Lionel Shriver, author We Need To Talk About Kevin, has been just one high profile celeb to roll off a litany of woes that will afflict the world if we “keep on breeding”. Campaign group Population Matters (PM), whose patrons include Sir David Attenborough, has announced it will be marking the great day by cheery posters in the London Underground warning commuters in “the overcrowded transport system” of the “unsustainability of continued population growth”. Happy Birthday Baby7B – London’s infrastructural failings are your fault.
Most galling are those eco-worriers who view the alleged population time-bomb through the apocalyptic lens of impending climate change catastrophe. Our Baby7B is then reduced to the cold, scientific calculation of a carbon emitter. Charmingly, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) notes that “No human is genuinely ‘carbon neutral’”. You can forget the pitter-patter of tiny feet. To quote PM’s chair Roger Martin, “it’s no use reducing your carbon footprint if you keep increasing the number of feet”. The NGO Population and Climate Change African Forum (PCCAF) has set up PopOffsets, a carbon offsets scheme aimed at reducing the number of carbon emitters (that is, babies). Maybe aware that this may smack of uncomfortable racial tones if focused simply on Africa, it is also suggested that: “Where people have choices, such as the UK, we are asking them to have ‘two or fewer’ children as part of a sustainable lifestyle”.
Such thinking is not only misanthropic and authoritarian; it also underestimates human potential and fatalistically overestimates natural limits. The Population Institute’s report From 6 Billion to 7 Billion argues “there comes a day of environmental reckoning... time is running out… to strike a better balance between the demands we place upon the planet and the Earth’s ability to satisfy our needs”. The personification of the Earth with a capital E is telling. Humans are assumed beholden to immutable Mother Nature, who must satisfy our needs.
But surely man’s progressive mission has been to overcome nature’s limits precisely to satisfy our needs? We’ve done well. Some of modernity’s most important medical gains have been made through humans overthrowing the seeming natural limits of our biology, such as massively reducing infant mortality and disease through man-made, “unnatural” medicines like insulin, antibiotics and oral contraception. This should be a source of triumph not despair.
Of course, disease, poverty and hunger still stalk the world, but this is a political challenge; to solve it we need to argue robustly for economic development; and to fight exploitation. What we must oppose is the attempts to repackage such social problems as demographic, and to argue against those who tell us resources are finite and won’t be able to cater for future billions. This was the original error of Thomas Malthus, the 18th-century vicar who falsely predicted that a rapidly growing population would lead to starvation. He and his supporters wrongly assumed that while population grows, all else would stay the same.
Possibly Malthus had an excuse for his mistake, assuming that millions more people would mean less food to go round. He did not witness the industrial revolution’s massive transformation to food production. But what excuse is there for Jonathan Porritt, who recently blogged about sub-Saharan Africa: “Sorry to be neo-Malthusian about it, but continuing population growth... makes periodic famine unavoidable”? Porritt’s anti-population prejudice means he fails to note that agriculture’s green revolution and, yes, Big Food means we could feed everyone born and more. The barrier is not too many mouths to feed but the lack of economic development
Instead of arguing for economic growth, the new Malthusians warn that all these newborns will grow up “desiring a better life”, that we will need “two earths” to sustain their consumption. Wrong – what we need are growth rates on a par with China and India, the two most populous countries in the world, who through economic development are lifting millions from poverty. There is no such thing as finite resources, just new unimagined solutions waiting to be discovered if we trust human ingenuity to the task. The new billions are more than just consumers; they are also creative producers and dynamic problem-solvers who can transform the world, and Nature, for the better. Hurrah for Baby7B.
Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas, which is holding its annual Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London, on 29 & 30 October, sponsored by City A.M. http://www.battleofideas.org.uk.