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

Treating human beings as little more than carbon

Below a picture of 12 black babies, the caption warns: ‘Babies in Dakar, Senegal.’ Then, with a literary sigh of relief, the subtitle to the caption points out that a ‘cost analysis commissioned by [the Optimum Population Trust] claims that family planning is the cheapest way to reduce carbon emissions’ (1). In other words, the destructiveness of such babies, these carbon emitters, can be counteracted if we prevent them from being born in the first place.

The odious Optimum Population Trust (OPT) is a zombie-like Malthusian organisation devoted to the cause of human depletion. Looking at the article by John Vidal in the Guardian, which contained that photo of 12 black babies and reported on the OPT’s new initiative inviting people in the West to offset their CO2 emissions by sponsoring ‘family planning’ in the developing world, I am not sure what I found most shocking: the message conveyed through the photograph, or the absence of any anger over the OPT and its supporters’ casual devaluation of human life.

There was a time when people who measured the value of human life through sombre calculations based on cost-benefit analyses were regarded with suspicion and contempt. Throughout most of history human life has been valued in and of itself; it has been seen as possessing a special quality that could not be reduced to quantities to be measured by misanthropic accountants. Yes, the human body also has a physical dimension, and it can be reduced to its chemical constituents. But isn’t there also something very special about life?

Sadly we live in a world where, for many climate crusaders, a photo of 12 beaming babies is somehow a bad thing, a symbol of the problems we face. Why? Because the OPT has discovered that ‘every £4 spent on contraception’ saves ‘one tonne of CO2 being added to global warming’. It claims that the most effective way to fight climate change is to get rich Western people to offset their own carbon emissions by paying for birth control programmes in poor nations.

What is truly disturbing about this, from a humanist perspective, is not simply that there is a silent crusade against the unique quality of human life, but that there is an almost complete absence of anger about it, a lack of any critical reaction against it. In modern times, there have always been small coteries of Malthusians, eugenic fantasists and bitter misanthropists who were estranged from children and who regarded babies as an imposition on their existences. Thankfully, these people tended to be consigned to the margins of society. Not any more.

Why is it that, today, the provision of contraception can be promoted as a sensible way of reducing carbon emissions? How do we account for the silence of religious movements whose theology still upholds the unique status of human life? And why are prominent so-called humanists so uninterested in countering this lethal Malthusian challenge to some of the most important ideals that emerged during the Renaissance and later developed through the Enlightenment?

Throughout history, outbursts of fear for newborns have been associated with society’s own anxiety about the future. Today, such a sense of dread towards the future is palpable. But we do not simply fear for the newborn; we are also uneasy with the act of birth and with the process of human renewal. What was once unambiguously celebrated as a joyous affirmation of our humanity is increasingly stigmatised as an act of arrogance and selfishness. From this perspective, the newly born baby does not so much put a smile on our faces and make us feel warm and affectionate as alert us to the presence of yet another polluter. Once newborn babies are dehumanised and recast as little pollution machines it becomes possible to advocate their elimination as an exercise in the reduction of carbon emissions.

A world that can place an equals sign between a baby and carbon is one that has lost its faith in humanity. This profound sense of malaise about the human condition is most systematically expressed around the extravagant, quasi-religious, time-is-running-out rhetoric that surrounds the Copenhagen conference on climate change, which started this morning. But it is important to recognise that the current anxiety about the destructive potential of human life is not a direct consequence of the issue of climate change. The campaign against climate change merely provides a vehicle through which a pre-existing sense of human self-loathing can be articulated. If climate change did not exist, the very same misanthropic sentiment would find expression through other issues.

The good news, however, is that the attempt to blame population growth for environmental degradation and for potentially harming future generations is a Malthusian fantasy that has been constantly discredited by real-world experiences. Dire predictions about the destructive impact of polluting newborn babies are based on the simplistic model where resources are a priori fixed relative to people. In such circumstances, population becomes the only variable that can make any difference, since it is the only one that is not fixed – and from this perspective more babies can only mean fewer resources and a greater destructive impact on the planet.

This model was expressed through Paul Ehrlich’s well-known Malthusian formula IPAT:

Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology

According to this formula, the impact of a population on the environment is the product of the size of the population (P), its level of affluence (A), and the impact of the technologies (T) that sustain the level of affluence. The implication of this formula is obvious: the more people there are, the more they consume; and the more technology they use, the greater the damage to the environment will be.

But what is ‘impact’? The term, as used by Malthusians, suggests that human impact brings about changes to the environment that are harmful and destructive to life. So impact means the erosion of land, for example. But do more people using more technology really lead to soil erosion? Not necessarily. Indeed, it often leads to the better management of land. Some of the regions of the world that suffer most from land erosion, like the Sahel, have relatively low population densities. There is no simple causal relationship between population size and the environment.

But doesn’t population growth lead to more carbon emissions, which will lead to planetary destruction? Again this model only makes sense if we accept some variant of the IPAT formula. If everything remains the same and nothing changes except the numbers of babies emitting carbon, then the worst-case scenarios imagined by climate-change alarmists become plausible. But the good news is that human beings do not simply emit carbon and pollute the world; people do not merely consume resources, they also produce them. They innovate, create and alter the very foundation of their existence. On balance, we should not so much worry about human impact as we should direct it along a constructive path. The obsessing with simply limiting this impact will distract society from creatively searching for solutions to the problems that we face.

The OPT’s trade-off between birth control and energy-saving technology – where a simple condom is said to be a better investment for ‘saving the planet’ than hi-tech inventions – is testimony to today’s disturbing mood of estrangement from human life. It is not surprising that offsetting carbon emissions through funding birth control is preferred to technological innovation. Because where technological innovation relies on investing in human potential, Malthusianism is focused on preventing the realisation of human potential. And this, on the day that Copenhagen starts, is the stark choice that confronts us all: whether we will nurture and encourage humanity’s potential, or watch as it is demonised and thwarted.

(1) Rich nations to offset emissions with birth control, Guardian, 3 December 2009

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