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Think the Earth is finite? Think again

November 12, 2010

When modern Malthusians insist that resources are finite, they only expose their historical illiteracy, misanthropy and social pessimism.

On 30 October, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill debated Roger Martin, chairman of the Optimum Population Trust, at the Battle of Ideas in London. O’Neill’s speech is published below.

The main Malthusian idea I think we should challenge is the idea that resources are finite. The idea that the Earth itself is finite. The idea that we live on a finite planet and therefore we can only have a certain number of people, living in a certain number of homes, eating a certain amount of food.

Because it seems to me that the population-control lobby’s obsession with finiteness really exposes what it is all about. It reveals the historical illiteracy and the social pessimism that underpin the pseudo-scientific movement of Malthusianism. The Malthusians’ focus on finiteness explains firstly why they are always wrong about everything; secondly why they are so misanthropic; and thirdly why they put forward such illiberal proposals, dressed up, of course, in the language of ‘female empowerment’.

On the first point, Malthusians are simply wrong to say that resources are fixed, that we can measure and predict when they will run out. It seems commonsensical to say that the Earth is finite, and a bit mad to say that it isn’t, but it’s important to recognise how fluid and changeable resources are. It’s important to recognise that the usefulness and longevity of a resource is determined as much by us – by the level of social development we have reached – as it is by the existence of that resource in the first place.

Resources are not fixed in any meaningful sense. Resources have a history and a future, just as human beings do. The question of what we consider to be a resource changes as society changes.

So in Ancient Rome, one of the main uses of coal was to make jewellery. Women liked the look of this glinting black rock hanging around their necks. No one could have imagined that thousands of years later, coal would be used to power massive steam engines and an entire Industrial Revolution, forever changing how we produce things and transport them around the world.

Two thousand years ago, the only way people used uranium was to make glass look more yellow. It was used to decorate windows and mirrors. You would probably have been locked up, or subjected to an exorcism, if you had suggested that one day uranium might be used to light up and heat entire cities – or indeed destroy entire cities at the push of a button.

The exact same resource can do very, very different things, depending on social and technological development. It was social limits, not physical limits, which meant that Ancient Romans could not use coal to make things move and other ancient communities could only use uranium to make glass look yellow. And the main problem with resource-pessimists such as Malthusians is that they continually misinterpret social limits as physical limits. They naturalise social limits, reinterpreting and re-presenting problems of social development as problems of nature’s shrinking bounty. They make the fatal flaw of arguing that the main barrier to progress and human comfort is the barrier erected by nature’s limited resources, when in fact it is the barrier erected by crises of social imagination.

That is why they are wrong about absolutely everything, why every prediction made by every population scaremonger throughout history has failed to materialize. A very early resource panicker was the second-century Christian philosopher Tertullian. In 200AD, Tertullian said: ‘We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us… already nature does not sustain us.’

But back then, there were only 180million human beings on the entire planet – about the same number that currently lives in the eastern part of the United States. The problem for Tertullian was his understandably limited imagination. In his time, pretty much the only known resources were animals, plants and various metals and minerals. Tertullian had no way of conceiving of the enormous abundance of resources inside the Earth, which lay dormant because of social limitations not natural ones.

Thomas Malthus himself, the messiah of modern-day Malthusianism, argued in the early 1800s that food production wouldn’t be able to keep pace with human reproduction, and as a result there would be ‘epidemics, pestilence and plagues’ that would sweep off millions of people. Yet in his era, there were only 980million people on Earth – today there are more than that in China alone and they all have food to eat. Malthus’s problem was that he also saw natural limits where in fact there were social limits. His fundamental pessimism meant he considered it impossible for mankind to develop beyond a certain, nature-enforced point. And yet, shortly after he made his population pronouncements, through the industrial revolution and various social revolutions, mankind did overcome many social limitations and found new ways to make food and deliver it to people around the globe.

It is their limits-obsessed outlook which means that Malthusians are always spectacularly wrong. You would be better off listening to Mystic Meg than the Optimum Population Trust (OPT). Malthusians pose as a science-based, rationalist movement that has worked out through equations and pie charts what the carrying capacity of the Earth is. But actually they continually make a schoolboy scientific error. Their error is to imagine that population is the only variable, the only thing that grows and grows, while everything else – including resources, society, progress and discovery – stays roughly the same.

But the truth, as history shows us, is that population is not the only variable. Resources are a variable, too. So is mankind’s vision, determination, and ability to rethink and tackle problems. These things grow and change just as population does. Malthusians’ mathematics doesn’t add up, because their social pessimism means that they fail to factor in possibly the most important and decisive variable of all: mankind’s ingenuity.

It seems very clear to me that today, still, the main problem we face is absolutely social rather than natural. We now live under a cult of sustainability, a social and political framework which says that we should never overhaul what exists and should instead make do with the world as it is. The idea of sustainability is anti-exploration, anti-experimentation, anti-risk – all the qualities we need if we are going to make the kind of breakthroughs that earlier generations made with coal and uranium and other resources. In contrast to the past, today human society is accommodating to social limitations, and accepting the idea that they are natural, rather than trying to break through them. The Malthusian mindset is winning, and that is a tragedy for all of us.

The second important thing about the Malthusians’ focus on finiteness is that it helps to explain why they are so misanthropic.

Over the past 200 years, Malthusians have tended to look at people as simply the users-up of scarce resources. They have tended to view nature as the producer of things and mankind as the consumer of things. And their view of people as little more than consumers – almost as parasites – inevitably leads to them seeing human beings as the cause of every modern ill, and therefore reducing the number of human beings as the solution to every modern ill. Their focus on finiteness means they conceive of humanity as a kind of bovine force, hoovering up everything that it comes across.

The ascendancy of the Malthusian outlook can really be seen in the way people are frequently discussed these days: as exploiters, the mere users of resources, the destroyers of things.

So mankind’s building of cities and factories is increasingly referred to as an ‘eco-footprint’, as if it is something dirty and destructive. Our use of natural resources such as wood and oil is referred to as ‘the rape of the planet’. Even our use of water is now problematised, with various charities telling us to measure our ‘water footprint’ and only to shower every other day. We are encouraged to be ‘water neutral’. In the past there was another word for ‘water neutrality’ – death. No living creature known to man can survive without water and yet today we’re supposed to feel guilty about using it.

This popular depiction of mankind as gorging on nature’s fragile resources is not actually based on scientific fact or hard proof of widespread resource depletion. That is clear from the fact that even water is now included in the list of resources we should use rarely and sparingly – only a mad person could believe that water will ever run out. No, this view is based on a profound, philosophical shift in our attitudes towards ourselves, a shift from viewing humanity as the tamer of the planet and the creator of society, towards viewing humanity as a plague on the planet and the destroyer of our surroundings.

It is a spectacularly one-sided view of people. Because we don’t only use resources; we also create them. We are not only consumers; we are also producers. In fact, I would argue that we have realised the potential of this planet. Without us it would just be another ball spinning through space stuffed with useless coal and pointless uranium. We extracted that coal and uranium and made something amazing with it: modern human society. We created the social conditions in which the Earth’s resources could be used to their full potential; we created the means for extracting and transforming those resources; we created cities, workplaces and homes on the back of those resources; and every time, we managed to get more and more stuff from fewer resources and created new resources along the way.

The Malthusian view of humans as little more than consumers leads to some very dodgy ideas. So last year, the OPT launched a website called PopOffsets, which involved encouraging well-off Westerners to offset their carbon emissions by paying for people in the Third World to stop procreating.

The idea is that you log on, enter information about a flight you recently took or how much you have been driving your car, and then the site tells you how much carbon you have used and therefore how much you should donate to a Third World reproductive charity. That charity makes up for your carbon-use by cutting back on the pitter-patter of tiny carbon footprints in countries like Kenya. So if you took a round-trip from London to Sydney, that adds up to 10 tonnes of carbon, in which case you are asked to donate £40 to help prevent the birth of one child in Africa.

That is the value that modern-day Malthusians put on new human life: it is roughly equal to 10 tonnes of carbon, or one holiday Down Under. Apparently these lives have no intrinsic worth, no moral or cultural meaning; they’re simply bargaining chips in some wealthy Westerner’s desire to absolve himself of eco-guilt.

Such misanthropy is a direct result of the fetish of finiteness. Because when you view human beings as the ravenous users of resources, then you start to see human life itself as a pollutant, a drain on the planet. That is why Malthusians constantly refer to every newborn child in Africa as ‘another mouth to feed’. In their worldview, another child is not something to celebrate; it is simply an eating machine that needs to be attended to. We have lost sight of the fact that human beings are not just mouths to feed – they are also brains that can think, minds that can create, and hands that can work.

And thirdly, and finally, the elevation of the Malthusian idea of finiteness gives rise to authoritarianism. When you see everything as running out, when you believe that anarchy is potentially just around the corner, then you become a bit like those strange men in Alabama who think the world is coming to an end, so they stock up on guns and baked beans and never leave the house. You develop a siege mentality. You see other people as a tsunami of destruction, and almost any measure can be justified to hold back that tsunami.

Of course, the Malthusians have learned from their past. They have learned from their earlier dalliances with eugenics in the 1930s and forced sterilisation in India in the 1970s, and from their complicity in the development of China’s one-child policy in the 1980s; they know that population authoritarianism is not popular. Women don’t like being told what to do with their wombs, and men don’t like being forced into vasectomies. So modern-day Malthusians have adopted the language of ‘reproductive choice’ and ‘female empowerment’ instead. But this is deeply, deeply disingenuous.

Because when you promote family planning on the basis that too many children will destroy the planet, on the basis that women are creating future pollutants, on the basis that our offspring will turn into planet-rapists, then you are not giving women real reproductive choice, which is something I fully support; no, you are giving them an ultimatum. You are instructing them that if they carry on breeding, then they will be responsible for natural disasters and carnage on a Biblical scale. That is coercion; it is an invasion of women’s free will. And it is the end result of a misanthropic outlook which says that the worst thing a human being can do is create another human being.

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