When eco-warriors talk of population control, they mean the world would be better off with fewer poor black people
If two’s company and three’s a crowd, 7.7 billion’s a problem — that is, if you’re a climate-change activist with a penchant for Thomas Malthus. Along with wacky protests and vegan cheese, the recent focus on climate change has popularised long-standing concerns about population control. There are “Birth Strikers” — women who would love to have kids, can have kids, but feel they shouldn’t because of impending planetary doom. There are royals who seek praise for pronouncing they’ll only have one child to offset their private jet carbon emissions. There are even “ecofascists”, like the killers in El Paso and New Zealand, who attempt to marry their xenophobia with increasingly acceptable distress about overpopulation.
In fact, discussion of population control has become so normalised it even has its own international holiday —World Population Day — in July. And while people around the world aren’t necessarily encouraged to celebrate by cursing the day they were born or picketing maternity units, there have been some questionable campaigns launched to mark the occasion. Last year, the UN announced its support for Thriving Together, a collaboration of more than 150 organisations committed to the “recognition of the importance of family planning to conservation”.
The campaign aims to increase family planning services in developing countries to help stop “rural” and “low-income” families from having more children. Why? Because population growth inhibits the “conservation of biodiversity, the environment and sustainability”. Birth rates are either stable or dropping in western countries, in contrast with places like Niger, South Sudan or Uganda, where the numbers are rising. To many, this looks like a push for more bugs and fewer black people.
In an age of hypersensitivity about everything to do with race, it’s quite remarkable that a campaign dedicated to stopping predominantly non-white nations from procreating to save the planet has passed without comment. But it’s quite easy to see how we got here. Climate fetishists tell us we have to make sacrifices in relation to our cars, our gas, our showers or our flights abroad. It’s merely the next step in the trend for curtailing your habits to suggest that some people should be encouraged to stop having kids. It’s just that those people are never the town-house-dwelling protesters, and almost always poverty-stricken non-white people in countries far, far away.
This quasi-eugenicist privileging of the environment over human beings is nothing new. David Attenborough, who paraded on stage at Glastonbury last year to cheers from thousands of young progressives, is a long-time supporter of population control in its most Malthusian form. Back in 2011 in an interview with the Wellcome Trust, Attenborough declared that he “couldn’t think of a single problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve if there were less people”. And who are these people he’s talking about? They’re those inhabiting “slums in South America, India, Africa” — places that Attenborough describes as “huge areas occupied by people living, whole families, in tiny little apartments with no sanitation and no future”. Rather than arguing that those people living in poverty in parts of the developing world should be given access to the same resources that we enjoy in the West — clean water, housing and job opportunities —Attenborough and those like him simply think there should be fewer of them.
We need more human brainpower, not less, to lift people out of poverty and solve the climate challenge
Aside from the question of resources, population control enthusiasts are often keen to talk about women’s reproductive rights. In the same interview in 2011, Attenborough said that the “only comfort” he found was in the “knowledge that wherever you empower women, wherever they have the vote, education, the free will and are in charge of their own lives and not dictated to by men, the birth rate falls — which is a very good reason for getting rid of slums”. In short, Attenborough’s support for raising the level of education among women outside the Western world is dependent on the promise that they stop having children. Many of us will be familiar with the stereotype of the racist Little Englander, who bemoans the procreation of “them” — usually Muslims or black people — claiming that there’s not enough housing or jobs or space for anyone who isn’t one of “us”. We condemn such views as racist, but why don’t we criticise the “us and them” logic of environmentalists hellbent on bringing down population numbers in other parts of the world?
Is it a coincidence that many of the groups that support Thriving Together — from Greenpeace to Marie Stopes International — focus on the “marginalised communities” of developing countries, while their supporters on the front page of their website are people like Dr Jane Goodall? Of course, some of these institutions have form in the area of controversial support for population control. As Zoe Williams once pointed out in the Guardian, Marie Stopes herself was a zealous believer in sterilising the great unwashed: “Young married men of the professional classes are today often forced by conditions to remain sterile, though they passionately desire the healthy children they could have if they did not have hordes of defectives to support in one way or the other.”
Some of the population control statements published by supporters of Thriving Together are not a million miles away from Stopes’s misanthropic ideas. Goodall writes on Thriving Together’s website that women “need to be equipped with the knowledge as to how their choice affects the health of the planet and thus the future of their own children”. Never mind the issues that women living in squalor in Nairobi or Mumbai already have to deal with, why not heap some global climate guilt onto their shoulders too? It isn’t big business, corrupt governments or capitalism negatively affecting the planet, it’s these promiscuous slum-dwellers who just can’t figure out how to keep their legs shut.
It’s ironic that the link between planetary doom-mongering and women’s reproductive rights has had such an outing at the same time as women’s bodily autonomy is hitting the headlines. You don’t need to travel far to find women who are unable to control when and with whom they have children. Despite recent law changes across Ireland, access to abortion is still limited and conditional for most women. President Donald Trump’s decision to court the pro-life vote has bolstered reactionary legislators across America to bring in anti-abortion bills in Texas, Alabama, Utah, South Dakota, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Missouri and other states. Even in the UK, women do not have comprehensive abortion rights. The recent row over Labour leadership candidate Rebecca Long Bailey’s views on time limits for abortion shows how even politicians who pose as “radical” can still cling to reactionary views when it comes to women’s freedom. For the eco-woke concerned with limiting the population, women’s bodily autonomy seems to be a legitimate price to pay in order to solve the climate crisis.
Rather than arguing they should be given access to the same resources that we enjoy, he thinks there should be fewer of them
Population control is often talked about as a “taboo” subject, with a wink and a nod from the commentator who wants you to admit what we’re all secretly thinking: that the world would be better off if there were fewer poor people in it. Environmentalist campaigner Chris Packham recently released a documentary on BBC2 entitled
7.7 Billion People and Counting which was aimed at broaching the “difficult” question of population control. Packham has been known to talk about “organisms”, claiming that all are equal and that even disease plays a role in nature’s plans for population management. It would be interesting to know what organism relativists like him think of the current outbreak of coronavirus, or Ebola or Sars before it. If we’re serious about stopping the influence of human beings on the planet, should we all sit back and let nature take its course when it comes to disease, famine, natural disasters or pandemics?
Population control isn’t a taboo subject, it’s just plain wrong. The planet — and more importantly, humankind — will be better off when we start believing in human ingenuity. We need more human brainpower — not less — to lift people out of poverty, innovate our way out of environmental challenges and make a case for unfettered and unconditional freedom. Women should be free to access all forms of education and family planning methods, not so that they have fewer children but so that they can enjoy the same kind of lifestyle choices as those who seek to limit their numbers.
David Attenborough is a national sweetheart, Greta Thunberg is hailed as an international inspiration and climate activists across the world have been praised for their brave efforts in fighting for a better planet. But we should not allow the alarmism surrounding climate change to mask the deep-seated prejudices and misanthropic tendencies of population control enthusiasts.
At Davos earlier this year, a packed audience of leaders and economists sat through an exercise in climate self-flagellation by Dr Jane Goodall. While scolding these naughty boys for ruining the planet, Goodall assured them that the current state of the climate “wouldn’t be a problem if there was the size of the population that there was 500 years ago”. Unless we fancy allowing the population of Davos to dictate who lives and who dies in a new climate-friendly world, it’s time to start calling out the elitist, reactionary, small-minded narrative behind today’s climate warriors. Who’s to say that the next kid born in the slums whom the likes of Attenborough finds distateful couldn’t come up with the solution for how to save our planet?
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