Yet Malthusianism is as fashionable as ever
Peter Oborne of the Telegraph wrote a perceptive article recently about the new director-general of the BBC and what his appointment tells us about the BBC’s general stance on politics and religion. For those who don’t know, it is Left-wing and secularist, if not actually atheist. Conservative-minded Christians – like the celebrated Lord Reith himself, the first director-general – need not apply for the post. I was reminded of this when reading an article last week by Tom Bailey, who is working as a student intern on the on-line contrarian magazine, Spiked, entitled “How neo-Malthusians demonise dissent”.
He quoted Michael Buerk, popular host of the Radio 4 programme, “The Moral Maze”. It seems that Buerk claims that the issue of human population growth is the “invisible issue of the twenty-first century”. Bailey asks, “Why is population growth the great unmentionable of our time? Because, as Buerk puts it, of the “population deniers”. This evil constituency seems “to regard the whole issue as bad taste, a kind of disguised racism”. As a result overpopulation “does not seem to be up for discussion.”
As Bailey points out, this is untrue; high-profile people often discuss this “invisible issue”; indeed it is almost a dogma in some quarters. He also rightly holds up the use of the phrase “population deniers” as a cheap way of bracketing those who dissent alongside Holocaust deniers. Once this emotive connection is made, any capacity for clear thought goes out the window. And, let’s be clear, the argument about overpopulation is covertly racist.
The Spiked article reminds us that Thomas Malthus’ own prejudiced view of the English working class “is now projected on to the people of Africa and Asia by today’s neo-Malthusians.” Their purported concern always centres on the dark-skinned peoples of the Third World, never on overpopulation by white-skinned people nearer to home. The perspective of the “overpopulation” thesis is also drearily pessimistic; it sees human beings as “a plague of locusts that consumes all it can. They don’t take into account that… humans are also producers, [that] each mouth to feed also comes with a pair of hands and a brain.” Bailey concludes that the problem of poverty in the Third World is not due to “Africans’ feckless, contraceptive-averse behaviour”; it is the result of economic stagnation.
His argument is eloquently bolstered by the writer and philosopher Roger Scruton in his latest book, Green Philosophy: How to think seriously about the planet. Scruton writes that Malthus’ heir was Paul Ehrlich who, in 1968, “initiated a worldwide movement of anxiety with his book The Population Bomb, which predicted that global overpopulation would cause massive famines as early as the seventies. Demographic studies showing that birth-rate declines as wealth increases were largely ignored in the ensuing panic, and it is only now the truth is widely accepted that famines are for the most part political phenomena, the result of military conflict, of state control of the food economy or, as in Soviet Ukraine, of a policy of genocide.”
Old mental habits of the “overpopulation” lobby die hard, however. Scruton cites another scare-mongering book, commissioned by the Club of Rome in 1972, called The Limits to Growth “which revived the thesis for which the Reverend Thomas Malthus is so well known, namely that human demand constantly rises while resources diminish as they are used, so that eventually resources must fail.” Scruton comments, “The book has been profoundly controversial and its worst predictions have already been refuted.”
Perhaps Buerk and his ilk should read less of Malthus and more of Scruton?