Who’s afraid of billions of people?


By Brendan O’Neill

It is UN World Population Day on Saturday 11 July, when various United Nations bodies will try to convince us that population growth is the cause of much of the planet’s economic and environmental crises. Here, we publish an edited version of a speech given by spiked editor Brendan O’Neill in London on 3 July, in which he argued against all attempts to curb human numbers.

Today, I want to argue that there should be absolutely no limits on population growth and no attempt whatsoever to cajole, coerce or convince people into having fewer children. I hope that in my lifetime the human population on Earth will reach the tens of billions, and it will not be a problem if, in the future, it rises to hundreds of billions.

The reason I say this is because our attitudes to the population level fundamentally reflect our attitudes to human ingenuity. The population debate is frequently dressed up in demographic and scientific clothing, but really it is a political issue, reflecting different political attitudes. Where you stand on population today tells us a lot about where you stand on the idea of progress, of civilisation, and of humanity itself.

It’s worth asking what drives the population-control and population-reduction lobby. These people have been around for a few centuries and their arguments have changed over time. For one of the first population scaremongers, Thomas Malthus in the eighteenth century, the main problem was that if too many people were born then there wouldn’t be enough food to feed them. He vastly underestimated the ability of industrialised society to create more and more food.

In the early twentieth century there was a racial and eugenic streak to population-reduction arguments: some claimed that there were too many Africans and Asians, who might weaken the power of white European nations.

More recently, the population-control lobby has adopted environmentalist arguments. It now says that too many people are demanding too much of Mother Earth, using up all of her resources and destroying her biodiversity. Some greens even refer to humans as a ‘plague on the planet’ and a ‘pathogenic organism’. In other words, humanity is a disease making the planet Earth sick.

The fact that the presentational arguments of the population-reduction lobby can change so fundamentally over time, while the core belief in ‘too many people’ remains the same, really shows that this is a political outlook in search of a social or scientific justification. It is an already-existing prejudice, held by certain kinds of people, which looks around for the latest trendy or respectable ideas to clothe itself in.

It is time we questioned, if not demolished, some of the supposedly respectable ideas that today’s Malthusians surround themselves with. There are three areas in particular I want to look at: the question of resources, the question of space, and the idea that human numbers cause poverty and destitution.

First on resources: the argument frequently made by Malthusians is that there is a fixed, finite amount of resources on this ball of gas and water that we call Earth, and that if the human population reaches a certain number then those resources will be all used up.

This is a deeply disingenuous depiction of what a resource is. There is little fixed about resources. The question of what is a resource and what isn’t a resource changes over time, depending on the level of development reached by any particular human society.

Resources are not some numerically measurable thing; they have a history and a future. For example, for much of human history the oceans were considered a terrible obstacle. People looked at them as barriers, as the unpredictable destroyers of human communities; the most they dared to do was live on the coastlines of seas and oceans. But when humans reached a higher level of technological and social development, really from the sixteenth century onwards, the oceans came to be seen as a means of travel and a deep well of resources. Today we travel across the oceans and fish and mine within them for food and oil.

Similarly, coal was previously seen as the key resource for Western industrialised societies. Now it is seen as less important. However, it is still important for a developing society like China. The nature of that resource has changed. Likewise, for the vast majority of human history, uranium was not a serious resource. There was very little that people could do with it. Ancient human communities, going back 2,000 years, used uranium to make glass look more yellow. That was all! Today, in our potential nuclear age, uranium can be used to create vast amounts of light and energy and to power whole cities.

Resources are not in any serious sense fixed; their discovery and usage depends on the nature of society itself. Who knows what we will consider to be a resource in the future? Who knows how much further we can push our use of uranium or when we will discover that other elements, too, might transform human existence?

On space, it is simply not true that the Earth is overcrowded, as you will frequently hear Malthusians argue. Humans inhabit only tiny parts of this planet.

Take Britain as an example. Lots of people, from environmentalists to the British National Party, describe Britain as overcrowded, with too many people, too many migrants, too many chavs, or whatever your prejudice is.

In fact, only about seven to eight per cent of Britain is ‘settled’ – that is, only about seven to eight per cent is built environment. Forty-six per cent of British land is used for agriculture (and much of this could be done far more intensively), 29 per cent of it is semi-natural, and 11 or 12 per cent of it is woodland. There is plenty more space in Britain for more people, if we were serious about building new cities across the country.

On a worldwide scale, one American writer has estimated that you could fit every human being on Earth into the Former Yugoslavia, where they could live quite comfortably. This planet is not remotely overcrowded. With the right vision and determination, and with a view of resources not as finite things that don’t really belong to us but as elements we should fully explore and exploit, we could comfortably multiply the current human population 100 times over.

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