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Sunday, 10 November 2013

Let's hear it for humankind

In the recent BBC 2 show ‘Don’t Panic – the truth about population’, the statistician Professor Hans Rosling provided an amusing and refreshing antidote to some of the alarmist guff regularly peddled in the mainstream media about the ‘dangers’ of human development and population growth.
I’m not sure whether the doomsday merchants drive or merely reflect public opinion, but we do seem to have something of a fascination with the day of reckoning. There are always people willing to predict that apocalypse is imminent; these dire forecasts used to be mostly about food and resources, but current concerns about the environment appear to have added some misanthropic spice to the cataclysmic mix. Indeed, some folk now place the interests of animals and vegetation above those of their fellow human beings. David Attenborough, considered by some to be a national treasure, announced on his TV show ‘The Life of Mammals’ that:

"Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, perhaps it's time we controlled the population to allow the survival of the environment."

Forget racism, homophobia, sexism and any other form of prejudice you’d care to mention. It’s hard to imagine anything quite as bleakly misanthropic as that quote. Who, I wonder, does Mr Attenborough want to save the planet for?

But none of this stuff is new. In the nineteenth century, Thomas Malthus was considered to be something of a prophet because of his widely-read grim prognostications about population growth. Needless to say, his predictions didn’t work out. In the twentieth century, Paul Ehrlich was the darling of the catastrophe set when his best-selling book 'The Population Bomb' forecast -with some relish- food riots in the USA and the introduction of martial law by the mid-seventies. Needless to say, his predictions didn’t work out.

Chatter about population control is usually carried out among citizens of developed countries and the 'problem' usually refers –directly or indirectly- to people in underdeveloped countries. Some might argue that there is an unsavoury aspect to this, but whatever the motivation, you get the distinct feeling that folk who talk about 'controlling the population' invariably believe that there is just enough people like them, but rather too much of, you know ... other people.

Whenever the subject comes up, it is often useful and illuminating to cut to the chase by asking these questions:
Who are the people who should be told that they can't have any children? Who are the people who should be told that they can't have more than one child or two children, or whichever number is deemed to be 'too much'? Who gets to decide what is ‘too much'? Where do these people who will be ‘controlled’ live? How is this 'control' to be exerted over them? Who will exert it? From where will the ‘controllers’ derive their authority?

The developed world, alas, is never going to be short of people with an unhealthy appetite for apocalypse porn, but all of their horror predictions have one startling thing in common: they fail to take into account the sheer ingenuity of humankind when it comes to overcoming difficulties. Instead of seeing each new human being as a potential prize-winning scientist or wealth-creating entrepreneur or a decent, loving, responsible person who might raise and nurture a hard-working family, they see each new person as a potential problem. It is an utterly abject and anti-humanist outlook.

But don’t take my word for it. Watch Professor Rosling’s show for yourself and decide which camp you’d rather be in. As he so eloquently puts it:

“I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I’m a possibilist.”


  1. Nice one. Professor Rosling sounds like a man after my own heart. A fencesitter - a possibilist.

  2. I too was impressed by Rosling and agree with much of your post. Apparently, my parents debated whether it was morally defensible to bring a child (me!) into a world where atom bombs would rain down. I remember my teenage angst about the likelihood of our being obliterated after hockey if The President got things wrong and I also heard the common 70s criticism aimed at those who thought they might have more than two children . My husband and several friends and relatives of different ages are amongst the intelligent, degree qualified ignoramuses who scored 2,3 or even 4 in the Ignorance test which was part of Rosling's research and I am fascinated ..... are we simply gullible? Are we imaginative enough to be empathetic and charitable, but not clever enough to get our facts right? All in all ..... interesting!

  3. I'm not sure that it is about us being gullible. I think perhaps it's more likely that we are exposed to a greater degree of 'bad' news and pessimistic forecasting because -for whatever reason- that is what is deemed to be newsworthy or somehow more interesting. How many news editors would opt to open a show with the headline 'Scientist says everything is probably going to be OK'? They are much more likely to go with 'Scientist says world is doomed'.