that a tiny embryo must sometimes be sacrificed for the greater good of the human species is the moral high ground that we stand on today.’ You know you’re on dodgy territory when you use the words ‘fetus’ and ‘sacrifice’ in the same sentence. What these wimmin eco-worriers fail to realise is that in telling women that if they make the ‘right’ reproductive decision they can help Save The Planet From Heat Death, they end up undermining choice. Hysterically warned that giving birth is a fundamentally polluting activity, which will harm and maybe doom mankind, women are not being given true freedom of choice – they are being given an ultimatum: sacrifice the fetus or the planet gets it.

Favourite reading material:My gift to the planet: not being a mom‘, by Chris Bolgiano.

Most likely to say: ‘A planetary law, such as China’s one-child policy, is the only way to reverse the disastrous global birthrate.’ (Diane Francis)

What you should say to them: ‘It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves. As Shakespeare said.’

GREEN MALTHUSIANS

Decked out in corduroy blazers and mom jeans, looking like geography teachers, never losing sleep over sex in Nigeria, these greenies seem almost a different species to old-world Malthusians. They say things like ‘it is not the black and brown babies of the developing world that most threaten our planet’, and some, such as Fred Pearce, even argue that population growth per se is not a problem. These people are best understood as Malthusians-in-denial. They say they hate Malthus, yet they adhere to the central tenets of Malthusianism: namely that the Earth’s resources are limited and too many human gobs threaten to use them up. They rehabilitate Malthusianism in PC lingo, arguing that it’s not little black babies but big fat Americans whose numbers need to be curbed; using terms such as ‘fragile biodiversity’ rather than ‘nature’s bounty’ to describe what they see as nature’s fundamentally limited resources; claiming that humanity’s overconsumption of stuff will lead to the ‘wrecking of Earth’s life-support systems’ where Malthus preferred to say it would lead to ‘hunger and disease’.

At root, these anti-Malthus Malthusians share with the Revd Malthus a tendency to naturalise social limits, to present problems like poverty and destitution as the inevitable products of mankind and his offspring demanding too much of ‘nature’s bounty’. What are in truth social failings – in this instance the failure of human society to spread the benefits of progress and liberate all seven billion of its members from economic need – are repackaged as nature’s punishments of mankind for going too far. As the Russian revolutionary Isaac Ilyich Rubin said, the problem with Malthus is that he thought the true cause of poverty was not the inadequacy of the social system but the ‘natural, inexorable contradiction between man’s unbounded yearning to multiply and the limits to the increase in the means of subsistence’. It’s the same with greens today.

Now, ‘man’s unbounded yearning to multiply’ has led to a situation where we’ll soon number seven billion. We should inform the old-style, celebrity, psycho, feministic and green Malthusians who overpopulate public debate that Human Being No. 7,000,000,000 won’t just be a carbon emission, a user of resources, a wrecker of biodiversity; he or she will be a potential creator too; a producer; a contributor to the project of bettering the life of every one of the swelling billions.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit 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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