Happy birthday, baby seven billion!
Ignore the population doom-mongers and dive into spiked’s archives for a celebration of human life and ingenuity.
Today is the day when the global population reaches a new high: there are now officially seven billion of us. But few, it seems, are ready to pop open the champagne or to welcome the symbolic baby with a joyous ‘Congratulations, you’re the seven-billionth human being on Earth!’ Instead, this newborn is being seen as a sign that humanity is procreating itself, and the planet, to death. So on what ought to be a joyous day, we invite you to take a glance at spiked‘s archives, because they might just convince you that the birth of new babies is not a problem.
In the population discussion, the most commonly repeated claim is that no one is willing to discuss population. Over the past couple of weeks, several commentators and policymakers have expressed a kind of relief that the arrival of the symbolic seven-billionth baby offers an opportunity to break this supposed taboo. For instance, in the UK Huffington Post, British secretary of state for international development Andrew Mitchell declared: ‘It’s time to talk about population.’ Perhaps someone forgot to brief Mr Mitchell, because his fellow policymakers, along with environmentalists in every shade of green and commentators of various political creeds, can’t stop talking about how there are too many people on the planet. As was noted in a spiked/Voltaire online debate last year, ‘Article after article after article now tells us that human overpopulation of the planet is the Great Unmentionable’.
It is true that talk of unchecked population growth carries some pretty ugly associations. And that’s why commentators not only have to add a few caveats to their arguments, they also feel the need to portray themselves as brave taboo-busters who dare to speak about overpopulation even though it’s traditionally the purview of right-wing racists and other eugenics-loving cranks. But these days, hardly anyone bats an eyelid when esteemed academics like John Guillebaud, emeritus professor of reproductive health and family planning at University College London, seriously advises UK couples that ‘a two-child maximum is the greatest contribution anyone can make to a habitable planet for our grandchildren’. (See The British elite prefers polite Malthusianism.)
Mitchell doesn’t seem too interested in doling out such advice to Brits. ‘It is not for me – or anyone – to tell you how many children to have as that is your choice’, he rightly states. But he goes on: ‘[P]roviding choice for women has been my priority since starting this job. In fact, one of my first acts as development secretary was to authorise a shipment of condoms to Uganda.’ There you go – Britain’s role in the world is apparently to help African women stop having babies. Today, that most colonial of imperatives is advertised openly and proudly on a popular news site and applauded as brave, humane and forward-thinking.
The overpopulation school of thought is a revival of the often dismissed and ridiculed predictions of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), described in this month’s spiked review of books as the ‘gloomy reverend’ behind the idea that the ‘”lower orders of society” breed too quickly’. Malthus basically took a wild guess at the expansion rate of the population and the rate at which we develop the means to support ourselves and figured the latter could not support the former. Not only did his calculations prove completely incorrect, but ‘more importantly, the technological developments of the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the agricultural, “green” revolution of the twentieth century showed that our ability to support a growing population can, as it were, leap forward.’
As it happens, the expansion of the Earth’s population has been concomitant with an increase in the number of people living longer, healthier and more prosperous lives. Compared to the turn of the twentieth century, we are not only wealthier and more technologically advanced; we also, as spiked has shown, ‘lead healthier and longer lives than back then, are taller, better educated and, at least as measured by IQ, more intelligent’. But, ‘despite these astounding gains of modernity, mainstream commentators constantly complain that we have too much. Too much food makes us fat. Too much consumerism is emptying our life of meaning. Too much affluence makes us miserable. Too much development threatens to destroy the planet. Rather than being encouraged to work out how to take society forward, we are constantly warned that we have gone too far.’
Indeed, at a time when people are seen as a terrible burden on the planet, babies are no more than trouble in the making. But as Malthus failed to see, we human beings have historically shown ourselves to be aspirational creatures who constantly come up with ways of making our existence more tolerable and more enjoyable. Now, however, there is, as one spiked writer has put it, ‘a sense of dread over the active exercise of human life’ and ‘the humanist impulse that once drove the development of the modern world has been replaced by a tendency to view humanity with suspicion, or even outright hostility’. Ambitious people of the past have always aspired to make a mark on the world – today, that aspiration to make a mark on the world is regarded as a polluting ‘human footprint’.
Of course, vast numbers of the global population still suffer from poverty and hunger but these problems are too often blamed on our refusal to bow to the humbling forces of nature and used as a reason for why there should be fewer of us. But underdevelopment is a social, not a demographic issue; the problems related to it are susceptible to social solutions. The real danger today is posed by the widespread disdain for radical ways of taming nature. That is the true barrier to tackling hunger and poverty.
The planet’s resources are only as finite as we make them. All seven billion of us have the right to aspire to longer lives, better stuff, more wealth and comfort that will, in turn, give us the time and freedom to pursue higher goals than simply surviving. So, happy birthday baby number seven billion – and, as that unfashionable cliché goes, the more the merrier!
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