Last weekend I took part in a debate at the wonderful Battle of Ideas Festival in London, a weekend of intellectual jousting where the hot-button issues of the day are gnawed over by panels of divergent experts and sharp-shooting audiences. I've been on panels in previous years on immigration and religion, both familiar hunting grounds. But this year's took me into a debate I'd not paid much attention to before: the idea that people should limit their family size in order to avert a forthcoming ecological disaster. The topic -- 'Three's a crowd? The battle over reproduction and population' -- turned on a report by something called the Optimum Population Trust which divided environmentalists when it came out earlier this year. The OPT have a campaign called 'Stop at Two', which urges people to do no more than reproduce themselves because, as the OPT's Sir Adrian Stott argued on the panel, "there are just too many of us".
Seeing that the debate was funded by BPAS (the UK's largest abortion provider) and the Wellcome Trust (which last year successfully lobbied Parliament to allow "new reproductive technologies" such as embryo cloning) I was a little nervous, wondering if I would be hissed and booed. You can hear the debate here -- feel free to scroll to my opening five minutes at 12:30 -- and judge for yourself how it went. As it happened, my arguments -- that this was the same old Malthusian phobia which recurs in every generation; that the doom-mongers always ignore the elasticity of economic productivity; that people are the solution, not the problem; that "the best contraceptive" as the former president of Tanzania once said, "is the knowledge that your children will live"; and that the ecological crisis will be solved by meeting the needs of the poor, not chasing them off the planet -- went down suprisingly well. Or at least, the OPT's went down badly, exposed as at once imperialist and nativist, and based on bad science.
But the debate made me realise how deep-seated and widespread is the populationist phobia. This excellent article in the Observer, and this other (very funny) one in Spiked offer windows onto the mind-set. Some folk really do believe that the world is facing disaster from overcrowding, despite the evidence in last week's Economist that that fertility is in fact falling.
It also made me realise how powerful is the populationist lobby, how much money and resources are poured into organisations like the OPT, with their eminent patrons, and how much corporate backing there is for lobbies and campaigns aimed at reducing the size of families.
I was pondering this recently when an email alerted me to a feisty new blog called Anti Catholics for Choice Watch. Justine Fox has taken it upon herself to expose the agenda and funding of 'Catholics for Free Choice' (CFFC), an organization mostly without members with teams of lobbyists in Washington DC and Brussels. Some 97 per cent of its $7,405,664 assets comes from private foundations -- Sunnen, George Gund, Hewlett -- which are well known for funding population-control causes. That's serious money. That's serious power.
1. The Vatican really cannot be accused of paranoia when at the UN population conferences they warn starkly of the wealthy western lobbies which persuade developing-country governments to persuade or coerce the poor to have fewer children.
2. Imagine if that power and money were put to another use: to enhancing life, not limiting it; to countering poverty, not chasing away the poor.