I was searching for information about the ‘population explosion’ and came across the Spiked campaign entitled “No to Neo-Malthusianism: Why We Oppose Population Control”. There is a string of articles exposing the prejudices and undermining the arguments of contemporary neo-Malthusians, many of them occasioned by the celebration at Spiked of the birth of Baby Seven Billion last year.
This article here by Brendan O’Neill is already three years old, but it’s a good summary of the alarmist arguments put forward by those who fear for the future of the planet and the future of humanity because of the population growth. And then, as you expect from O’Neill, a trenchant critique of their position.
First of all the facts (as they were in November 2009):
In the year 200 AD, there were approximately 180 million human beings on the planet Earth. And at that time a Christian philosopher called Tertullian argued: ‘We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us… already nature does not sustain us.’ In other words, there were too many people for the planet to cope with and we were bleeding Mother Nature dry.
Well today, nearly 180 million people live in the Eastern Half of the United States alone, in the 26 states that lie to the east of the Mississippi River. And far from facing hunger or destitution, many of these people – especially the 1.7million who live on the tiny island of Manhattan – have quite nice lives.
In the early 1800s, there were approximately 980 million human beings on the planet Earth. One of them was the population scaremonger Thomas Malthus, who argued that if too many more people were born then ‘premature death would visit mankind’ – there would be food shortages, ‘epidemics, pestilence and plagues’, which would ‘sweep off tens of thousands [of people]’.
Well today, more than the entire world population of Malthus’s era now lives in China alone: there are 1.3billion human beings in China. And far from facing pestilence, plagues and starvation, the living standards of many Chinese have improved immensely over the past few decades. In 1949 life expectancy in China was 36.5 years; today it is 73.4 years. In 1978 China had 193 cities; today it has 655 cities. Over the past 30 years, China has raised a further 235 million of its citizens out of absolute poverty – a remarkable historic leap forward for humanity.
Then the general critique:
What this potted history of population scaremongering ought to demonstrate is this: Malthusians are always wrong about everything.
The extent of their wrongness cannot be overstated. They have continually claimed that too many people will lead to increased hunger and destitution, yet the precise opposite has happened: world population has risen exponentially over the past 40 years and in the same period a great many people’s living standards and life expectancies have improved enormously. Even in the Third World there has been improvement – not nearly enough, of course, but improvement nonetheless. The lesson of history seems to be that more and more people are a good thing; more and more minds to think and hands to create have made new cities, more resources, more things, and seem to have given rise to healthier and wealthier societies.
Yet despite this evidence, the population scaremongers always draw exactly the opposite conclusion. Never has there been a political movement that has got things so spectacularly wrong time and time again yet which keeps on rearing its ugly head and saying: ‘This time it’s definitely going to happen! This time overpopulation is definitely going to cause social and political breakdown!’
There is a reason Malthusians are always wrong. It isn’t because they’re stupid… well, it might be a little bit because they’re stupid. But more fundamentally it is because, while they present their views as fact-based and scientific, in reality they are driven by a deeply held misanthropy that continually overlooks mankind’s ability to overcome problems and create new worlds.
Then the analysis:
The first mistake Malthusians always make is to underestimate how society can change to embrace more and more people. They make the schoolboy scientific error of imagining that population is the only variable, the only thing that grows and grows, while everything else – including society, progress and discovery – stays roughly the same. That is why Malthus was wrong: he thought an overpopulated planet would run out of food because he could not foresee how the industrial revolution would massively transform society and have an historic impact on how we produce and transport food and many other things. Population is not the only variable – mankind’s vision, growth, his ability to rethink and tackle problems: they are variables, too.
The second mistake Malthusians always make is to imagine that resources are fixed, finite things that will inevitably run out. They don’t recognise that what we consider to be a resource changes over time, depending on how advanced society is. That is why the Christian Tertullian was wrong in 200 AD when he said ‘the resources are scarcely adequate for us’. Because back then pretty much the only resources were animals, plants and various metals. Tertullian could not imagine that, in the future, the oceans, oil and uranium would become resources, too. The nature of resources changes as society changes – what we consider to be a resource today might not be one in the future, because other, better, more easily-exploited resources will hopefully be discovered or created. Today’s cult of the finite, the discussion of the planet as a larder of scarce resources that human beings are using up, really speaks to finite thinking, to a lack of future-oriented imagination.
And the third and main mistake Malthusians always make is to underestimate the genius of mankind. Population scaremongering springs from a fundamentally warped view of human beings as simply consumers, simply the users of resources, simply the destroyers of things, as a kind of ‘plague’ on poor Mother Nature, when in fact human beings are first and foremost producers, the discoverers and creators of resources, the makers of things and the makers of history. Malthusians insultingly refer to newborn babies as ‘another mouth to feed’, when in the real world another human being is another mind that can think, another pair of hands that can work, and another person who has needs and desires that ought to be met.
So the population panic is rooted in bad sociology, bad science, and bad anthropology. And this is leaving aside the question of whether the world’s population will, in fact, keep increasing, or whether we are more likely to face a crisis of an imploding population over the next hundred years (e.g. see this article by David Brooks).