O’Neill on the Sorry Heritage of “Overpopulation”

At Spiked Online, Brendan O’Neil dissects the absurdity of neo-Malthusians who seek to portray themselves as intellectual mavericks, by presenting “overpopulation” as the environmental elephant in the room no one wants to talk about. “If overpopulation is taboo, unmentionable, so inflammably risqué,” asks O’Neill, “then why can you not open a newspaper, switch on the box or listen to any one of millions of green activists without hearing someone say: ‘There are too many people’?”

Probably because population control advocates feel they need to prime their audiences for what they recognize, however reluctantly, as a monstrous idea. While O’Neill doesn’t explicitly state that conclusion, it’s hard not to come to it when he lays out where the neo-Malthusians fit in the West’s intellectual history.

The rise and rise of neo-Malthusianism speaks to today’s powerful sense of misanthropy and lack of social imagination. Everyone from royals to republican commentators, from feminists to fascists (the neo-fascist BNP says ‘The planet is overpopulated!’), accepts there are too many people. Increasingly, social problems such as poverty and inequality, and practical problems such as pollution, are recast as demographic problems, brought about not by the irrational organisation of society, but by people’s own stupidity and fecundity. So the solution becomes, not to have more debate, more politics, more development and more brainstorming for social leaps forward, but to demonise people who have large families, to make fertility into a new f-word, to cajole people into having fewer children, and to limit freedom and choice rather than expand them.

Yet the neo-Malthusians, despite facing no serious challenge from mainstream thinkers, feel defensive about their arguments. Recognising that Malthusianism has a very chequered history – not only in terms of making wildly incorrect predictions but also in terms of its origins in the racist and eugenics movements of yesteryear – today’s Malthusians present themselves as brave intellectual warriors daring to rescue what look like sullied ideas from the past but which are actually (allegedly) sensible. They have discarded the discredited language of eugenics, the outdated talk of ‘too many little black babies’, and even the seemingly PC but actually duplicitous discussion of ‘family planning’ introduced in the 1960s, and now justify their misanthropic people-bashing in the new language of environmentalism. And of course, presenting themselves as taboo-busters also gives the impression that they’re at the cutting edge of public debate and policymaking when in fact their miserabilism is mainstream.

Population controllers would be right to be embarrassed at any association with ideas like eugenics, but, however outraged they may get at people bringing up such a connection, they cannot run away from it. They continue to be wrong for the same fundamental reason Malthus made his famous error: underestimating the potential advances in human productivity to such an extent as to define survival in near-zero-sum terms. As Fred Smith puts it, when the neo-Malthusians see a human being, they see only a mouth, not the brain and hands to go with it.

Worse even, they see a population, they see not a group of individuals, but a soulless mass. Thus, population controllers seeking to portray themselves as taboo breakers makes sense. When advancing an idea that is both morally and economically wrong, a little contrived rudeness adds a dash of honesty.