It was only a matter of time before a leading British politician decided to link the alleged problem of population growth with the issue of immigration.
David Cameron, leader of the UK Conservative Party, called yesterday for a ‘grown-up conversation’ about population growth in Britain. His demand will resonate with the powerful mood of pessimism - especially on issues of population and the ‘human footprint’ - that dominates in Western societies today. Just last week, a report published by the United Nations argued that humanity will face extinction if we fail to control and curtail population growth.
These days, virtually every social issue - from environmental degradation to the movement of people across borders, from the issue of housing to security and global terrorism - has been recycled as a ‘population problem’. Thomas Malthus and his depressing view of the human condition have made a remarkable comeback in recent years. Today, simplistic demographic determinism is more popular than at any other time since the nineteenth century.
Since the time of Malthus (1766-1834), demographic growth has been discussed as a problem on the basis that there are not enough resources to go around. This tendency to view social problems as natural problems - where the big issue facing humanity is apparently resource scarcity and resource depletion rather than the question of how society is organised - meant that Malthusianism always appealed to the conservative imagination.
However, humanity’s ability to develop its economy through the application of science and technology has tended to discredit demographic determinism over the past 200 years. Its recent comeback is underpinned by new environmentalist ideas, and especially the notion that humanity’s impact on the planet is, by definition, an act of destruction.
Our cultural and political elites seem to have lost sight of the fact that, throughout history, the overall impact of humanity on the environment has been a beneficial one. Indeed, in many parts of Africa and Asia today, environmental degradation is the consequence of de-population - that is, of a diminishing human impact on the natural environment. Conversely, one can see the positive consequences of human impact in some of the most densely populated areas of the world.
Population growth can only be considered a problem if we view people one-sidedly as consumers rather than producers. In the world of Cameron and his fellow Malthusians, another migrant arriving in Britain is simply another mouth to feed - yet, such a person could also be seen as an extra pair of hands and more brain cells. Whether they are Polish plumbers or Indian computer consultants, immigrants have the potential to expand the resources that are available to British society. From a humanist perspective, more people means potentially more problem-solvers. This is not a wishy-washy idealistic dream; rather, history demonstrates that the creative power of humanity is unleashed in regions and cities that are densely populated.
Contrary to Cameron’s statement yesterday, there can be no ‘grown-up conversation’ about population growth. Because the very problematisation of population growth is a way of evading the social problems facing society - in other words, of evading a grown-up debate about how we might do things better. Britain does not have a demographic problem. The crisis in British public services is not caused by the recent growth in immigration levels. In previous times, debates about immigration were refracted through ideas of ‘race’; today they are conducted through the language of ‘sustainability’.
Sadly, this new form of Malthusian thinking does not represent much of an advance on the old, racial version.