JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 29.8.09
BACK AT the turn of the last century, there lived and thrived a minor poet quaintly named Sir Walter Raleigh, after the great English hero of the 16th century. Sir Walter is remembered, nowadays, for one verse only, the one in which he wrote “I wish I loved the human race, I wish I loved its silly face”; and I was reminded of poor Sir Walter’s misanthropic masterpiece this week, when the announcement that the population of the United Kingdom has now risen to more than 61 million people was greeted, across politics and the media, with the usual litany of complaint and despair. There were dire predictions of strain on public services from the Tory front bench; and unpleasant hints, from various quarters, that the wrong sort of parents – too many migrants, too many teenagers, too many benefit claimants – were responsible for last year’s minor baby boom.
When it comes to population and demographics, of course, there is no pleasing some people. When birth rates are low – as they were in Scotland, throughout most of the last two decades – the doom-mongers moan about the perils of an ageing population. When birth rates are high, they can hardly contain their visceral horror at the thought of the feckless and the foreign outbreeding the people they regard as “normal”.
And when population rises because of inward migration – well, that’s the worst of all. “The country is full up”, chirp the phone-in callers and bar-room politicians, as they drive their white vans around on ever more crowded roads; and the idea that additional people actually generate wealth, pay taxes, staff our public services, set up new businesses, create a more dynamic and youthful society, and use services relatively little, since they tend to be young and strong, never seems to enter their grumpy heads.
For if human history carries one clear lesson on the matter of population, it is that those who fixate on population issues, and on the need to control, manipulate and interfere with other people’s fertility, can never produce a progressive and workable solution to any real social problem. Making contraception freely available is one thing, a necessary condition of the education and empowerment of women that invariably reduces fertility levels, wherever it is achieved.
But societies which try to control population by draconian top-down methods – enforcing one-child policies, withdrawing financial support from families with children, or drastically limiting the freedom of movement of people trying to make a better life for themselves – tend to inflict such severe social and moral damage on themselves that the problems they create far outweigh those they solve.
This is not to say, of course, that global population – or the population of the UK – can keep on growing indefinitely, while patterns of consumption remain as they are. But it seems obvious that it is far more useful and decent to concentrate on empowering women to limit their own families, and on enabling human beings to live fulfilling lives without consuming mountains of resources, than it is to sit in some ivory tower grumbling about what Dickens’s Scrooge called “the excess population”, and inviting it to “make haste and die.”
For the truth about population panic – as Dickens so shrewdly observed – is that its presumptions are fundamentally misanthropic, illiberal and inhumane. There may be a few people of scrupulous moral intelligence around, who are capable of believing that the world or the country is hopelessly overcrowded, while still being perfectly civil to everyone present. But for most people, the idea that we are suffering from overpopulation simply opens the door to the idea that some should survive or remain, while others are expendable; and therefore to every type of licensed bigotry and prejudice. Back at the turn of the last century, eugenics was the very height of intellectual fashion, and dissuading genetically “inferior” people from reproducing was considered a reasonable aim of policy; but we are supposed to have learned, in the horror of the holocaust, exactly where that kind of thinking can lead, and how easily it can deteriorate into an authoritarian and politically-driven pseudo-science, racist, murderous, and deeply inhumane.
What seems to be true, in other words, is that societies thrive best when people view their fellow-citizens as assets, rather than liabilities. Of course, as global population rises, we face a massive resource crunch over the coming decades. But if we try to meet that challenge by constantly whining – like Hardy’s Jude The Obscure – that “we are too many”, we do nothing but present ourselves with an intolerable choice between helpess impotence on one hand, and fascist authoritarianism on the other.
If the human race is to build a future worth having, in other words, we have to believe in ourselves, our creativity, our inventiveness, and our ability to live rich, beautiful and fruitful lives without surrounding ourselves with the piles of material tat that have brought us to our current crisis. At the end of yet another stunning, surprising and gorgeous Edinburgh Fringe, I don’t find it remotely difficult to believe in the possibility of that kind of future; or to see an analogy between the Edinburgh Fringe – in all its glorious, unprogrammed anarchy – and human life itself.
Because for every life-force, it seems, there is always a counter-blast of miserabilist voices saying that it’s all too much; and that some jackboot should descend from somewhere to squash it, tame it, shrink it. But life is a gift to be celebrated, not a problem to complain of. And the possibility of progress lies in the hands of those who love human life and want to work with the grain of it; rather than with those who view it with hostility, and who – in begrudging a welcome to the creative power and potential of every new life – only succeed, in the end, in demeaning and endangering their own.