Alex Massie: Politics, not population, causes starvation

David Attenborough. Picture: PA
David Attenborough. Picture: PA
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Beware those peddling the myth of that a plague of people spells doom, writes Alex Massie

IN 1798 Robert Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population in which he suggested that population growth must be constrained by the problems of increasing the supply of food to meet growing demand. Moreover, population growth was especially troublesome for the poor since it “rends to subject the lower classes of the society of distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition”. In time, population growth would lead to catastrophe. Malthus has been causing trouble ever since.

Except Malthus was wrong. We may forgive him that. It is, however, less easy to forgive his latter-day supporters for whom all the planet’s problems may be reduced to one simple fact: there are too many people alive on earth. And in a better-arranged world something would be done about this. The planet’s population, already seven billion, will some day reach nine billion. At which point, the neo-Malthusians insist, the game will be up. Plenty of people who should know better believe this counsel of doom. Sadly, Sir David Attenborough is one of them.

I suppose one of the privileges of being a “National Treasure” is the license is gives to talk rot without suffering any adverse consequences to your reputation. Nevertheless, it remains the case that Sir David, poor boobie, is talking nonsense when he claims that: “We are heading for disaster unless we do something. And if we don’t do something, the natural world will do something”.

This has been a favoured complaint for years now. Attenborough claimed in a 2011 lecture that there’s “no major problem facing our planet that would not be easier to solve if there fewer people and no problem that does not become harder – and ultimately impossible to solve – with ever more”. This would merely be comically incorrect if only it weren’t so unpleasantly fat-headed. Population growth – and especially increased population density – is a spur to growth and a catalyst to human ingenuity.

Attenborough is a supporter of Population Matters, a creepy outfit who have previously suggested Britain’s optimum population lies around the 20 million mark. Let’s rewind the clock to 1850 then. Like other Malthusians, Population Matters is coy about how it proposes to reduce Britain’s population to this “sustainable” level. Emulating China’s one-child policy may be tempting, but will not reverse the terrifying tide of prosperity and population growth now threatening our planet.

Promoting his latest television series Sir David noted that famines in Africa are really quite simply explained. “What are they about?” he asked. “Too many people for too little [a] piece of land. We are blinding ourselves. We say, get the United Nations to send them bags of flour. That’s barmy.”

But not as barmy as the idea that Ethiopia’s famine was the consequence of too many people in too small a place rather than by war, political instability and corruption. Hunger is most prevalent in those countries – Zimbabwe, Somalia – which are also least well governed. This is neither mysterious nor complicated, so one wonders how or why this has escaped Sir David’s attention.

It is true that Africa remains a place apart. True too that, according to UN World Food Programme figures, nearly nine hundred million people on earth are hungry. That remains dreadful. But it is worth remembering that if the total number of hungry people has remained roughly constant for 30 years, the proportion of hungry people on earth has been falling sharply. There are, for instance, 300 million fewer people at risk of famine in Asia than was the case 30 years ago. And this at a time of great, if temporary, population growth. The battle against hunger is far from won but it is, mouth by mouth, being won.

This is where the Malthusians make their blunder. They assume that demand is infinitely elastic but supply is fixed – and limited – forever. But this is not so. Agricultural yields have improved not least because they have had to. There is little reason to suppose human ingenuity has been exhausted yet either. Genetically modified crops – themselves merely a speeded-up version of traditional crop breeding – will help.

Prosperity vanquishes hunger. Trade, not aid, is the answer to Africa’s plight. Trade and women’s liberation. This is, in fact, that rarest of all phenomena, the virtuous circle. Women’s emancipation prompts greater economic growth which in turn liberates more women. The more women in the workplace – and the more women are educated – the stronger the demand for access to birth control. Before long, the birth rate declines. Invariably. Everywhere.

In 1960 the average South Korean woman had six children; her modern counterpart has 1.2. South Korea is an extreme example but birthrates in Vietnam and Indonesia have declined almost as sharply

The problem is politics not people. Africa has the means to feed itself but lacks the good governance to do so. There are no more too many people alive in Africa than there are too many people in Aberdeenshire.

The neo-Malthusians are often coy about how they would achieve their goal of reducing the world’s population. They have good reason to be shy about this since talking about such matters must inevitably reveal them as a collection of cranks and crackpots.

To describe mankind as a “plague” – as Sir David did earlier this year – is telling. Problems of abundance are vastly preferable to problems of scarcity. But there are no compelling reasons to think the world is perilously close to disaster and no reasons at all to suppose that “nature” is preparing some kind of cosmic vengeance to punish man for breeding too fast.