How neo-Malthusians demonise dissent

In branding those who disagree with them ‘deniers’, the overpopulation lobby reveals its allergy to debate.

Tom Bailey

Topics Politics

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Michael Buerk, the broadcaster famous for bringing images of Ethiopia’s famine to BBC viewers’ attention in 1984, claimed this week that the issue of human population growth is the ‘invisible issue of the twenty-first century’.

And why is population growth the great unmentionable of our time? Because, as Buerk puts it, of ‘the population deniers’. This evil constituency seems ‘to regard the whole issue as bad taste, a kind of disguised racism’, he said. As a result, overpopulation ‘does not seem to be up for discussion’.

Really? An ‘invisible issue’? Not ‘up for discussion’? In fact, here’s just a few of the people who have joined the choir singing about the perils of population growth: former US president George HW Bush, the Dalai Lama, Hillary Clinton, David Attenborough, Bob Geldof and Cameron Diaz. They’re not exactly low-profile people. Even Queen Elizabeth II has chimed in with some miserable Malthusian rhetoric. When speaking of the Caribbean island of St Vincent’s, she said: ‘One must remember that its resources are finite and cannot accommodate indefinite population growth.’

And if recent surveys are any indication, this ‘invisible issue’ which is ‘not up for discussion’ seems to be pretty visible and widely discussed among the public. According to a Guardian poll, for instance, 75 per cent of respondents agreed that ‘the planet can’t sustain more mouths to feed’. Elsewhere, a YouGov poll found that ‘over four out of five (84 per cent) thought the world population was too high’. Overpopulation hardly seems to be a taboo issue in polite conversation.

In fact, it seems to be Buerk himself who is attempting to shut down debate about population growth by using the pejorative ‘population deniers’ to describe those with differing views. The use of the term ‘deniers’ is a cheap attempt to place those who dissent from neo-Malthusian malarkey on the same level as those with whom the term is most closely associated: Holocaust deniers. By labelling opponents as such, Buerk is trying to portray them as being as mad and irrational as those who refuse to acknowledge the mass slaughter of European Jewry during the Second World War.

Besides, there’s a reason why neo-Malthusian population obsessives are accused of racism – and it has nothing to do with trying to shut down debate. Rather, racism is an inescapable feature of the Malthusian tradition. Thomas Malthus, the awkward godfather of the modern overpopulation movement, attempted to set in biological stone the social problems of early industrial Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century. By claiming that population always outgrew the development of the means to support it, he was able to blame poverty on the copulating habits of, as he put it, the ‘race of labourers’. This elitist and prejudiced view of Britain’s emerging working class is now projected on to the people of Africa and Asia by today’s neo-Malthusians. Where Malthus portrayed the impoverished workers of early capitalism as causing their own misfortune and misery through being so stupid as to have lots of children, his contemporary equivalents frame the impoverished Africans and Asians in the same way.

The racism of neo-Malthusian types is often apparent today. Hence when ever the alleged issue of overpopulation is discussed, the focus is always on the dark-skinned people of the Third World. Despite their meagre consumption levels, the dark mass of people Over There are accused of using up too many of the world’s resources. That’s why, as Brendan O’Neill has pointed out, news articles discussing overpopulation often use pictures of ‘Indians squeezing on to a train, Chinese women going shopping, [and] black babies sleeping’.

The problem with the overpopulation theorists, be it Malthus or Michael Buerk, is their dismal view of humanity. When looking at the population of the earth, they view humans simply as mouths to feed, a plague of locusts that consumes all it can. They don’t take into account the other side, that humans are also producers. Each mouth to feed also comes with a pair of hands and a brain. The problem of poverty in the Third World is not due to Africans’ feckless, contraceptive-averse behaviour creating too many mouths to feed; it is a product of a lack of economic growth, growth that would allow the hands and brains to be used to create more goods for more people to consume.

As Karl Marx pointed out, poverty that may seem to be the result of overpopulation is due to limits ‘posited rather by specific conditions of production… How small do the numbers which meant overpopulation for the Athenians appear to us!’ As economies and societies develop, so too does the ability to support more and more people. The Malthusians view resources as fixed and finite; they ignore advances in human productivity. What was a useless piece of the earth one day becomes a highly useful resource the next. When pre-industrial man used oil to water-seal boats, none would have imagined that this black liquid would one day power the world. As human progress continues, so will our ability to produce more stuff for ever larger numbers of people.

Tom Bailey is a history undergraduate at University College London. He is currently interning at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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