Population And Misanthropy

“I have no doubt that the present uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have unsustainable population levels as their root cause,” wrote Labor backbencher Kelvin Thomson to his constituents earlier this year.
Not tyranny. For Thomson, the important thing to note about the crowds at Tahrir Square was not that people were angry, but that the square was very crowded.
Is there anything that so neatly encapsulates the misanthropy of much population scepticism?
His is an attitude which can marvel at nothing but the size of the teeming masses in the Arab world. No wonder at the historical nature of their revolt against dictatorship. Or speculation about the individual courage it must require. The Arab Spring is just another data point to support a belief that the world has too many people.
Thomson, with Dick Smith, is one of the few mainstream faces of the sustainable population movement. They blame an extraordinary array of problems on population growth – not just revolution against tyranny (which, Thomson perhaps unintentionally implied, is a bad thing) but war, famine, terrorism, over-consumption, climate change, price inflation, and the high cost of housing.
It’s very meta – a thread that ties together almost every single problem, real or perceived, facing the world today. Dick Smith writes in his new book:
Surely it is obvious that just about every problem we have is made worse by more people.
Not poverty, for one. The world has never been richer, and never had more people. Nor life expectancy, which has also been increasing along with population. Yes, food prices have increased modestly in recent years, but there’s little reason to believe they won’t continue their historical downwards trajectory.
The picture painted by the population sceptics is of a world of unmitigated catastrophe. The reality is far from that. On nearly every metric the world is getting better.
Even war is on a long-term decline – both in the number of conflicts and their relative deadliness.
As for the claims that we’re running out of resources? Fewer resources, prices for those resources go up. And as prices go up, replacements are found. Of course there is a physical limit to coal or oil. But we’ll never reach it.
Fear of overpopulation is just as misplaced now as it was for Thomas Malthus and Paul Ehrlich. Yet the fear sticks – the fear that this is somehow the end of the road for mankind, and the choice we now face is either to plateau or suffer.
So the question isn’t whether Smith and Thomson are wrong. It’s why they are.
Part of the explanation has to be just how deeply personal population scepticism is. Not for nothing is Smith’s book titled Dick Smith’s Population Crisis. It features photographs of his family, his childhood, and his favourite place in Australia – the tranquil, rarely-visited Coopers Creek.
Like his documentary Population Puzzle, the book is part argument, part lament for an Australia which has disappeared, or seems likely to. That Australia had big backyards and vegie patches and open spaces. The modern Australia, Smith claims, is at risk of becoming like Bangladesh – poor, overcrowded and environmentally degraded.
Of course there is no neat relationship between density and poverty. There are dense poor countries and dense rich ones. If Australia became as dense as Bangladesh we would remain rich. If Bangladesh somehow reduced its density it would likely remain poor.
But there is a clear relationship between population growth and the growth in living standards. Urban Bangladesh is busy because that’s where the employment opportunities are – people have left the sparse rural environment and deliberately chosen the intensity of city existence.
Why describe population scepticism as misanthropic?
Well, how else to describe those who agitate for millions of potential individuals not to exist at all – and regret the existence of millions of those who already do? Who see nothing but problems in future people?
The great economist Julian Simon once wrote: “What business do I have trying to help arrange it that fewer human beings will be born, each one of whom might be a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an Einstein – or simply a joy to his or her family and community, and a person who will enjoy life?”
As it is 2011, the population debate is inevitably wrapped up in the debate about climate change policy.
It will take all of the intellectual and technological ingenuity of future generations to adapt to the consequences of climate change, regardless of whether that change is caused by human activity or otherwise. Trying to reduce or stabilise population in response to climate change would be entirely counterproductive. More people have more ideas. The Thomas Edison of climate change adaptation may not have been born yet. If the sustainable population crowd have their way, he may never be born.
In the New York Times last week, Thomas Friedman wondered how humanity will cope with crossing the “growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once”.
The same way we’ve always done – through human creativity.