Article for “The Tablet”

Austin Williams | 1 March 2008

Today, Malthus is making a comeback. Even in polite conversation, it is mainstream to suggest that we are using up limited resources and that humanity’s survival relies on reducing consumption. Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting says that there are simply ‘too many people’. The Optimum Population Trust states that: ‘population limitation should…be seen as the most cost-effective carbon offsetting strategy available to individuals and nations’. In my latest book, ‘The Enemies of Progress’ I explore what is really going on.

Not so long ago, it used to be blindingly obvious that the Underdeveloped World needed development. Anyone with an ounce of decency recognised that a solution to those struggling in Third World conditions was to improve their lot. At the same time, it was commonplace to hear people struggling for better material conditions for themselves in the developed world (as it used to be called). People demanded more money; improved working conditions; more labour-saving devices; in short, a better standard of living. The drive for material well-being in the First and Third Worlds used to be called social progress and used to be at the forefront of progressive ambitions for the future. No longer.

Jonathon Porritt now says that it is ‘blindingly obvious (that) completely unsustainable population growth in most of Africa will keep it permanently, hopelessly stuck in deepest, darkest poverty.’ In his version of the Dark Continent, Porritt sees more people using more energy and resources as the problem rather than the solution. In fact, growth and development (without ‘sustainable’ prefixes) are the very things that are needed in order to lift them out of penury. It is progress and technology that are required to raise people’s capacity to live beyond subsistence, not subsistence that determines the number of people that can adequately be supported. The more that we accept that we are in thrall to nature; the more we eschew material growth; the more the world becomes recreated in Malthus’ image.

Not so long ago, humanity was rightly seen as a source of creativity, progress and dynamism. In those days, many people recognised that things were not as good as they could be, and aimed to transform the world for the better, striving to overcome natural constraints to human development. Admittedly, this was often honoured more in the breach than in real policies on the ground, but the aspiration was admirable. Environmental concerns were viewed simply as technical problems that could be tackled without needing to challenge society’s commitment to growth. However, this perception has radically changed in recent years: nowadays, to advocate growth is almost a social faux-pas and the commonplace contemporary perception is that Man has gone from being a solution, to being the problem. Such a despondent worldview has resulted in Man’s self-loathing… or at least, in the loathing of others.

For those who think that the ‘debate is over’ all that remains is to work out which method is best to achieve the necessary restraint. Should we reduce the amount of goods that humans consume; or should we reduce the amount of humans that consume them. Should we minimise the amount of CO2 produced by industrialisation, or that produced by respiration? Whichever way round it is presented, it is the same misanthropic logic – one which many commentators (like Mary Colwell in ‘Too big for the planet?’ 21 July 2007), fail to acknowledge.

Once it is conceded that human production and consumption is the problem, all manner of misanthropes can crawl out of the woodwork. Professor John Gray thinks it acceptable to compare humanity to ‘slime mould’; while kindly old James Lovelock is feted for suggesting that the world is suffering a ‘plague of people.’ Reith lecturer Jeffrey Sachs is applauded for speaking contemptuously of the world ‘bursting at the seams’, and Chris Rapley, head of the Science Museum says that he is ‘not advocating genocide (just) ways to reduce the birthrate’. It is hardly surprising that the Optimum Population Trust is rearing its ugly head.

‘Every person who is born uses more food, more water, more land, more fossil fuels, more trees and produces more rubbish, more pollution, more greenhouse gases, and adds to the problem of over-population.’ So says Ms Toni Vernelli who boasts of having had an abortion and sterilisation so that she and her partner ‘can have one long-haul flight a year as we are vegan and childless, thereby greatly reducing our carbon footprint.’

If you see humanity as nothing more than a potential carbon excreting machine then Vernelli’s extreme position has a twisted logic to it. Some critics have simply suggested that she ought to have had the child and stopped the holidays but this merely disputes the form, not the content of her decision.

At the very least, it is anti-social and uncharitable to suggest that the fewer of us that exist, the more there is to go round but, more broadly, it reflects a damnable resistance to social improvement. Dr Susan Blackmore speaks of the ‘root problem (of) over-population on this planet’ and complains of ‘six billion people wanting fridges, power showers, cars, cheap flights and fast food?’ We now live in such an anti-human era that population reduction lobbyists, anti-growth environmentalists, and all other kinds of critics of Man’s existence exhibit an utter contempt for ordinary people.

Unsurprisingly, much of this finds expression in the paranoia around the inexorable rise of China and India. It is now common to hear explicit fears about the Chinese building hundreds of coal-fired power stations to fuel their economic growth; or scares about India’s revolution in cheap flights and cheap cars? It is ironic that the dynamism of these emerging economies is reflected in their faith in the creative – rather than the destructive – force of humanity. As it happens, while Britain sees population growth as a potential source of instability, China sees its increasing population as a source of productive capacity. Britain is in the throes of cultural pessimism, China is riding high on optimism. The apparent relaxation of China’s nefarious one-child policy (long condemned as part of the West’s ideological assault against totalitarianism) has been met by Jonathon Porritt’s demand for one-child policy in the West.

The Optimum Population Trust says: ‘The greatest thing anyone in Britain could do to help the future of the planet would be to have one less child.’ Blinded by a carbon infatuation, we are in very real danger of losing sight of our humanity. For those, like me, who believe that new life is a wellspring of potential creativity rather than damage; of hope rather than harm, the mere concept of too many people is an alien one. The re-emergence of collective self-doubt and of population restraint should be worrying for those who believe in the human potential and human exceptionalism. It is about time that we overturned this creeping Malthusian misanthropy and put people, not the earth first.


Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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