From the Christian scaremongers of 200 AD to contemporary Malthusians who talk about “fossil fuel depletion”, population reductionists have been wrong, wrong, wrong in their predictions of future doom. In his response to the Optimum Population Trust, Brendan O’Neill says it is time we exposed the prejudices that they disguise as “scientific fact”.
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; we were bleeding Mother Nature dry. Tertullian warned we would face great hungers and crises if any more “burdensome” people were born.
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, a great number of these people – especially the 1.7 million who live on the tiny island of Manhattan – have very nice lives.
In the early 1800s, there were approximately 978 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, “sickly seasons, 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 live in China alone: there are 1.3 billion human beings in China. And far from facing pestilence, plagues and starvation, the living standards of many of these 1.3 billion human beings 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.
In 1971 there were approximately 3.6 billion human beings on the planet Earth. And at that time Paul Ehrlich, a patron of the Optimum Population Trust and author of a book called The Population Bomb, wrote about his “shocking” visit to New Delhi. He said: “The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, the dust, the noise, heating and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get to our hotel…? Since that night I have known the feel of overpopulation.”
You’ll be pleased to know that Ehrlich did make it to his hotel, through the mob of strange brown people shitting in the streets, and he later theorised that as a result of overpopulation “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death”. He said India couldn’t possibly feed all of its people and would experience some kind of collapse around 1980.
Well today, the world population is almost double what it was in 1971 – there are currently 6.7 billion human beings on the planet – and while there are still social problems of poverty and malnutrition, hundreds of millions of people are not starving to death. As for India, she is doing quite well for herself. When Ehrlich was writing in 1971 there were 550 million people in India; today there are 1.1 billion people in India. Yes there is still poverty there, but Indians are not starving – in fact both life expectancy and living standards have improved in that vast, populous nation.
What this potted history of hysterical population scaremongering ought to demonstrate is this: Malthusians are always wrong about everything. They were wrong in the past, they are wrong today, and they will be wrong in the future.
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, almost doubling from 3.6 billion to 6.7 billion, 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 is that more and more people are a good thing; more and more minds to think and hands to create have given rise to healthier and wealthier societies. Yet despite this evidence, the population scaremongers always draw exactly the opposite conclusion. Why?
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!” If that crazy man in Piccadilly Circus who wears a placard saying “The end of the world is nigh” came up to you and said “This time it really is nigh”, you wouldn’t believe him – and so you shouldn’t believe those who have been scaremongering about population growth on the basis of little more than flimsy prejudice for the past 200 years and who are still doing it today.
The language used to justify population scaremongering has changed dramatically over time, but the idea always remains the same: that the world’s problems are caused by people’s breeding habits. In the time of Malthus in the eighteenth century the main concern was with the fecundity of poor people. In the early twentieth century there was a racial and eugenic steak to population-reduction arguments: some argued that there were too many Africans and Asians, who might weaken the power of white European nations.
In the 1960s and 70s, population scaremongers started to use the dishonest language of “family planning” and “reproductive choice” to promote their population-control measures in the Third World. And today they have adopted environmentalist language to justify their demands for population reduction. In New Generation Society, Brian McGavin and Andrew Ferguson of the Optimum Population Trust used the terms “fossil fuel depletion”, “climate warming” and “biodiversity loss”.
The fact that the presentational arguments of the population-reduction lobby can change so fundamentally over time, while the core belief in “too many people” remains the same, really shows that this is a deeply prejudicial outlook in search of a social or scientific justification; it is old-fashioned prejudice looking around for the latest trendy ideas to clothe itself in. And that is why the population scaremongers have been wrong over and over again: because though they present their ideas as scientific and fact-based, in fact they are driven by narrow-mindedness and misanthropy, by disdain for mankind’s breakthroughs, by wilful ignorance of humanity’s ability to shape its surroundings and its future, by what Paul Ehrlich described as merely “the feel of overpopulation” – that is, by the population scaremongers’ own feeling, their own warped feeling, that there are too many people around, especially “over there”.
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 the same. So they always think things will collapse. This is why Malthus was wrong: he thought an overpopulated planet would run out of food because he could not foresee the industrial revolution, which had an enormous, historic impact on how we produce and transport food and many other things.
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 200AD 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 a resource today might not be one in the future, because other, better, more easily-exploited resources will be discovered or created.
The third and main mistake Malthusians always make is to underestimate the genius of mankind. Indeed, population scaremongering, this always-wrong prejudicial outlook, springs from a fundamentally warped view of human beings as simply consumers, the users of resources, the destroyers of things, the users of finite objects, when in fact human beings are first and foremost producers, the discoverers and creators of resources, the makers of things and of history. Malthusians insultingly see another human being as simply “another mouth to feed”; I see another human being as 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. The 6.7 billion people on Earth have not raped and destroyed this planet, we have humanised it. And given half a chance – given a serious commitment to overcoming poverty and lack of opportunity and to pursuing progress – we would humanise it even further.
Brendan O’Neill is the editor of spiked-online.
Similar articles can be found at JunkScience.com.