Most normal adults regard a new baby as an object of love and affection. Traditionally, a new life has been seen as a blessing, as a symbol of humanity’s hopes for a better future. Thankfully, many of us still think this way. Yet Western culture has also become prey to a powerful mood of misanthropy, which looks upon newborns as a threat to the planet.
Now it is reported that the UK government-sponsored Sustainable Development Commission believes that curbing people’s right to reproduce should be central to the fight against global warming (1). Jonathon Porritt, who chairs the commission and is also a patron of the Malthusian campaigning group the Optimum Population Trust, wants to turn population control into the key objective of environmental campaigning. So the totalitarian impulse towards controlling people’s reproductive lives has now received the blessing of sections of the British political elite.
Porritt’s estrangement from the newborn puts him in the company of a growing band of dreary misanthropists. King Herod’s fear of the newborn was confined to one baby. Today’s misanthropic fear-merchants have a wider target. One Australian professor of obstetric medicine, Barry Walters, believes that the very survival of the planet demands stringent controls on the number of children parents can have. This is what he has to say:
‘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 birth as a form of ‘greenhouse-unfriendly behaviour’ speaks to today’s degraded imagination, where carbon-reduction becomes the supreme moral imperative. Once every newborn baby is dehumanised in this way, represented as a professional polluter who is a ‘potent source of greenhouse gas emissions’, then it becomes increasingly difficult to feel anything other than apprehension about the growth of the human race.
The Optimum Population Trust stamps every newborn with a metaphorical health warning. It argues that each baby born in Britain will cost two-and-a-half acres of woodland in terms of how much CO2 they will burn. If the birth of a baby is seen as an unnecessary and unacceptable burden on the carrying capacity of the planet, then it is only a matter of time before human beings, by their very existence, are regarded as a threat. One of the most distinct features of contemporary scaremongering is its intense suspicion of the human species. Sooner or later, scaremongering always comes to be directed at ourselves. The systematic promotion of suspicion and fear leads, inevitably, to mistrust of people themselves, and of their motives. When experts demand a ‘carbon tax’ on fertility, then the defining identity of a new baby is that of ‘Polluter’. Subjecting the act of birth to the ‘polluter pays’ principle exposes the dark side of today’s misanthropic imagination, which so often fuels scaremongering.
As potential polluters, babies cease to be those lovely cuddly things that bring joy to our lives. Robbing babies of what we perceive to be their endearing innocence makes it easier to scare people off having them in the first place. In recent centuries, babies were described as a blessing; now some argue that not having a baby is a blessing, at least for the environment.
Such a reversal in the way we regard human life can be seen in the writings of environmentalists such as Kelpie Wilson. She agues that, today, abortion is not so much a necessary option that allows women some control over their lives, but a sacrifice that everyone should be encouraged to make in the interests of the environment. ‘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’, says 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’. 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 carbon and pollution, what hope is there for the rest of the human race?
When life loses meaning
Since the beginning of time, one of the clearest markers of an enlightened civilised society has been the moral status it attaches to human life. And outwardly, twenty-first-century Western society expresses an unprecedented degree of affirmation for human life. The principle of human rights is widely celebrated. The phenomenal growth in health expenditure shows that prosperous societies care very much for human wellbeing and life. In some cases, Western societies go to extraordinary lengths to keep alive a premature baby or to prolong the life of elderly people or people who are chronically ill.
And yet these things exist in an ambiguous relationship with contemporary society’s estrangement from its own humanity. To put it bluntly: it is difficult to celebrate human life if people, or at least the growth of the number of people, are looked upon as the source of the world’s problems. Today, the humanist impulse that drove the development of the modern world has been displaced by an outlook that regards humanity with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Indeed, one of the main themes of contemporary scaremongering is that people should fear themselves and their fellow human beings. Over-eating is only one way that people are said to become complicit in acts of ‘planetary destruction’. It seems that our very existence, our very need for sustenance, is a curse for Mother Earth.
The language used by aspiring fertility controllers such as Jonathon Porritt continually reduces human behaviour to acts of planetary vandalism. Terms like ‘human impact on the environment’, ‘ecological footprint’ and ‘carbon consumption’ invoke a sense of dread towards human actions. It appears that there are too many of us doing too much living and too much breathing. In a world where humanity is portrayed as a threat to the environment, the pursuit of new human life is seen as a mixed blessing. Consequently our concern with preserving and improving the quality of life of some individuals sits uneasily with ever-shriller demands to prevent people from being born in the first place.
In recent times, scaremongers have become very inventive in recasting human behaviour as essentially destructive. In previous times, religious leaders would rebuke sinners and threaten them with a fate worse than death. Often people were burdened with the charge of ‘original sin’. Yet despite such a harsh regime 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 see any redeeming qualities in the human condition, and appear to be 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 against even venturing into the known… This call to stay put is captured in the recently invented term ‘ecological footprint’. The use of this term in everyday debate shows that the association of normal human activity with destructive behaviour resonates widely today. Such an outlook, which conveys the idea that having an impact on the environment is necessarily a bad thing, is rarely criticised for its misanthropic assumptions.
On television, in cinema and in popular, cultural representations of the past frequently imply that the development of civilisation, particularly the advance of science and technology, is the source of today’s problems of environmental destruction and social disintegration. Some environmentalist writers even view the shift from a nomadic existence to the advent of agriculture as historically problematic. 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 hunter-gatherers are the most harmonious with the environment; they got things right, apparently, while civilisation simply cocked everything up. And since ‘hunter-gatherers’ rarely had many children, ‘large families are really completely unnatural for human beings’, argues Wilson. Such a depiction of civilisation as an ‘unnatural’ tale of horror and destruction is frequently put forward by the apocalyptic British philosopher John Gray, too. He 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 is responsible for the perils we face today assigns an undistinguished status to the human species. And the most striking manifestation of the loathing for everything human can be seen in the idea that we need a significant reduction in the number of human beings. As Theodore Roszak wrote in the New Scientist in August 2002: ‘There isn’t a single ecological problem that won’t be ameliorated by a smaller population.’ And now we have Jonathon Porritt demanding smaller families in order to save the planet. So maybe the solution is the extinction of the human race? The argument for limiting family sizes in Britain is the first hesitant step in that direction.
(1) See Two children should be limit says green guru, The Sunday Times, 1 February 2009
(2) MJA, Volume 187, Number 11/12, 3-17 December 2007
(3) Abortion and the Earth, Kelpie Wilson, Truthout, 29 January 2008