I decided to pick up a copy of a book by Leftist academic Danny Dorling, called Population 10 Billion: The Coming Demographic Crisis And How To Survive It, while I was at the Hay book festival towards the end of last May. I wangled a corporate invite to the event and must say that I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Professor Dorling (Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield, a former government advisor, Honorary President of the Society of Cartographers, etc, etc.) is eminent, although I hadn’t previously heard of him. And what intrigued me enough to buy his 438-page book is that the message, at least at first glance, seemed to be a refreshingly non-doomongerish one.
But… and there is a big “but”. Professor Dorling is perhaps sufficiently aware that being an anti-gloomster has its costs if you want to get on in academic circles, and certainly if you want to get lots of jobs advising policymakers about this or that disaster that has to be avoided by lots of state activity. And the ultimate nightmare for such a person is to be dubbed a “denier” and be put in the same bracket as the sort of lowlifes who deny mass murders of Jews in Europe and so on. And he certainly doesn’t want to be mistaken for any kind of apologist for capitalism and liberal free market economics. Oh good god, no! So rather than calling himself an “optimist” (terribly out of fashion) or a pessimist, he is a “possibilist”.
Now, Samizdata readers, you might think the preceding paragraph is a bit unkind. How dare I suggest that Prof Dorling says what he does due to worrying about his academic career and bank balance? Well, I might have been gentler on him had I not seen plenty of evidence from him about his desire to play the man, not the ball, so to speak.
To give some flavour of where he comes from, consider this:
“People who doubt that social inequality is a great problem can become exasperated when they cannot convince others of their views. When they find that their opinions are generally regarded as abhorrent and they cannot publish them in refereed journals, some turn to writing for right-wing think tanks and discover that they could in just a few weeks `knock out reports that would be presented at high-level meetings… and earnestly discussed in the press and in radio interviews. [They say] It was exhilarating to find an audience.’ Although it might be exhilarating for the former academic involved, it can be highly confusing for those who have to listen to half-formed ideas knocked out in a couple of weeks by someone who does not understand when their peers repeatedly tell them that there is a problem with what they are proposing.” (Page 130).
Prof. Dorling quotes Peter Saunders, who is has moved rightwards from the Left; he has committed the thought crime of casting doubt on aspects of British egalitarian post-war policy, and has ruffled feathers by a critique of a recent book in this area, called The Spirit Level. (You see Saunders’ website here to get a handle on just how much of a serious academic he is. His career has been every bit as distinguished as Dorling’s, if not more so.) There is something particularly nasty about Dorling’s words: the lazy, supercilious tone; the jeering claim that Saunders’ views and those like his are just blown together in a few days, and the assumption that anyone who challenges egalitarian ideas is “abhorrent” and therefore unfit to have their views published in peer-reviewed journals. It perhaps does not cross this man’s mind that because so much of modern academia has become an echo-chamber of the Left, that any academic with an ounce of independence of mind must go and write for some alternative institution in the hope of entering debate (as Peter Saunders did and explains in an account here of what happened to him.)
His book is full of ex-cathedra statements about equality. Much of his argument is that unequal societies are more wasteful than egalitarian, more tightly planned ones. He is very much a “watermelon” – green and red. Above all, Professor Dorling likes to get personal: For example, on page 5 he launches into the “Rational Optimist”, Matt Ridley, sneering that due to Ridley’s posh background and former chairmanship of the near-bankrupted Northern Rock, “it is not hard to mock his views”, but then goes on hastily to state “that they need to be taken seriously because they are part of the current mantra of many at the top of the tree.” Oh how jolly noble of him. If it were really the case that Ridley’s “rational optimism” is the dominant mentality of our government and its advisors, rather than the mishmash we have in the UK coalition government, I’d be much happier.
The ironies abound. Professor Dorling likes to play the high-level academic, but he also wants to take on views he disagrees with often by recourse to argument from motive. He wants to make out that he is an ultra-serious academic, but the book (which is a good read in some ways, if you can stand the bias) is full of such ad hominem digs at those he disagrees with; his discussion of nuclear energy, for example, includes suggestions that those who favour it are just motivated by money.
In other words, Professor Dorling is a bit of an arse. I want my money back.