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Population bomb still a fizzer 40 years on

Published in The Australian (Sydney), 8 November 2010

More than 40 years ago, American biologist Paul Ehrlich sketched a doomsday scenario for planet Earth in his book The Population Bomb.

Adding more people to the planet would inevitably lead to mass starvation and ecological disaster.

Since the publication of the book, the global population has nearly doubled but most of its gloomy predictions have not come true. However, this has not stopped its author from campaigning against further population growth, this time in Australia.

As he prepared for a series of lectures to the Environment Institute at the University of Adelaide, Ehrlich warned that Australia was full.

As always in Ehrlich’s predictions, a bigger population equals disaster. No doubt, he is striking a chord with many Australians who believe that there are enough of them. At least this is what an Australian National University poll suggests.

In the ANU survey, half the respondents said that families should consider having three or fewer children, in order to save the planet. A majority of 52 per cent claimed that Australia had enough people, and further population growth would harm the environment and place pressure on water resources.

It is remarkable that people now regularly put “nature” and “the environment” ahead of all other concerns. Historically, this is an oddity because not long ago taming nature and overcoming a hostile environment were humankind’s priorities. In this sense, the ANU survey does not reveal an Australian eccentricity but it is very much a sign of our times. The new misanthropists are everywhere.

Across the globe, environmentalists are preaching that nature is always good and humanity always a problem. People are seen as some kind of pollution; a book that imagines “the world without us” has become an international bestseller.

This is a remarkable change in human attitudes towards nature. Life in the bad old days was nasty, brutish and short, to quote Thomas Hobbes. Nature was something to be dealt with, controlled or used. “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it,” the Bible taught.

The only positive thing about this long-gone age is that at least people would not have been bored to death. They simply didn’t have time to worry about their carbon footprint or overpopulation.

Our perception of nature has taken a U-turn since then. No longer do we aim to subdue the earth, but we happily surrender to the goddess of nature. The wealthier parts of the world are so well protected against the dangers of nature that we have almost forgotten that nature is more than cute polar bears, cuddly koalas, and clumsy penguins.

We can trace the origins of this thought to the Gaia theory of British scientist James Lovelock. He claims that the planet is just like one big organism. “Gaia”, as he called it, fights back against humanity because she has simply had enough of us. From such a perspective, epidemics, starvation, and natural disasters may well be the planet’s response to the human disease.

It looks like Lovelock’s followers are no longer satisfied leaving it to the planet to seek revenge on humanity. Rather, they would take matters in their own hands. Having identified humanity as the cancer on the face of the earth, they are advocating more hands-on approaches to reduce humankind’s footprint on the planet. Or maybe even reduce the world’s population. This is what the ANU survey confirms.

Let’s not be fooled by these new disciples of Gaia, though. What is disguised by nice, touchy-feely slogans about sustainability, nature and the environment is often just misanthropy by another name. It has no respect for people in developed countries and is completely oblivious to the needs of people in poorer places.

Just consider the case of urban density. In order to save land from development, city dwellers are advised to live at much higher densities.

Gone are nice front patios and green backyards, leafy suburbs and playing fields. For the planet’s sake, let’s live on top of one another in tiny boxes, ideally next to busy train and tram lines, they preach. It’s a victory of nature over the quality of life in our cities.

Things get even more cynical when our subservience to the planet dictates what we allow poorer peoples to do. The thought that millions of Indians would want to drive their own little cars drives Western environmentalists crazy. They would never admit it, but deep down they wish these poor Indians would just remain poor; all for the sake of the planet, of course.

Worshipping their new goddess nature, the environmentalists have forgotten something. We human beings may not all be cute and cuddly, but we deserve at least as much love and attention as our distant relatives in the animal kingdom.

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