June 14, 2010


The rise and rise of the Champagne Malthusians: spiked’s editor joined the population-control lobby in a posh church in London as they quaffed ‘luxury’ drinks and fretted about overbreeding. (Brendan O’Neill, 6/14/10, spiked)

The similarities and differences between the Malthusian Ball 80 years ago and last week’s luxury beer-drenched ‘debate’ are striking. The key similarity is that both the old tiara-wearing Malthusians and the tiara-less ones today can only understand humanity’s problems in biological terms. Lacking any grasp of how society works - or more to the point how it doesn’t work sometimes - they instead see all crises as the fault of individual licentiousness and breeding. And possessed of such a deep pessimism that they can only conceive of mankind as pillager of the Earth rather than creator of things and ideas, they have a childlike view of the planet as a larder of limited resources that we are greedily hoovering up.

Then and now, the fatal flaw of Malthusianism is that it views social problems, like poverty and unemployment, as failings on the part of the individual. So it’s not because economic affairs are badly organised that some people are unemployed – it’s because some dozy women 18 years ago had too many children and now their newly adult sons and daughters are competing for jobs in an overcrowded market. It’s not because society has skewed priorities that some people around the world go hungry – it’s because very poor African women have too many kids (five-ish, compared to 1.9 in the UK) and these little black babies’ demand for food outstrips how much food exists.

Obsessed with the idea of limited resources and the insatiable greed of men, Malthusians’ only solution is to save resources by reducing the number of men. A progressive possessed of a social outlook looks at the problems facing mankind and says (in a nutshell) ‘we need more stuff’ – a Malthusian looks at them and says ‘we need fewer people’. Their belief that all the world’s problems are caused by there being Too Many People has not only been proved unfounded again and again (we have continually discovered new and improved ways to make and distribute resources), but it also inevitably makes them misanthropic. Those who think human numbers can continue rising should remember that ‘unremitting growth is the doctrine of the cancer cell’, said Professor John Guillebaud in St Pancras Church, capturing well the Malthusians’ view of humanity as a virus on Gaia’s person.

Yet there are differences, too, between yesteryear’s Malthusians and today’s. For a start they no longer refer to themselves as Malthusians. The only person who used the M-word during last week’s debate was me, much to the irritation of the 200, er, Malthusians. They’re extremely careful about what they say. Where the May 1933 edition of Birth Control Review, which reported on that year’s Malthusian Ball, openly said that ‘to get a strong and healthy nation it is essential that we breed from the right stocks’ (1), today’s Malthusians won’t even utter the phrase ‘population control’. ‘Can we all agree not to use those two words’, said Professor Guillebaud. ‘Because this is not about control.’

‘Helping the poor’, ‘female empowerment’, ‘choice’ – today’s Malthusians sound more like feminists than imperialists. Yet there’s something creepily disingenuous in their use of the language of rights. The Malthusians’ adoption of a PC lingo is a cynical attempt to overcome some massive historic embarrassments. Late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Malthusianism was tightly tied up with Empire, eugenics, even with Nazism. The discrediting of those racist projects dealt a heavy blow to the population-control lobby and its ideas about superior races and inferior over-breeders (the Malthusian Ball was designed to raise funds to help ‘develop interest in birth control in the Far East, especially India’) (2). In the mid- to late twentieth century, redfaced Malthusians desperate to distance themselves from their super-shady past started to talk about ‘family planning’ rather than ‘population control’, ‘female empowerment in the developing world’ rather than ‘spreading the propaganda and practice of birth control among the nations that most need it’ (as the 1933 Birth Control Review more honestly put it).

Yet beneath the PC veneer, there lurk many of the same ideas, and much of the same disingenuousness.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 14, 2010 6:34 AM
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