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Page added on May 31, 2011

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Beware Malthusians in reasonable clothing

General Ideas

The ambient jazzy, folky music – possibly nicked from a nearby Starbucks – had been turned to mute. The lights were dimmed. And the effect was near instant. The postgraduate-dominated audience under-populating the Bloomsbury Theatre in London was finally settling down in glum anticipation of ‘My vision for the future’, the first public event of ‘Population Footprints’ – a ‘UCL and Leverhulme Trust conference on human population growth and global carrying capacity’.

Quite what the audience was expecting, I’m not sure. Doom-laden prophesying? Possibly. Encomia to family planning? Probably. Frighteningly self-righteous blather about there being too many people and too few resources? Almost definitely. This last, after all, is the great unmentionable that the green and the not-so-good can’t stop mentioning, a neo-Malthusian idea that has seized the withered imaginations of every repressed misanthrope from Forum for the Future founder Jonathon Porritt to the patron saint of wildlife programmes, Sir David Attenborough. As Attenborough himself said in a recent piece for the New Statesman: ‘The fundamental truth that Malthus proclaimed remains the truth: there cannot be more people on this earth than can be fed.’

So, given this current cultural climate, in which it’s almost conventional to view the propagation of the species as an act of self-destruction, what the audience was probably not expecting was the opening gambit of Fred Pearce, environment consultant for the New Scientist, author of Peoplequake, and, most important of all, someone who doesn’t think population growth is much of a problem. ‘We are defusing the population bomb’, he declared. There was no booing. But there was no applause either.

Not that Pearce would mind, of course. He seems to be enjoying making a name for himself as the debunker of overpopulation hype. A few weeks ago, for instance, he took on no less a source of procreation anxiety than the United Nations Population Division (UNPD). The problem for Pearce was that in 2009, the UNPD had estimated that the global population, currently just under seven billion, would reach nine billion by 2050 before levelling off. At the beginning of May, however, it revised its predictions. Now global population was not only going to reach nine billion by 2050, but it was going to keep on rising until it reaches over 10 billion by 2100.

Pearce was not convinced that there was much evidence to support such a revision. In fact, as he points out in Nature magazine, current world population and current global fertility rates are actually lower than the UN predicted they would be at this stage two years ago. So why, contrary to actual population trends, does the UN now envisage a further rise in future fertility rates? None of this makes sense, argues Pearce: women are now having half as many babies as their grandmothers and world fertility has fallen from 4.9 children per woman in the early 1960s to its current level of around 2.45. The only way the UN can come up with such groundless population projections is by assuming that many developed countries currently with fertility rates well below the replacement level of 2.1 will suddenly start, contrary to all expectations, to produce more and more children. As Pearce observes, this assumption has simply been imposed on to the modelling system. Hence the revision ‘looks more like a political construct than a scientific analysis’.

All of which sounds like a rational voice amid the cacophony of overpopulation doom-mongering. This is surely a good thing, right? What could be better than an award-winning science journalist and author calling out the prophets of overcrowding?

The problem is that while Pearce is correct regarding the population-hyping models used by the UNPD, he has not come to destroy the Malthusian core of green-tinged thinking; he has come, whether he knows it or not, to save Malthusianism, not damn it. Save it, that is, from its overexcited champions who see the threat of ‘catastrophic’ population growth as a stick with which to beat people the world over into prophylactic-using submission.

As Brendan O’Neill has argued before on spiked, what sets Pearce apart from his birth-controlling fellow travellers is that he is savvy enough to know that the Malthusian enthusiasm for population control has a thoroughly horrific history. His eighteenth-century master, the Reverend Thomas Malthus, had nothing but contempt for the proliferating (and increasingly radicalised) lower classes. Malthus thought destitution and starvation were happy correctives to there just being too damn many of Them. The late nineteenth century saw a rise in the popularity of eugenics, a surge that culminated in some of the nastiest proposals and practices of the twentieth century. In every case, these Malthus-referencing, population-fiddling ideas have exemplified man’s inhumanity to man. And no wonder. Interpreting social and economic problems, from unemployment to food shortages, in terms of human reproduction means that the solutions must also take a biological, naturalised form – whether that’s contraception, sterilisation or extermination.

Pearce knows this. He knows that the current vogue for the idea of overpopulation has the potential to be bad PR for environmentalism. As he admitted last week, the notion of ‘global carrying capacity’ does have a tendency to turn into Third World bashing. Enter United Nations special adviser Jeffrey Sachs, whose recent response to the UNPD’s revised population projection for Nigeria captured Pearce’s fear: ‘It is not healthy’, Sachs said, adding: ‘Nigeria should work towards attaining a maximum of three children per family.’ The reported retort from one Nigerian woman was completely understandable: ‘[The UN] should try to advise the government how to make the lives of Nigerians better, not telling Nigerians not to have children – that is not their business.’ Or take the comments of two university health lecturers in America who lamented of Africa: ‘even Uganda — with one of the highest numbers of AIDS cases in sub-Saharan Africa — is projected to almost triple its population by 2050’. That AIDS can be seen as a population check, albeit an unsuccessful one, is testament to the willingness of the demography-obsessed to see anything that limits population numbers as a Good Thing.

So, seeing human reproduction as the source of social and economic problems, as an increasingly vociferous number of people in the West do, means that population and reproductive habits become the locus of the solution. And as Pearce recognises, this is an approach that historically has had ugly results. But Pearce does not really jettison Malthus. He just wants to excise the bits that would make even the meanest liberal choke on their organic leeks, you know, the bits that are a bit racist, a bit cruel, a bit, well, illiberal. And this is the point that he performs his sleight of hand: he flips his Malthusian emphases, from the number-of-people side of the equation to the other, number-of-resources side. Hence his doom-mongering comeback at last week’s event: ‘we haven’t even begun to defuse the real threat – the consumption bomb’.

That’s right; it’s not that there are too many people, it’s that there are too few resources. The limits that the unabashedly Malthusian ascribe to population are ascribed by the surreptitiously Malthusian to resources. It doesn’t seem to matter that the supposed limits to resource-use have been transgressed time and time again by advances in human productivity, from the discovery that coal could be used not just for jewellery but for energy creation, to the so-called ‘green revolution’ in agriculture during the 1960s and 1970s. For Pearce, as with the environmentalist cohorts he wants to save from open Malthusianism, socio-economic limits appear so natural that the only future he can envisage is one in which we adjust to those limits. Or as he put: ‘It’s the world’s consumption patterns that we need to fix, not the world’s reproductive habits.’

The thing is, we – human beings – are not the problem. In fact, I’d confidently wager that we’re the only species on the planet capable of coming up with solutions. And by solutions, that does not mean sacrificing either a portion of our number to misery and death or demanding that another portion of humanity restricts its material aspirations. For those are not solutions, they are the products of the exhausted consciousness of an elite that cannot envisage the future except in terms of decline and disaster.

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