Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Malthus was wrong: so why do people listen?

On Spiked, Frank Furedi has this timely article on the alleged problem of over-population. The "perils" of over-population have been alleged since Roman times, mostly in the context of to many of "them" and not enough of "us". The basics of the debate have not altered that much. Popularized as an environmental problem by Malthus, predictions of dire consequences from "over" population have continually resurfaced in every generation, the mantra being varied to fit the contemporary circumstances. Thus today's Malthusians posit "over" population as the central cause of all things bad and catastrophic from an environmental perspective. As Furedi writes:
  • 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 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.
  • For contemporary Malthusians, every new child is another pollutant.
Wow. Sadly, Furedi is not exaggerating. Many environmentalists adopt this pessimistic view, especially about the impending impact and degradation that others' children will have, the others who will destroy the planet trough their rampant consumerism (they, of course, being pristine, carbon neutral, organic and all round green friendly -- just how they make a living and contribute to societal gain we won't ask).
  • 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.
This is because Malthus' arguments are not scientifically valid: his pessimism reflects straight line mathematical projections which fail to account for the increasing and variable pace of human ingenuity and innovation. Again:
  • ...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.
And here is the key: we teach our children that "over" population is a problem in social studies, world studies, environment studies and geography, the mainstream media repeats the message from vested and biased interest groups that too many people,means too much consumption,which is bad and then we pander to groups and politicians that wish to regulate our behaviour and activities to counter act this "well-established" problem.

The problem: demographers have been telling us for the past 30 years that the planet is neither over-populated, nor facing a population crisis. Check the UN population projection over the past two decades: it keeps coming down. Meanwhile, we are experiencing the greatest explosion in innovation the world has ever seen. Everything we consume is getting cheaper and cheaper because long before any theoretical limits are ever reached a newer, better and cheaper substitute is used.

None of this is news. But it does require constant re-iteration: science does not sustain any pessimism about the human condition.

Pessimism is purely a mis-use of somebody's political imagination and a foil for their political agenda.