I recently read a fiery book, full of strong argument, well-presented data and verve, by Robert Zubrin, called “Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism… ” The book takes a blowtorch to today’s heirs of the Rev Thomas Malthus, the 18th/early 19th century political economist who argued that Man is doomed to outrun resources. Zubrin nicely skewers this reasoning, and takes on a range of population control characters ranging from Nazi advocates of eugenics through to supposedly well-meaning birth control enthusiasts in post-imperial India. (In the latter case, birth control was carried out with great brutality, as it was in China, with its “one-child” policy.)
And now, Sir David Attenborough, famous to generations of British TV viewers for his programmes about the natural world, reiterates the idea that humans are a “plague” on the planet and that there should be a lot fewer of them. Don’t worry, Sir David: judging by childbirth rates not just in the West, but in certain other countries, the risk of an accelerating growth in population numbers is unfounded, or at least that is how it seems to me. In some extreme cases, such as Japan and Italy, or arguably, Russia, the population is actually shrinking. (Maybe people just don’t get randy in those countries any more). According to this article in the New York Times, population growth of the sort that gets Attenborough so steamed is not happening and may be in reverse soon. Attenborough is not just wrong, he’s out of date.
Attenborough will be listened to with a certain level of respect that gets granted to persons of his type. He is very grand, and yet comes across also as that “jolly nice English chap who likes his gorillas, moths and strange fish”. What he seems to lose sight of is that humans are as much a part of nature as any other species, and that he wants to deny to humans what any other creatures pursue, which is to thrive and flourish. (In the case of other species, they do so through the iron process set out by Darwin. A paradox, given that humans are the only species we know of to care about the fate of other animals.) Then there is the point, made by the late Julian Simon and others, that humans are themselves a crucial resource, a fact that those who take a fixed-wealth approach to life seem to overlook. (Simon famously beat population-control fanatic Paul Ehrlich in a bet about the prices of commodities. Ehrlich’s predictions have been so wrong as to be beyond parody.)
There is also the assumption that people who have “too many kids” in poor countries such as Ethiopia are too thick to figure out the supposed downsides (in countries where there are few social safety nets and mortality rates are high, having plenty of kids is entirely rational).
The history of government-led efforts at birth control and population control has been that it is ineffectual at best and savagely brutal and destructive, at worst. If you have any doubt of that, read Zubrin’s excellent book, and ask yourself what sort of person can support the ideas of Sir David, and his ilk, given the likely results.
Correction: a reader points out that it was Thomas Carlyle, not Malthus, who branded economics as a dismal science. My error.