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Monday, 25 June 2012

Panic Over? Rio Plus Twenty

Rio+20, the attempt to re-run the grand climatic congress of 1992, has ended with a very muted statement from a heavily diluted attendance: some 'captains and kings' were there, but not the global First Division who had returned home from the previous week's G20 meeting to plan what to do in the absence of a Grand Plan for the global economy.

The positive outcome from Rio is recognition that climate change is NOT the number one priority for humanity as a whole. The climate change deniers have muted their criticism, while the fanatics who had extended the wilder projection for anthropogenic climate change to a demand for an immediate reduction in the median lifestyle of the human race have lost their role in driving the debate.

There is now a consensus that the biggest issue facing the planet and all its inhabitants is themselves: our numbers are even more urgent that the problems arising from what humans do to the ecosystem. The sheer number of humans who are being bred - and projected to be bred in the next few decades - presages crises in food, water and living-space. So far the advance of technology has fed the human race and given the majority better healthcare and entertainment than at any time in history. This achievement makes Hitler's ambition to achieve lebensraum for a couple of hundred million of postindustrial Teutons look even more regressive and silly than it was in his own lifetime. The world accommodates vastly more people than he would have thought possible.

In our time the use of technology to save millions of unborn and infant lives has funded by a series of highly sophisticated media campaigns mounted by charities; and by politicians who regard 'international aid' as an important foreign policy tool. Yet all this transfer of wealth has set up hundreds of millions of individuals to face an existence of inadequate resources. Every baby saved in an under-resourced country that has no democracy and little freedom for enterprise is potentially the parent who in twenty years time will hold up starving babies to the international news media. The Malthusian crisis is upon us. While T R Malthus is usually cited as a doom-monger, it should be noted that he warned of starvation and war in the event that humans do not act sensibly. He argued in favour of responsible parenthood. He urged that couples should recognise the risk of overpopulation threatening living standards, and control the number of pregnancies so that the hazard would be avoided. People could then indulge "the exquisite gratifications of virtuous love" sure that they would not generate a by-product of mass starvation and socio-economic disaster. He could not have predicted the means by which sexual activity has now been decoupled from the probability of pregnancy, for those who choose to use preventative measures; and [as an Anglican clergyman] he would have deplored the easy accessibility of abortion as a method of birth control.

But as a scientist he would have recognised that there are now ample means by which population can be controlled: or even reduced to a degree that becomes a major national concern, as in Russia and Japan. Many millions of humans do not know about chemical, mechanical and surgical means of population control; but even more millions are banned by religious injunction, tribal demands, social norms and misplaced masculine vanity from practising methods of which they have at least some sketchy knowledge. In many countries misnamed 'culture' enslaves women by keeping them from taking their own choices abut the use of their sexuality. It is urgent that the terms of the global debate are raised from the misunderstanding of Malthus - that his objective was to demonstrate the inevitable consequences of human fecklessness in breeding the species. His central point was to emphasise that there was choice for humans to make, and to plead for sense in sexual behaviour. The quantitative issue should be subordinated to the more important issues of human choice, freedom, equality and quality of life.

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