14 Dec 2009

The Copenhagen Reds

Continuing with my “What happens next?” theme, I am struck just how divided the responses are becoming. I must first make it clear that I am not in Copenhagen (haven’t been there since 1971 and have no plans to visit again, lovely though it is) and am not party to any of the negotiations going on. It’s just me, sitting at home in front of my Mac, with the usual mixture of writer’s block, a long Xmas to do list and an overactive mind.

On Friday, this popped into my Inbox. It’s Spiked again, and in particular, this 1200 word rant by Frank Furedi. His target is similar to George Monbiot’s — the Optimum Population Trust. But unlike Monbiot, Furedi is a climate skeptic (at least I think he is — he doesn’t quite make his position clear). What they share in common is that they come from the Left, but whereas Monbiot has stayed there, Furedi and the rest of the Spiked team have travelled off somewhere else, which no longer resides on the Left-Right Spectrum.

Like George, Furedi blasts away at the OPT with some choice invective. This is David Attenborough he is talking about, remember, not Nick Griffin.

“The odious Optimum Population Trust (OPT) is a zombie-like Malthusian organisation devoted to the cause of human depletion.”

Or try this one:

“In modern times, there have always been small coteries of Malthusians, eugenic fantasists and bitter misanthropists who were estranged from children and who regarded babies as an imposition on their existences.”

It’s great, isn’t it? What fun to write. You kinda get the idea that he doesn’t think an awful lot of this Malthus geezer, but then not many people out in the real world even know who this bogey man is or was.

But I am trying to get a handle on exactly where they stand, and my reading of it is somewhere rather holier than the Vatican, in that they seem to be arguing in favour of a ban, not just on contraception, but on family planning in any way whatsoever, because every child born is a little bundle of wonder to be “celebrated as a joyous affirmation of our humanity”. Hmmm. I wonder how many children he has? Marxists didn’t think much of Malthus either: they thought he was a reactionary and they use “neo-Malthusian” as a term of abuse.

But having torn into the OPT, it does rather beg the question “So where do you stand instead?” Furedi is a little light on this. In fact, very light. About the best he can come up with is this: "But the good news is that human beings do not simply emit carbon and pollute the world; people do not merely consume resources, they also produce them."

Do we?

No, we don’t. We can add value to resources by modifying them and we can channel them to make them more useful, but we don’t actually produce any resources. The only things that humans actually produce are a) waste and b) more humans. The idea that we might a) run out of resources and b) use them in ways which cause problems elsewhere doesn't seem so very far fetched to me. Just because resource misuse hasn't been a big problem to date doesn't mean it never will be.

So there you have it. The OPT is saying that the condom is the most energy efficient device we are ever likely to invent. The Reds are saying “Sex with condoms is no fun; let’s all have more babies and we’ll sort out the mess with a little ingenuity. It’s worked fine till now, so what are you all worried about (you miserable little gits).”

What worries me here is this. The great climate debate is (as Furedi points out) a subset of an even bigger, apocalyptic, debate about our place on the planet, and our anxiety about our future. Furedi is attacking the Green position for being over-anxious, and attacking the climate science for making us over-anxious. In many ways this is close to Bjorn Lomborg’s “Business As usual - Don’t Panic – Rationing will do more harm than good” position. They can, and do, attack Malthus for being just plain wrong, but Malthus was writing 200 years ago and there remains this horrible nagging feeling that events about to unfold may show that there was nothing wrong with Malthus’s message, simply his timing was out. Attacking climate science for making us anxious is as pointless as blaming the breathalyzer for telling us we are drunk. And yet that seems to be what Furedi is saying.

So where does this leave George Monbiot? He has written in favour of resource rationing (c.f. Heat), but is against the OPT’s attempts at people rationing. I am struggling to get my head around this. It’s a bit like saying we should only build zero-carbon homes, but millions of them, because we like them. Now who says that?


  1. I agree, the idea that people use energy and resources, not houses or aeroplanes, and that at some point our numbers will reach a point where the planet could be said to be 'full up' as far as humans are concerned hardly seems extreme or the bitter thought of 'eugenic fantasists'. I think the problem is that making the judgement about where this point is has a long and sometimes grim history (Third Reich, Pol Pot).

    As far as I can see Frank Furedi is a libertarian with a dislike of centralised authoritarian control. He appears to believe in free people making free decisions (me too) and the idea that some unelected special interest group should determine the level of humans permitted to exist is anathema. Here I think he has a point. All I know about OPT was gained by a quick glance at their website. The figure they suggest for the total world pop. of 5.1 billion seems fair enough but their figures for the UK made me think there was something odd going on. To say that the UK can only sustain 17 million people despite us having done so for centuries is bizarre - it can only make sense if you forget about something called International Trade. We have been doing it since at least Roman Times.

    If you want an illustration of why so many find green politics so indigestible, this is a good one. It is polemic dressed up as science. There are semi-hidden assumptions such as 'if X continues at the present rate for a further 60 years.......Y will happen' Perhaps, but how likely is that, really. For instance, birth rates fall dramatically as people become more prosperous.

    A self selected body with an axe to grind is telling the world what it should do. Maybe they're right, maybe not, but it is inherently authoritarian and undemocratic and it really irritates a lot of people, not just Frank Furedi.

  2. BS,

    I share your (and Furedi's) irritation with the quasi-authoritarian nature of this debate. In fact I think that's what gets people's goat.

    The problem is that climate science is making that judgment call for us. It's not Pol Pot, it's not Hitler, it's not even Malthus, it's the scientific method, the very thing which has brought us all these untold riches that (some of us) have been enjoying, that is now telling us the game is nearly up.

  3. know much about this
    Factor 5
    looks worth a read

  4. I think all OPT are asking is that we consider having no more than 2 children ( I have 3 ) is that such an authoritarian suggestion ?
    Factor 5
    transforming the global economy through a 80% improvements in resource productivity