The Risk-Monger

The world did not celebrate the arrival of the seven billionth member of humanity. Rather, it shuddered. Seven billion mouths to feed with an unsustainable agriculture. Seven billion polluters crowding into impoverished cities. Seven billion violators of the planet’s fragile biodiversity. Seven billion flames to heat the planet and emit carbon.

A billion people ago, the world seemed different. When Kofi Annan descended with flowers on a bewildered mother in Sarajevo to welcome the six billionth person, we were celebrating the advancements of humanity. We had arrived at this milestone by great achievements in science (healthcare, hygiene, agricultural technologies …) which had been conquering disease, plagues, pandemics and allowing humanity to thrive. No eco-religious preachers were using the occasion to condemn man for wanting families. No prophets of doom warning us of the coming catastrophe of our humanity’s use of resources. But today even the UN has joined in the media-induced frenzy of dread over the threat we are posing to the poor planet.

I celebrated “Seven Billion Day” by studying the rantings of the paranoid self-interest group, Population Matters. If you ever need to know the simplistic answers to complex problems, this is the one-stop shop (with a boat-load of famous trustees to feign credibility). With a planet in peril from rapid biodiversity loss, catastrophic climate change, stressed water tables and plagues of urban poverty crippling already unsustainable cities, the answer is obvious: stop having babies!

This Malthusian Armageddon Complex is nothing new, but with the combined punch of the digital communication outreach tools and the culture of fear stoked by the environmental movement, groups like Population Matters are getting more attention than their “flat earth” ideas merit. The lack of evidence supporting their ideas and the naivety of their populist argumentation frighten me. For example, Malthus’ warnings of famines were only proven wrong because of the rise of fossil fuels (and we all know what that has done to the planet). While they seem, in their examples, to reject the view that mankind can continue to manage to sustain its growing population, they believe that we can manage population reduction. What a waste of energy!

Population Matters provides a table called the Overshoot Index (based on Global Footprint data) to show evidence of how the planet should only have a maximum of around 4.4 billion in order to sustain a good quality of life. It highlights which countries are the most unsustainable and in obvious need of population management. For example, Korea, with 48 million people, can only sustainably support 3.3 million. Where should the other 45 million go? Canada, it seems, has enough space for them. Singapore is completely unsustainable – all 4.5 million will have to emigrate (although they are against emigration – England might be overrun by hordes of CO2 emitters!). It seems Singapore does not have the natural means to sustain even a single nut farmer and his family. Where is the science here?

Population Matters are using a banker’s approach to sustainability: rather than making cuts to our lifestyle for the sake of future generations, let’s just cut the number of lives in the equation. Two quotes from their page on sustainability frighten me:

The choice is fewer who are richer, or more who are poorer. …

… Compared with the challenge of asking people to reduce their living standards or change the fundamental technological basis of their society, approaches seeking a reduced birth rate are low cost and proven. The unborn people who never existed, and all their non-existent descendants in perpetuity, have no impact on our planet.

This is indicative of the dark, immoral underbelly of the environmentalist movement. The problem rests with people and the solution (the Final Solution) for the planet is found in population reduction. We will not be able to enjoy the quality of life we deserve if people in Nigeria or Kenya continue to have so many babies. So how do we stop them? How do we get down to 4.4 billion? … What a bunch of morons!

Once again, it is the rich in the developed world, trying to tell the poor in the developing countries how they need to live their lives (in order to sustain the developed world’s standard of living). The arrogance of the argumentation is only muffled by the overwhelming lack of urgency of their claims. Population growth has declined (from 2% to under 1% in the last decades). Management of resources and agricultural technologies continue to expand and enhance the livelihoods of the poorest. Science and technology are addressing issues to improve living conditions, protect the environment and ensure that the planet can continue to sustain its population. The main threats to sustainable living in developing countries come from environmentalist initiatives like biofuels and organic agriculture or their campaigns against GMOs and DDT.

I cannot believe that David Attenborough (Population Matters’ patron) has taken the time to read the nonsense on the group’s pages that flash his name or photo at will. They are good at getting attention though (whether it is on the BBC or in the UN).

To the seven billionth person, I would like to say: Welcome to the human race! Please ignore those who have condemned your arrival or assume that your geography will leave you in a world of poverty and environmental degradation. To the contrary, your arrival makes the world a better place – I hope you bring it love and happiness. If you prosper and contribute to society, so much the better.



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  1. Dear Risk Monger, once again a very well-written blog piece.

    I enjoy reading your thoughts occasionally when a topic catches my eyes, like this one. It is great to have someone pointing out both sides of the coin in controversial topics.

    The only thought I would add to yours, is that telling people to “Stop having babies” is an impossible message, not only because it is nonsense and insulting as you say. Let me explain what I mean. First of all, let’s put aside the emotional part of wanting children (although for me that is borderline impossible, being 9 months pregnant, and impatiently waiting for the moment when I can hold my little daughter in my arms…). But let’s put it aside.

    Societies (as currently set up) need more children, to pay for the pension systems in the developed world, and simply feed their elderly parents in the developing world. Everyone who has studied some economics, or reads newspapers, knows (or should know) this.

    If we tell people not to have children, or forbid them to have more than one, we will quickly end up in another kind of demographic catastrophy: severe gender imbalance (like China) or impoverished elderly. So if we are to manage the population growth, I believe that “Stop having children” will not work in our current social structures, we rather need to change those.

    I believe the solution lies somewhere in a different social support system (rather than a simple reduction of population numbers – not to mention the exact tool they may suggest to reach the 4.4 billion “target”), than the traditional ones we have now. But this would include large saving schemes for people, and lowering of living standards (putting your money in pension funds, rather than buying many houses, cars, travels and stuff, stuff, stuff), which in my opinion people are very reluctant to make. Just look at all the protests around Europe or the US…

    Anyway, this is a very complex problem, and I am glad to have read your thoughts, and it certainly inspired further thoughts for me. Congrats once again and keep on writing!

    1. Thanks for your kind comments. I felt restricted by space to say all that I feel is wrong about this organisation. Generally they don’t understand what is good in human nature and while they look clinically at the problems and see obvious solutions, they don’t get that changing human behaviour so everyone thinks like them is not an acceptable solution. Empowering and educating women, providing contraception is the proper path (there has been great progress here in developing countries albeit much still needs to be done) – and they are shocked that people are still choosing to have large families. It seems perfectly correct to me, but I am not clinically measuring humans as polluters and carbon emitters.
      Good luck with your expectant bundle of joy. I have three teenagers who have brought me nothing but happiness. We wish we could have had more, but everything in Belgian society is shaped for two kids and we really felt overwhelmed as a “groot gezin”!

  2. Dear Risk Monger,

    Good article; although I would, somewhat, disagree. Not for the sake of arguing; but I just think the truth is somewhere in the middle; extremes are never good. You are not totally right but, of course, neither is the mentioned organisation. Or, maybe you didn’t take the time to fully analyse and present the subject.
    So I shall give you one more angle to look at things. You come from a developed country; I come from a less developed one (and I am not ashamed to admit it). I am from Romania, a country in which the standards of living are far from the Belgian ones. I am at an age where many other women have children. But I don’t. Partly because I always thought about what I could offer to my children in a country where there is almost no safety of tomorrow, with bad medical and education systems and so on …
    I am a person with high education and from what I see around me, most people who are my age and education are reluctant to the idea of having children, mainly for the above mentioned reason. And I would also like to mention that I am a part of the so called middle-class (although this notion is, like many others, missunderstood in Romania and should not be taken as an equal of the French or English middle-classes). In the meantime, another category of people, woth lower education, and poorer thinking (to put it gently) about what tomorrow might bring, about the education they could provide to their children, or what food on their table etc … just “pour” babies one after another. In the long term, what is going to happen with our country ant its population? (I retorically ask myself, with no optimistic answer to get…)
    This issue could be extrapolated to the world, I think. And I also think it is only one of many.
    I think it also shouldn’t be ignored the impact population has on nature; look at the rain forest, at endangered species … and so on … much due to the extension of the populated areas …
    Things are certainly not just black or white and propaganda is, obviously, an important part of our lives.
    So, let’s not stop having babies, but let’s start doing it wisely …
    And discussions could go on and on because this is only a short story, with few details and arguments, and there would be much more to say…


  3. I don’t think we disagree Alina. Population is a very complex issue to tie to simplistic solutions based on ulterior motives (like climate and biodiversity). Any attempts at population control (both increasing and decreasing) have usually failed miserably because of the complexity of people’s motives for or against families. To push this issue as an environmentalist imperative is awful, and awfully hypocritical (most overpopulated developing countries have much smaller overall footprints than developed countries).
    We may have reasons not to have children (in my youth, a common cry was that the world was too terrible a place to subject a new life to), but I don’t think we should try to extend our thinking and rationale upon others.
    Populations control themselves through economic advances (no need for familial social security), education (women’s empowerment) and access to contraceptives.In China, we are not talking about women’s empowerment, but rather, women’s extermination. Is Chinese population control improving the environment??? I would say the opposite – consumption is filling in the gap. These are not simple issues. The aging population timebomb might destroy China’s economic advances – Population Matters poo-pooh’s this problem as a temporary issue – that generation will soon die off.
    Putting simplistic and dangerous solutions on complex problems helps no one.

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