Population Pessimism

Population is a touchy subject. It certainly divides people. There is no better example of this than James Delingpole’s latest tirade against those who advocate seemingly drastic, sometimes fascistic, methods of population reduction. In this case, the target took the shape of BBC TV naturalist Chris Packham. Delingpole was provoked into his polemic by recent comments Packham reportedly made to the Radio Times:

There’s no point bleating about the future of pandas, polar bears and tigers when we’re not addressing the one single factor that’s putting more pressure on the ecosystem than any other – namely the ever-increasing size of the world’s population. I read the other day that, by 2020, there are going to be 70 million people in Britain. Let’s face it, that’s too many.

Delingpole, a prolific writer and broadcaster on political matters, makes no attempt to conceal his absolute contempt for the solution to this that Packham suggests, which is to offer incentives to people to help them to choose not to have children. In itself this is an interesting area for philosophers of ethics and politics, if only for the thrill of the sticky issue of meddling with basic right to reproduce.

What is really interesting, however, is not the flaw in the solution, but the flaw in the problem. People who give Packham-style answers to the population crisis – Delingpole notes the notables who share Packham’s general view, such as David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, and Prince Charles – appear to be guilty of stumbling into unacceptable answers as a result of beginning with a question that is unacceptable in its assumptions. If you start with an attitude of ‘Neo-Malthusian pessimism’ regarding human nature, where the presence of humans is believed to have primarily a detrimental impact  which, importantly, they can do nothing to put right again, then it should be no surprise that the solution that is finally arrived at is to attempt reduce this presence. Delingpole encourages us to take the contrary attitude; of optimism with regards to our ability to develop ecological coping strategies that do not involve any drastic measures in population control. At the very least, he argues, we should treat those who are, according to him, doing a disservice to the capabilities of our species with a certain amount of incredulity. We may even feel insulted!

In the interest of fairness; an advocate of the Packham-style view may respond by asking just how far human ingenuity can realistically go in the face of a population that continues to swell. There must be a turning point at which the sheer number of people begins to exceed by far any possible alternative strategy that Delingpole could imagine, and therefore a point at which Delingpole’s position of optimism must be dropped, or held only with hardheaded foolishness. Delingpole, of course, can easily afford to concede this observation, adding we have nonetheless and rather crucially not passed this point yet. But this a temporary response at best: if numbers continue to increase, which nobody appears to be denying, is the point at which our reach exceeds our ecological grasp not an inevitability? Unless, perhaps, Delingpole imagines this admittedly as-yet-theoretical turning point to be, in practice, pushed back by a population that while it grows interminably in numbers, also grows in likewise fashion as regards to its abilities to cope with these numbers, like a rolling horizon driven back with every step taken towards it? Now that is optimism.


Related Articles:

Environmental Ethics: An Overview


Volume 4, Issue 3, May 2009, Pages: 407–420, Katie McShane


Laws of Biology, Laws of Nature: Problems and (Dis)Solutions


Volume 2, Issue 3, May 2007, Pages: 592–610, Andrew Hamilton

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