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

Really Bad Ideas: Population control

Since the beginning of time, one of the clearest markers of an enlightened society has been the moral status it attaches to human life. And outwardly, at least, twenty-first-century Western societies express an unprecedented degree of respect for human life.

For example, cultural and political institutions continually talk about the need to uphold human rights. The human rights narrative now shapes policymaking, both domestically and internationally. Many even argue that protecting human rights is a cross-border duty that should override the principle of national sovereignty. Our societies are also increasingly health-obsessed. The phenomenal growth in health expenditure in recent years shows just how much prosperous societies respect individual life today. Western societies will sometimes go to extraordinary lengths in their efforts to keep a premature baby alive or to prolong the life of elderly people or those who are chronically ill.

And yet, alongside the ethos of human rights and the development of heroic medicine, contemporary society appears estranged from its own humanity. To put it bluntly: it is difficult to celebrate human life in any meaningful way when people – or at least the growth of the number of people – are regarded as the source of the world’s problems. Alongside today’s respect for human life there is the increasingly popular idea that there is too much human life around, and that it is killing the planet.

The humanist impulse that once drove the development of the modern world has been replaced by a tendency to view humanity with suspicion, or even outright hostility. The vocabulary of our times – ‘human impact on the environment’; ‘ecological footprint’; ‘human consumption’ – invokes a sense of dread over the active exercise of human life. 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 to the very survival of the planet, human activity – from birth to consumption to procreation – is regarded as a mixed blessing. Consequently, our concern with preserving and improving the quality of life of some people sits uneasily with an increasingly shrill demand to prevent people from being born in the first place.

Today, many green-leaning writers and activists argue that population control is the best solution to the problems we face. This belief that there are ‘too many people’ inhabiting the globe has reared its ugly head numerous times over the past 200 years. Since the times of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), a catastrophic vision of population growth causing the collapse of society has formed an important part of the culturally pessimistic outlook. Back in the eighteenth century it was predicted that population growth would lead to famine, starvation and death. Today’s pessimists have raised the stakes further: they denounce population growth as a threat to biodiversity and to the very existence of the planet. Twenty-first-century Malthusians are not so much worried about an impending famine: they’re more concerned that people are producing and consuming too much food and other commodities.

Where in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Malthusians warned that population growth threatened people with starvation, today’s Malthusians denounce people for threatening the planet by consuming too much. As a result, contemporary Malthusianism has an unusually strident and misanthrophic streak. In the West, the population-control lobby castigates those who have large families for being environmentally irresponsible. Having children, especially lots of children, is now discussed as an ‘eco-crime’ on a par with pollution. From this perspective, a new human life is seen as little more than another producer of carbon; new life is seen as a form of pollution. So it would be better, the Malthusians argue, if these new human lives did not exist at all. As one Malthusian crusader notes: ‘A non-existent person has no environmental footprint; the emission “saving” is instant and total.’ (1) This preference for the non-existent over the existent speaks to a powerful anti-humanist sensibility. And it is not only eccentric and isolated misanthropes who value ‘non-existence’ as being somehow morally superior to existence – rather, this outlook is symptomatic of a wider trend for devaluing the status of human life today.

For contemporary Malthusians, every new child is another pollutant: she may just be a baby now, but by the time she is 80 she will be responsible for the emission of 9.3 tonnes of CO2! So why worry about how much pollution your car causes? Apparently you should be far more concerned with limiting the size of the population. ‘Population limitation should…be seen as the most cost-effective carbon offsetting strategy available to individuals and nations’, argues the dreary British-based population-control outfit, the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) (2). Once the emission of greenhouse gases is taken to be the defining feature of human activity, then it follows that controlling fertility is the ideal ‘carbon offsetting strategy’. ‘If we had half as many people, we wouldn’t have much of a climatic warming problem’, says Ric Oberlink of the US-based group Californians for Population Stabilization (3). And no doubt if the human species disappeared off the face of the Earth altogether, then the crisis of global warming would resolve itself and the planet would be very happy.

For Oberlink and his associates, global warming is a symptom of the far greater menace of population growth. ‘Global warming is a very serious problem, but it is a subset of the overpopulation problem’, claims Oberlink. John Seager, president of Population Connection, the American campaign group that was formerly known as Zero Population Growth, also believes that the ‘underlying cause of global warming’ is ‘human population growth’ (4). The idea that population growth is the principal threat to the planet is widely disseminated through the mainstream media. While giving the prestigious BBC Reith Lectures earlier this year, the economist Jeffrey Sachs argued that ‘our planet is crowded to an unprecedented degree’, and such overcrowding is ‘creating….unprecedented pressures on human society and on the physical environment’ (5). This pessimistic view of population growth is so taken for granted that it is very rarely challenged in mainstream intellectual and cultural circles.

The catastrophic imagination in contemporary Western culture has encouraged the Malthusian lobby to target the very aspiration for procreation. Controlling fertility is now described 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 the OPT, with incredulity (6). The idea that people should have the right to make choices about their family size is dismissed as an indefensible outrage against common sense.

This assault on the right to procreate is often intrusive, even coercive. Take the example of Rwanda. The world was horrified by the mass slaughter in Rwanda in 1994, during which an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed. Yet it appears that, so far as the population-control lobby is concerned, there are still too many people living in Rwanda. As one headline earlier this year put it: ‘After so many deaths, too many births.’ Apparently, ‘After the 1994 genocide, in which more than 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered, it seemed difficult to believe that overpopulation would ever be a problem. Yet Rwanda has long had more people than its meagre resources and small area can support.’ Now, with the guidance of Western non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the Rwandan government is planning a sweeping population-control programme. From now on, everyone who visits a medical centre will be ‘counselled’ about family planning (7). Experience shows that such ‘counselling’ in reality means putting pressure on women to use contraception.

It is in poverty-stricken, insecure countries like Rwanda, where people lack the resources to assume even a modicum of control over their lives, that the truly inhumane nature of population-control policies becomes clear.

A cause in search of an argument

The distinctive feature of Malthusianism is its profound consciousness of limits. The fatalistic Malthusian outlook looks upon people as parasitic consumers whose appetites are limited only by the obstacles thrown up by nature. Malthus’ Essay, which was written in 1798, was a reaction against the optimistic visions of humanity put forward by Enlightenment thinkers. For Enlightenment thinkers such as Condorcet and Godwin, people were not simply consumers – they were are also creative actors, innovators, producers. Thankfully, in the centuries since he wrote Essay and other works, Malthus’ alarmist warnings have proven to be unfounded: food production has generally increased in line with population growth and there has not been a global famine. However, the fact that Malthus’ predictions did not come true has not discouraged anti-humanists from pursuing the population-control project. They simply invent new reasons for why we must control population growth.

Over the past two centuries, a bewildering array of problems has been blamed on population growth. At various times, famine, poverty, the failure of Third World economies, instability, revolution, the spread of communism and the subordinate position of women have been linked to population growth (8). The approach of the population growth lobby is devastatingly simple: they take a problem and argue that it would diminish in intensity if there were fewer people. Such simplistic methodology is even used to account for the emergence of new forms of terrorism today.

The Malthusian fantasy about a ‘ticking population bomb’ has been recycled in a new form – now rising population is said to give rise to real bombs in the form of Islamist terrorism. Apparently overpopulation creates a lot of poor, unemployed, discontented men; and many of them turn into troublemakers, which means that they can become canon fodder for terrorist networks; thus they end up on the wrong side of the ‘war on terror’. In the Seventies Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, argued that population growth in the South inexorably led to the triumph of communism. Today he has recycled this simplistic diagnosis to argue that population growth has led to the rise of international terrorism. Demographic factors are ‘likely contributors’ to terrorism, he claims. Why? Because the ‘vast majority of terrorists are young males’ and there are ‘huge numbers of boys under 15’ in Muslim nations.

This idea that large numbers of young males equals a potential terrorist threat is systematically promoted by the supporters of population control. ‘It is impossible to ignore the link between rapid population growth and terrorism’, says the director of the Population Coalition, a collection of population-control groups. In truth, it is the logic of the simpleton that sees a link between large numbers of young men and terrorism: population-control activists believe that because population is growing at the same time that new forms of terrorism are emerging, then they must be linked! If we took this view to its logical conclusion, then anything that coincides with current demographic patterns – whether it’s Hurricane Katrina, the boom in property prices in London or the popularity of iPods – could be linked to population growth.

Prominent Malthusian organisations such as the Worldwatch Institute and the Population Institute have set out to repose population control as an effective counter-terrorist measure. Consider the Population Institute’s study Breeding Insecurity: Global Security Implications Of Rapid Population Growth. It argues that ‘rapid population growth in developing countries creates national security problems, including civil unrest and terrorism’. The report cites a study by another Malthusian group, Population Action International, which claims that ‘youth bulges create instability and increase the likelihood for terrorism and civil unrest by as much as 50 per cent’. Fifty per cent might sound like a big number – but this is an entirely made-up figure, a figment of the Malthusian imagination which is obsessed with constructing a relationship between demographic growth and terrorism.

The obvious conclusion to be drawn from the ‘50 per cent’ claim is that the threat of terrorism could be halved if only we implemented a vigorous programme of population control. Apparently the solution to the problem of terrorism is to stop ‘them’ breeding. As the Population Institute’s report concludes: ‘While family-planning programs will not create a more secure world on their own, they will go a long way toward reducing pressures on societies that lead to instability, unrest, and terrorism.’

Losing faith in the human

You don’t have to be a sophisticated student of global politics to see through the simplistic and opportunistic arguments on security put forward by the new Malthusians. But then, the success of Malthusianism has never been down to the rigour or eloquence of its ideas. Rather, the success of Malthusian ideas depends on the strength of cultural pessimism at any given time. And today it is the loss of faith in the human potential, a fatalistic view of the future, which has rejuvenated the population-control crusade.

So powerful is cultural pessimism today that even the special quality of human life is now called into question. Today, pollution is seen as the principal feature and consequence of human existence. Indeed, today’s neo-Malthusian thinking is far more dismal and misanthropic than the original version. For all his intellectual pessimism and lack of imagination, Thomas Malthus possessed a far more robust belief in humanity than do his contemporary followers. Although he shared today’s cultural obsession with the limits of nature, he nonetheless expressed a conviction that humanity had a positive role to play. He argued that although ‘our future prospects respecting the mitigation of the evils arising from the principle of population may not be so bright as we could wish…they are far from being entirely disheartening, and by no means preclude that gradual and progressive improvement in human society, which before the late wild speculations on this subject, was the object of rational expectation’ (9).

Malthus’ reservations about the human potential were a product of his deep-seated hostility to the optimistic humanism of his intellectual opponents: Condorcet, Godwin and others. And yet, he made it clear that despite his pessimistic view of population growth ‘it is hoped that the general result of [my] inquiry is not such as to make us give up the improvement of human society in despair’ (10).

In contrast to today’s singularly pessimistic neo-Malthusians, Malthus’ On The Principle of Population managed to convey a belief in humanity. Over the past two centuries, his followers have often tried to discourage people from the ‘wrong’ classes and the ‘wrong races’ from procreating – yet despite their prejudices they continued to affirm the special status of the human species (or at least certain sections of it). In some instances – for example, during the rise of the eugenic movement – rabid prejudice against so-called racial inferiors was combined with a belief in human progress.

By contrast, today’s Malthusians share all the old prejudices and in addition they harbour a powerful sense of loathing against the human species itself. Is it any surprise, then, that some of them actually celebrate non-existence? The obsession with natural limits distracts society from the far more creative search for solutions to hunger or poverty or lack of resources. Worse still, by calling into question the special quality of the human, the population-control lobby seeks to corrode people’s confidence in their ability to tackle the problems of the future. Human life should always be treated as precious and special. How can there possibly be too many of us?

Frank Furedi is author of Population And Development; A Critical Introduction (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

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

(2) Ibid.

(3) Cited in Group Calls for Population Control to Stop Global Warming by Monisha Bansal, CNSNews, 18 April 2007

(4) Effective Way To Fight Global Warming by John Seager, The Providence Journal, 20 April 2007

(5) Bursting at the Seams, Lecture 1 of Reith lectures 2007

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

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

(8) For an elaboration of these arguments see Population And Development; A Critical Introduction, Frank Furedi, Polity Press (Oxford), 1997

(9) T.R.Malthus (undated) On The Principle of Population, vol.2; p.261

(10) Ibid.

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