Views about Modern-day Malthusians

February 16, 2011 • Family Planning, Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Heather Eves for alerting me to the following exchange between Andrew Revkin and the editor of Spiked, Brendan O’Neill. You can find the Revkin piece at The Spiked blog, “The Definitive Guide to Modern-day Malthusians” follows below.

As I said in an email to Heather, I disagree with the implied belief of the editor of Spiked that there are no limits to natural resources. Evidence abounds that humanity is taxing nature and causing massive loss of other species. I also think O’Neill failed to accurately capture the motivations of many who are concerned about population issues. I thought his depictions of psycho Malthusians and feminist Malthusians were not based on anyone I have met in 40 years in the field of population. His claim that “women in poor Africa have lots of children not necessarily because their husbands force them to or because the pope denies them condoms” but because they want them as a hedge against high infant mortality ignores the findings of many Demographic and Health Surveys. In many African countries, the leading reason for non-use of contraception by women who don’t wish another pregnancy is male opposition, and it’s in the top four reasons in most African countries. Religious opposition is also in the top four reasons. Since there are very few countries now where less than 90% of children survive to adulthood, claiming that high infant mortality makes it logical to have large families is not based in reality. Indeed, large desired family size is often based on what people see as normal in their society.

January 19, 2011, 1:13 pm
Deconstructing a Bestiary of Malthusian ‘Miserabilists’
Last week I received a promotional e-mail from spiked, the often-biting British publication fond of puncturing all manner of ideological balloons, touting a broadside against warnings about overpopulation. The piece, The definitive guide to modern-day Malthusians, by Brendan O’Neill, had a predictably provocative summary:

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

I sent a query about aspects of the piece to O’Neill, who was featured here when he debated a campaigner from the Optimum Population Trust. Here’s our brief exchange (with some e-mail shorthand cleaned up):

[That was a] fun riff on the latest crop of Malthusians, although I fear you’ve done precisely what some on the edges of other environmental and social debates have sometimes done – lumped a variegated array of viewpoints and issues under a single label. “Climate deniers” and “Warmists
” come to mind….

For instance, my guess is you wouldn’t oppose efforts to ensure that poor families in sub-Saharan Africa who’d like to limit the number of their offspring have the capacity to do that? Or do you see this, too, as population “control”?

Happy to get further thoughts from you on this. Glad you liked my exploration of the question (it does remain a question, largely untestable) related to our Wile E. Coyote moment.

Yes, I am all in favor of women in sub-Saharan Africa, and everywhere else in the world, having the right and the means to have as few children as they please. I’m about as pro-choice as you can possibly get! (I was banned from writing for the Catholic Herald here in the UK after they discovered that I support abortion rights.)

But I am also in favor of women being free to choose to have 10 children, if that’s what they want. “Choice” should mean precisely that. And at a time when this latter choice, this decision to have a large family, not only receives no cultural validation at all but is implicitly depicted as reckless and eco-destructive, we have to ask whether real choice is being offered in these instances.

An NGO that arrives in poor Africa with a case of condoms AND a mission to save the world from carbon-producing babies is not a disinterested, dispassionate facilitator of choice. The international problematization of large families and the celebration of carbon reduction impacts heavily, I think, on the way women conceive of themselves and their room to make meaningful decisions.

Unfortunately, the politics of reproductive choice is increasingly bound up with the Malthusian agenda. This is a great tragedy, in my view, because it pollutes the arena of choice by importing Western ideals – such as eco-stability and carbon reduction – into Third World women’s decision-making. If NGOs want to provide women in Africa with contraceptive devices, that’s fine – but then go straight home please…
If you’d ever like to debate this online, let me know. Perhaps am exchange of views that could be published on spiked and your blog. It’s a fascinating and quite messy aspect of the overpopulation debate. I will over the next year be spearheading an online campaign called: “Seven Billion Humans? Three cheers!”

What’s your take on my recent dissection of Julian Simon’s “ultimate resource” thesis? (see the tail end of this post: Fostering Education for Innovation (and Vice Versa) )

I don’t argue against more minds = more innovation and a faster route out of poverty.

But I also see no implicit “need” for more people (again, I’m not a Malthusian, just noting a potentially extraneous element of the “cornucopian” argument).

What’s needed is more minds that are educated and – in the sense Matt Ridley describes so well – networked.

I’m cheering for more education and access to information, not more (or less) babies except by choices made ideally by informed, educated [couples].

Well, I am not pro-natalist; I don’t think the Earth needs a certain number of people. I am simply opposed to any controls or coercion whatsoever in the realm of reproductive choice. Often the flip side to Malthusianism is natalism, the idea that we need more people in order to do A, B and C. Both of these outlooks are based on a demographic obsession, and my belief is that we should move away from understanding our problems as demographic towards appreciating that they are social.

I do have a lot of sympathy with Simon’s idea about the “ultimate resource” – in the sense that I think we should rediscover a view of humans as resourceful, creative, productive. Too much of environmentalism views humans simply as consumers and users, as drainers and “footprints.” This is very one-sided. Even where people are “just consumers,” say in the less developed parts of the world, it is because of a failure on the part of society to provide the infrastructure in which people can produce and create and work.
I must say I come out in a rash whenever I hear the phrase “informed choice”!

Choice informed by what? Western environmentalism? The views of the U.N. Population Fund? Education? What kind of education, saying what? This is not to be relativistic (“all choices are equally valid” blah blah blah) but simply to argue that “informed choice” is frequently code for “the right choice”.

The vast majority of people make reproductive choices that work best for them. Women in poor Africa have lots of children not necessarily because their husbands force them to or because the pope denies them condoms (modern Malthusian prejudices), but because in parts of the world where infant mortality is high, and where there is no welfare system to see you through old age, having a large family is perfectly rational and well-informed.

My goal here, as is hopefully clear, is to try to move from stridency and name calling to rational discussions of reasonable approaches to smoothing the human journey. This is perhaps a fool’s errand, but I think it’s worth trying.

For the Spiked article, see

Thursday 13 January 2011
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
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.
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.’
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.’
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.’
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.’
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.
reprinted from:

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