The Malthusians of Christmas past

The flint-hearted, prune-faced, carbon-obsessed bean-counters who want fewer people, especially fewer poor people, should reread A Christmas Carol.

Michael Cook

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Old Marley is as dead as a door-nail. Even Scrooge is dead. Even Charles Dickens, their creator, is dead. But the English caricatures which people his exuberant fiction are alive and kicking. They burble every day in the London newspapers – figures so grotesque that Dickens himself would have greedily captured them for a new novel. They inflate themselves with hot air from burning press releases. They sun themselves in the media’s camera lamps.

Take the Optimum Population Trust, a superannuated gaggle of gimlet-eyed, thin-lipped Gradgrinds who out-Scrooge Scrooge. Their aim is to slash the number of unfeathered bipeds who pollute the earth with carbon emissions. ‘Everything we manage to achieve for the natural environment is being wiped out by the nearly 80million extra people each year who need to use up space and resources’, they claim. They have even launched PopOffsets, a scheme which offsets your carbon footprint by reducing the number of babies in the developing world. And they have the nerve to describe themselves as a ‘charity’!

I can just imagine them counting up their miserabilist PopOffset dollars: ‘Another $7 for the charity, one less baby in Ghana; $21 for the charity, three less in Sierra Leone; $35 for the charity; five less in Chad.’ And after a heavy night out on New Year’s Eve adding to their carbon footprint with champers and fireworks, the new hair of the dog is a donation to PopOffset to scrub a few more babies from the population of Zaire.

What would Dickens say to this? Perhaps what he said about the unreformed Scrooge:

‘Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.’

After 2,000 celebrations of how precious a single life is, we still haven’t learned the lesson of A Christmas Carol. Had I thought of it earlier, I would have sent a copy to Sir David Attenborough, the famed documentary director who is an enthusiastic patron of the OPT. The OPT’s fanatical determination to eliminate CO2 by reducing the number of people is basically the ‘odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling’ Malthusian policy of eliminating poverty by eliminating the poor. Scrooge was a Malthusian, you will remember. Here he is refusing a few pence for the poor:

‘‘‘I wish to be left alone,’ said Scrooge. “I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned [prisons and workhouses] – they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

‘‘If they would rather die”, said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.’’’

It sounds familiar doesn’t it? The rich, isolated, beggar-my-neighbour individual. The mean, narrow-minded bean-counting. The fear of the population bomb. The scoffing at the possibility of happiness. ‘If I could work my will’, said Scrooge indignantly, ‘every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!’

How do the Spirits of Christmas teach Scrooge that ‘quality of life’ isn’t everything? Basically by showing him visions of family life. It’s the simple, affectionate family life of the impoverished Cratchits and their six children. ‘They were not a handsome family; they were not well-dressed… but they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time’, says Dickens. Of all of them, it is Tiny Tim, the ‘useless’ cripple, with his crutch and iron frame, who strikes the spark of human sympathy into Scrooge’s withered heart.

An illegitimate appeal to crass sentimentality? Of course it is. Dickens is notorious for it. But most arguments for population control and all the other manifestations of the culture of death are crassly sentimental. I remember a newspaper article about a Dutch woman who helped organise her mother’s euthanasia: ‘We didn’t talk anymore. We just held hands because everything was said… the room was full of love and understanding… Then my mother said, “I’m ready for the journey. Give me a kiss.”’

Give me a break. You can search the complete works of Dickens for a passage more purple and manipulative than this. But of such material are woven the arguments which sway public opinion, not subtle philosophical, legal, moral and medical discourses.

The most telling argument for human life is family life. I’m sure that an afternoon with the Cratchits would shake the convictions of the latter-day Scrooges in the OPT.

But just by observing a healthy, normal family you learn how precious a life is. You learn that the most defenceless and vulnerable family members enrich the lives of the others. You see that the joys are multiplied and the sorrows divided. Parents often think that their battles to raise their kids are just their private struggle. But they have a public dimension as well. They undermine the scoffers by showing that love and self-sacrifice are possible. They give hope to the wounded doubters. Happy families are the real Ghost of the Christmas Present.

Perhaps the problem with the prune-faced patrons of the OPT is that they haven’t read enough Dickens. If I had my way they wouldn’t be allowed to put out another press release until they have learned by heart the Ghost’s lecture to Scrooge:

‘“Man”, said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”’

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings, by Charles Dickens, is published by Penguin. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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