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Dominic Lawson: The ‘Population Bomb’ Is A Dud

Dominic Lawson The Sunday Times

Eco-doomsayers want fewer children in the world, but not in their own families

The rate of global population growth is declining rapidly; source One World in Date

Stanley Johnson has been hard to avoid recently. Boris’s amiable father has a book to promote, so we should not dismiss his participation in I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! as mere attention-seeking. Last week, one of the many BBC programmes on which his oddly distracting golden locks could be seen was Newsnight. Alongside the co-leader of the Green Party, the MP Caroline Lucas, Johnson had been invited to opine on Theresa May’s apparent conversion to the environmentalist cause.

Actually, Johnson Sr had as much right as Lucas to be on such a panel: as he pointed out, he had been the “environment desk officer” at the Conservative Research Department half a century ago. And he hasn’t changed his mind about the right policy in all those years, either. He asserted that overpopulation was the big problem and that the population of the UK should be frozen at its current level. How, he didn’t say. A sharp reduction in immigration would help, but would have zero effect on global population, which is presumably what really matters to such environmentalists.

In fact this year marks the 50th anniversary of the most politically influential book on this issue since Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population: in June 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb was published. It was itself a bombshell. A media-savvy American professor of biology, Ehrlich made several appearances on the Johnny Carson show to promote his Malthusian theme: that overpopulation would in short order lead to a global famine of cataclysmic proportions.

Ehrlich declared: “Sometime in the next 15 years the end will come.” He was not talking just about India, although it was the experience of visiting a Delhi slum one night that, he said, had provoked his dystopian vision of the future: (“The streets seemed alive with people . . . people defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people . . . since that night, I’ve known the feel of overpopulation.”)

But India’s former colonial overlord was in no better shape, said Ehrlich. In 1971 he predicted: “By the year 2000 the UK will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70m hungry people . . . I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

When this became one of many of his predictions shown to be wildly wrong, Ehrlich characteristically refused to concede anything: “If you look closely at England, what can I tell you? They are having all kinds of problems, just like anybody else.” Ehrlich remains a patron of the British charity Population Matters, formerly the Optimum Population Trust. Sir David Attenborough is a fellow patron. The much-loved broadcaster has declared that humans are “a plague on the Earth” and that it was “barmy” to have sent food aid to Ethiopia, since the famines in that African country were entirely down to its having “too many people for too little piece of land”.

Leave aside the chilly callousness, this was an ignorant and superficial analysis. The Ethiopian famines of the late 20th century were the direct consequence of civil war and, in the 1983-5 disaster, of the “social transformation” policies imposed by Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Marxist junta. Overpopulation was no more the reason for that mass starvation than it was for the Ukraine famine of the 1930s or the Chinese famine of 1959-61. In all these cases, the policies of Communist regimes (which ranged from expropriation of land to class war) were the proximate cause.

Attenborough was echoing what British administrators said during the Irish famine of the 1840s. In reality Ireland’s problem was not its own population but the way its land was used and controlled by English owners: in 1846 about half a million tons of grain was exported to Great Britain from Ireland. That did not prevent the government’s representative in Ireland, Lord Clarendon, insisting: “Doling out food merely to keep people alive would do nobody any permanent good.” These administrators were directly influenced by Malthus, who had declared: “The land in Ireland is infinitely more populated than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.”

Attenborough and indeed Stanley Johnson are in that tradition — though the latter’s support has not been for principled inaction during famines, but for regimes practising sterilisation. In 2015 he wrote an article demanding a “British population policy” for the ConservativeHome website, which ended with this peroration: “Tackling the population problem — whether at home or abroad — is not easy. Some politicians, such as Mrs Gandhi, who courageously sought to bring family planning to . . . India, ended up unexpectedly on the funeral pyre. But at least she tried.”

She did, indeed: western agencies obsessed with restricting India’s population funded sterilisations on a vast scale. Self-righteous proponents of the “population programme” couldn’t believe it when in the Indian general election of 1977, Mrs Gandhi’s Congress party was annihilated, losing all but one of its seats in the areas where the sterilisation policies were most actively pursued. And now, with a population twice what it was in 1977, famine-free India is a net exporter of grain and food.

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