• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Ignore this missive from our downbeat doctors

We live in a culture that finds it increasingly difficult to value life. So it isn’t surprising that even the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) has published an editorial calling on doctors to advise their patients to have fewer children.

According to the authors of the editorial – life-long Malthusian Professor John Guillebaud and Pip Hayes, an Exeter-based GP – not having children is ‘analogous to avoiding patio heaters and high-carbon cars’. Newborn babies are a danger to the environment, they argue, and although they rhetorically state that ‘we must not put pressure on people’, pressure is exactly what they want doctors to exercise as part of this new Malthusian crusade.

‘We are not criticising those people in Britain who had large families in the past, because a lot of people had no inkling about the sustainability implications’, Guillebeaud informed the UK Guardian (1). In fact, as a hard-line Malthusian zealot, Guillebeaud has been criticising people who breed ‘too much’ for a very long time. All that has changed in recent years is the packaging of anti-natalist arguments.

In the past, Malthusians warned that overpopulation would lead to famine. When that argument disintegrated, they said overpopulation would undermine economic development. Later they claimed that overpopulation might assist the spread of communism, and more recently they have argued that it aids terrorism (lots of poor young men with no jobs apparently leads to apocalyptic violence).

Now they have latched on to environmentalism and the widespread concern about humanity’s impact on the planet. What we have today is a new form of joined-up scaremongering, where the traditional fear of human fertility is linking up with anxieties about what humans are doing to the Earth.

Literally scared of babies

King Herod’s fear of the newborn was confined to one baby. Today’s misanthrophic fear merchants have a far bigger target in their sights. One Australian professor of obstetric medicine, Barry Walters, believes the survival of the planet requires stringent controls on the number of children parents can have. He argues:

‘Anthropogenic greenhouse gases constitute the largest source of pollution, with by far the greatest contribution from humans in the developed world. Every newborn baby in Australia represents a potent source of greenhouse gas emissions for an average of 80 years, not simply by breathing, but by the profligate consumption of resources typical of our society. What then should we do as environmentally responsible medical practitioners? We should point out the consequences to all who fail to see them, including, if necessary, the ministers for health. Far from showering financial booty on new mothers and thereby rewarding greenhouse-unfriendly behaviour, a “Baby Levy” in the form of a carbon tax should apply, in line with the “polluter pays” principle.’ (2)

Throughout history, different cultures have celebrated birth as a unique moment, signifying the joy of life. The reinterpretation of a new birth as ‘greenhouse-unfriendly behaviour’ speaks to today’s degraded imagination, where carbon-reduction has become the supreme moral imperative. Once every newborn baby is dehumanised in this way – represented as little more than a professional polluter who is a ‘potent source of greenhouse gas emissions’ – then it becomes difficult for people to read the BMJ editorial without nodding along in agreement.

If the birth of a baby is regarded as an unnecessary and unacceptable burden on the carrying capacity of the planet, then it’s only a matter of time before a child’s very existence will be regarded as a threat. One of the distinct features of contemporary environmentalism is its intense suspicion of the human species. Environmentalists’ systematic spread of fear about the ‘human impact’ promotes mistrust of people’s motives, and in the end of people themselves. Going further down this route, the new demands for a carbon tax on fertility means that the defining identity of a newborn baby would be ‘Polluter’.

As potential polluters, babies cease to be those lovely cuddly things that bring so much joy into our lives. Robbing babies of their endearing innocence makes it easier to scare people away from having them – or at least from having too many of them. In recent centuries babies were discussed as a ‘blessing’; now, some argue that they are more of a ‘curse’, especially for the environment.

This reversal in the way we regard human life is explicitly endorsed by the American environmentalist writer Kelpie Wilson. Recently, Wilson presented abortion, not as a necessary option that allows women to determine how they live their lives, but as a sacrifice worth making in the interests of saving the planet. ‘To understand that a tiny embryo must sometimes be sacrificed for the greater good of the family or the human species as a whole is the moral high ground that we stand on today’, argues Wilson. Why? Because ‘we have to consider how we will live tomorrow on a resource-depleted and climate-compromised planet’.

From Wilson’s perspective, abortion is morally justified as a resource-saving strategy. She believes that ‘most women who seek abortions do so in order to conserve resources for children they already have’. Here, scare stories about the ‘physical limits of the planet’ are presented as ‘moral arguments about abortion’ (3).

If even newborn innocent little things are depicted as lifelong addicts to pollution – and if many believe it would be better if they were never born in the first place – then what does it mean to be human?

When life loses meaning

Since the beginning of time, one of the clearest markers of an enlightened civilised society was the moral status it attached to human life – and outwardly, at least, twenty-first century Western society expresses an unprecedented degree of affirmation for human life.

This is an age where the principle of human rights is culturally celebrated and extolled by all of the major political institutions. The phenomenal growth in health expenditure shows how seriously prosperous societies treat human wellbeing. In some cases, Western societies go to extraordinary lengths in their efforts to keep alive a premature baby or to prolong the lives of the elderly and of chronically ill people.

And yet the ethos of human rights and heroic medicine exists at a time when contemporary society also seems estranged from its own humanity. To put it bluntly: it is difficult to celebrate human life if people, or at least the growth in the number of people, are regarded as the source of the world’s problems. In the twenty-first century, the humanist impulse that drove the development of the modern world has been displaced by an impulse that regards humanity with suspicion, if not outright hostility. One of the central themes of contemporary scaremongering is that people should fear themselves and their fellow human beings.

Apparently, there are too many of us doing too much living and breathing. In a world where humanity is portrayed as a threat to the environment and the survival of the planet, the pursuit of human life itself is regarded as a mixed blessing. Consequently, our concern with preserving and improving the quality of life of some individuals sits uneasily with increasingly shrill demands that we should prevent people from being born in the first place.

In previous times, religious leaders would regularly rebuke sinners and threaten them with a fate worse than death. Often people were burdened with the charge of ‘original sin’. Yet despite such harsh regimes of theological authority, religious leaders also recognised people’s capacity for virtuous behaviour. Human life was affirmed as unique and special, and people who behaved according to the Book were assured salvation and the blessing of the Almighty. Many of today’s Malthusians take a very different approach: they find it difficult to find any redeeming qualities in the human condition, and appear driven by a passionate desire to make us scared of ourselves.

There was a time when scare stories warned people about venturing into the unknown – today people are warned about venturing into the known! The demand that we should all stay put is neatly summed up in the recently invented term ‘ecological footprint’. The way in which this term has entered everyday speech shows how normal human behaviour is viewed as destructive. The idea that having an impact on the environment is necessarily a bad thing is rarely criticised, despite its powerfully misanthropic underpinnings. On TV, in cinema and in popular culture, representations of the past frequently suggest that the development of civilisation itself, particularly the advance of science and technology, is the source of today’s problems of environmental destruction and social disintegration. Some environmentalist writers even regard the shift from a nomadic existence to the advent of agriculture as a mixed blessing. Kelpie Wilson argues that ‘suddenly there was a massive population growth in the human species’. This led to friction and war and environmental destruction.

From this perspective, the lifestyles of hunters and gatherers are the most harmonious with nature and the environment. Those old hunter-gatherers got things right, and civilisation only cocked it all up. And since ‘natural hunter-gatherers’ rarely had many children, ‘large families are really completely unnatural for human beings’, argues Wilson. This view of civilisation as an ‘unnatural’ tale of horror and destruction is frequently put forward by the British apocalyptic philosopher John Gray, too. Gray laments the advent of agricultural society 10,000 years ago for helping to create the conditions for human development and civilisation.

The idea that civilisation bears responsibility for the perils we face today assigns a low, undistinguished status to the human species. And the most striking expression of the contemporary loathing of all things human is in the argument that we must significantly reduce the number of human beings in order to save the Earth. As Theodore Roszark wrote in New Scientist in August 2002: ‘There isn’t a single ecological problem that won’t be ameliorated by a smaller population.’

For contemporary Malthusian campaigners, human life has little meaning. Their scaremongering about ‘too many people’ is often based on a genuine dislike of people – especially people who are not like them. Take Paul Ehrlich, one of the best-known environmentalist campaigners against population growth. His classic scaremongering text, The Population Bomb, provides the reader with glimpses of his own feelings towards his fellow human beings. Ehrlich’s account of an evening out on the town with his wife and daughter in Delhi helps explain his fear of ‘too many people’:

‘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, hand horn squawking, the dust, noise, heat and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly, frightened…since that night I’ve known the feel of overpopulation.’[iv]

Those who are frightened by ‘people, people, people, people’ find it difficult to endow human life with meaning. Uncontained by compassion and sentimentality for their fellow human beings, they regard human life as cheap, as having no more value than other species. In this vein, the deep ecologists Arne Naess and George Sessions argued in 1984 that a ‘substantial reduction in human population is needed for the flourishing of non-human life’.

Celebrating non-existence

The idea that there are too many people inhabiting the globe has been promoted in different ways by different people in recent centuries. Since the time of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), the catastrophic vision of population growth causing the collapse of society has played an important role in outbreaks of cultural pessimism. Back in the nineteenth century, it was predicted that population growth would lead to famine, starvation and death. Today’s cultural pessimists have raised the stakes: they denounce population growth as a threat to biodiversity and the very existence of the planet. Twenty-first century Malthusians are not so much worried about an impending famine as they are by the notion that people simply use too many resources and commodities. 

Whereas in the nineteenth century, Malthusians warned that population growth threatened people with starvation, today they denounce people for threatening the planet. That is why contemporary Malthusianism has acquired such an unusually strident and anti-human tone. In the West, the population control lobby castigates those who have large families for being ‘environmentally irresponsible’. Having children, especially lots of them, is treated as an eco-crime. Another human life is simply ‘more carbon emissions’ – which is why it would be better if such lives never existed. As the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement puts it: ‘Humans are too great a threat to life on Earth: they should be phased out.’

Another Malthusian writer argues that ‘a non-existent person has no environmental footprint; the emission “saving” is instant and total’ (5). This obvious preference for the non-existent over the existent shows how far-reaching is today’s anti-human attitude.

The catastrophic imagination that underpins twenty-first century Western culture has encouraged the Malthusian lobby to target the very aspiration for procreation. Controlling fertility is now advocated as a duty rather than a matter of choice. ‘Couples making decisions about family size do so in the belief that it is a matter for them and their personal preferences alone’, says a population control advocacy group, with incredulity (6). The idea that people should have the right to make choices about their family size is today dismissed as an indefensible outrage against common sense. And this assault on the right to procreate often becomes intrusive and coercive.

Consider the example of Rwanda. The world was horrified at the mass slaughter of people that occurred there in 1994, in which more than 800,000 people were killed. Yet as far as the population control lobby is concerned, there are still too many people living in Rwanda. John Guillebaud has argued that people living in Rwanda ‘need one-child families’. With the guidance of Western non-governmental organisations, the Rwandan government is planning a sweeping population-control programme. Accordingly, everyone who visits a medical centre will be ‘counselled’ on family planning (7).

Experience shows that such ‘counselling’ is in reality a medium for putting pressure on women to adopt some form of contraception. In a poverty-stricken, unstable country like Rwanda, where people lack the resources to assume even a modicum of control over their lives, we can see today’s inhumane scaremongering about a plague of people for what it really is.

(1) ‘Doctors’ advice to Britons: have fewer children and help save the planet’, Guardian, 25 July 2008.

(2) MJA * Volume 187 Number 11/12 * 3/17 December 2007

(3) See Kelpie Wilson ‘Abortion and the Earth’, Truthout, 29 January 2008

(4) Ehrlich (1971) p.1

(5) A Population-Based Climate Strategy – An Optimum Population Trust Briefing, by David Nicholson-Lord, May 2007

(6) A Population-Based Climate Strategy – An Optimum Population Trust Briefing, by David Nicholson-Lord, May 2007

(7) See Stephen Kinzer ‘After So Many Deaths, Too Many Births’, New York Times, 11 February 2007

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