News Focus

The rise of the new Malthusians

Emmanuel Macron said Africa was being held back by women having ‘seven or eight children’ (LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images)

At the G20 summit earlier this month, French president Emmanuel Macron went into great detail about the problems facing Africa and possible solutions.

In comments that were initially buried amid the mountain of news coming out of the meeting, the president said that Africa needed “a more rigorous governance, a fight against corruption, a fight for good governance, [and] a successful demographic transition when countries today have seven or eight children per woman”.

That reference to the African birthrate provoked a certain degree of horror from the media, with the French newspaper Libération, not exactly a renowned bastion of social conservatism, citing a book by radical feminist academic Françoise Vergès which points the finger at former colonial powers like France and Britain. “Third World women are made responsible for underdevelopment, [but] most studies show today that it is underdevelopment that causes overpopulation,” Vergès wrote. “The theory of overpopulation also avoids questioning the role of colonialism and imperialism in poverty.”

Macron’s comments may reflect some present anxieties about Africa’s population, which according to the recent World Population Prospects 2017 report will account for more than half of the global population growth to 9.8 billion by 2050.

The billionaire Bill Gates, meanwhile, who heads the vast philanthropic Gates Foundation, recently told Welt am Sonntag that Africa’s population growth would put “massive pressure” on Europe through immigration.

After Macron’s comments, the America journalist Ross Douthat said that a political realignment was now underway in Europe. He tweeted that it was “Inevitable that Euro-technocrats will rediscover ’60s/’70s population-control enthusiasm over the next few decades.

“This will be a point of alignment between the European centre and the secular/racialist part of its far right.”

The belief that population control can be used to reduce poverty – through the crude calculation that fewer people means more resources – is nothing new. Around the turn of the 19th century Anglican cleric Thomas Malthus advocated birth limitation on the basis that if the human race continued multiplying at its present rate, the earth would soon run out of resources to feed the teeming millions.

There were two types of “checks” that kept the population within the limits of resources: positive ones that increase the death rate (war, disease, famine), and preventative ones that lower the birth rate (birth control, abortion, putting off marriage).

Catholic thinkers have always stood firm against the Malthusian view of the world: writers such as Charles Perin and Heinrich Pesch SJ argued that Malthus’s views were neither ethically nor economically defensible. And, though the global population has exploded since Malthus’s day, his prediction has not come true.

The idea of creating a stronger, more “perfect” population was echoed in various radical racialist theories of the early 20th century, but it was not until the rise of the modern environmental movement that Malthusianism gained a renewed prominence.

In 1948, American geologist Fairfield Osborn published Our Plundered Planet, predicting environmental catastrophe. This idea became central to contemporary environmentalism. Twenty years later, Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb expanded on this theme, warning of imminent mass starvation due to overpopulation.

The week after Macron’s comments about Africa, Melinda Gates, the wife of Bill, said that contraceptives are “one of the greatest anti-poverty innovations the world has ever known”.

Her reasoning was that birth control frees up women to work, thus boosting economic productivity, and leads to smaller families able to devote more resources to their children. This is not far from the theories condemned by Perin and Pesch 100 years ago.

That same day, Britain’s Department for International Development said it was increasing its spending on family planning in the developing world by 25 per cent. The new sum of £45 million per year will be spent, among other things, on promoting “safe abortion”.

Despite all the arguments against it, Malthusianism is likely to be always with us as a convenient explanation of poverty, hunger and disease. Catholics may have to form some unusual alliances in order to defeat it.