Editorial: Too many people.

The Summer Edition of the Salisbury Review is out now..

Greta Thunberg appeals to the Nordic fantasies of the rich middle classes in Britain; a world of operating room cleanliness, leggy blondes anxious to discuss Marx over an ice-cool shot of aquavit, followed by an atmosphere-burning flight to the Maldives to wail over the absence of marine life, and a contract to write about it in the Guardian.

The talk this April on Waterloo Bridge was of excess carbon in the atmosphere, yet it’s not the climate that will give way – CO2 is a distraction – but the earth on which we stand. You don’t have to be an incense sniffing follower of Gaia to realise that the planet is a creature like any other, with a respiratory system; forests, vegetation and atmosphere; a circulation; rivers and oceans, as well as a digestive system; the soil into which nutrients flow to feed its organs; trees, grasses, flowers, animals, birds, bacteria and insects.

Humans are its greatest enemy. We have grown from a population of around 5 million 10,000 years ago to a vermin species today of 7.6 billion and counting. Every smiling baby born brings a destructive capacity which has in the last 40 years brought a 68 per cent loss of wildlife.

Our life as vermin began in the 18 th century with the discovery of vaccines. These wonderfully effective and safe antidotes to the spread of infectious disease meant a free pass for us from the strict accounting of life and death. Things began slowly at the start, but the following centuries saw the discovery of the principles of sanitation, antibiotics, safe surgery, more vaccines and lately the prospect of doubling life expectancy by anti-ageing drugs. The planet will not survive these later discoveries.

Yet we still regard medicine as beneficial. A few months ago a news item welcomed the prospect of an anti-malarial vaccine. Such a vaccine would add tens of millions of children to the planet, each with a reproduction potential of four or five more children. From the earth’s point of view ‘welcome’ is not a word that it would use if it could speak.

We fear death, a fear engendered by advances in medicine which offer us the Tantalus fruit of everlasting life. True, young people do not die within 24 hours of the sweating sickness of Tudor times, or by being carried off by cholera in six hours, but we pay for it now at the other end of life with the horrendous torture of life-prolonging technology applied to the old.

Death was swifter and arguably better in the past. In the 17 th century, few people survived cancer for more than a few weeks, complicating infections took care of that. You fell ill, perhaps cancer blocked a lung, pneumonia followed, the priest was called, just enough time to say farewell to your family and ask theirs and God’s forgiveness and within a week you were gone in a haze of fever. Pneumonia was known as the old man’s friend.

Yes, there were the chronic afflictions that did not immediately kill; the running sores, the graveyard cough of TB, kidney stones, the madness of the syphilitic, the blind and the lame. But over the centuries survival of the fittest was working its magic. The human race adapted, growing stronger and only slightly more numerous.

Now, as gene engineers take tentative steps to bypass Darwin and produce a standard disease-free human, we aim for life without end. Given time they will succeed, my guess would be in fifty years, and they need to be stopped. Meanwhile we can look forward to a Darwinian struggle between the world’s nations for food, water and living space. We have the means of mass extinction now and as pressure grows we will employ them.

The planet has it weapons too. Remember Ebola? The disease that not only killed its victim in 24 hours but killed the doctors and nurses as well? We got a vaccine out in time to stop it, but like Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator in the film of the same name said: ‘I’ll be back.’

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17 Comments on Editorial: Too many people.

    • Marxism? You must mean Groucho. The article is a dispassionate description of an organic system, and if there is a message it’s that constant attention and imaginative technologies, medical and otherwise, are vital to survival. (Marxism puts all its bets on dodgy economics, class war and inevitable progress.)

      The smart Marx, Groucho, did have a view on population as it happens. On his TV chat show one guest was a woman with 22 children. 22? said G. incredulous, why 22? Well, said she, I like children and I love my husband. Groucho: I like a smoke and I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth every once in a while.

  1. The triumph, if you call it that, will be Nature’s. All animals depend on a particular habitat, which can be shared with other species, but if it wiped out on the scale we are wiping ours out, then we will go to. Nature has already given us a warning of her powers with Ebola.

  2. Editor Review seems to be suggesting that mankind’s increasing ability to dodge the rigours of natural selection is leading to the triumph of quantity over quality. Is the strangely pseudonymous Editor Review hinting at a reappraisal of the philosophy which dare not speak its name [eugenics]?

    Unless, of course, all humanity are to be classed as mere vermin.

    This piece is so extreme, with its blatant distaste for the human race and its sneering attitude to champagne eco-warriors, that I wonder if Editor Review is a pseudonym for George Monbiot.

  3. I still find it hard to get enthusiastic about death, however well you write about it. It was introduced into the world as a curse, after all.

    • Interesting you should say that. I have often said and honestly felt the same, BUT …. three times in the past 11 years while I’ve been having a succession of clinical trial treatments for CLL (old man’s mildish cancer) I’ve nearly died and been hauled back by our under valued nurses, and I can tell you I was scared as hell. reasoning about something and being plunged into it are two different things. Some one said that no philosopher could endure the toothache.

  4. I am all for leggy blondes, a gradually disappearing species along with other white people. Theatre Glumberg’s Children’s Crusade against Climate Change will not get us anywhere unless it stops the Chinese emitting too much CO2 and the Africans emitting too many babies. But that would be racist.

  5. I thought this was satire but we live in such a ridiculous time that I’m not sure.

    Given we only have 30 years until Gaia gets her revenge what does it matter anyway.

    • ooooooh. I thought it was only 12 years and have been stockpiling chocolate and saturated fats on that basis. Myself, I stick with Newton. I think he’s due for a comeback as we tire of all this metaphysical nonsense about worms, holes and parallels. In his day physics had not taken leave of reality and he predicted the universe collapsing in 2060. Let’s go with that.

  6. Is Thomas Malthus reincarnated as Myles Harris? Malthus’ last shot was wrong because he didn’t foresee how technology and ingenuity would counteract the pernicious forces he feared. Could not the similar advances be made that we can’t even imagine now? For example, what has happened to the investigation announced some years ago into how crocodiles keep healthy and heal their wounds in filthy water?
    The one thing that persuades me that climate change is not really believed even by its paid proponents is that there is not one voice suggesting that research be done into combatting or reversing the effects. We’ve had the ability to defend coastlines for millennia. Why can’t we figure out some way of managing temperatures by (who knows) artificial obstructions between us and the sun. And so on.

  7. Wow, gloomy stuff, SR!
    Some off-the-cuff observations –

    “Too many people…” You’re probably right, although this is a value judgment. One could say that the human population explosion is just part of Nature – in the same way that insect populations explode and then just as quickly collapse. Maybe we are at that point.

    Modern medicine has undoubtedly been a major contributor to the recent population increase, but the biggest single factor was surely modern chemistry – Fritz Haber discovered how to fix nitrogen from air in about 1912, the result of which was to raise the planet’s carrying capacity from c. one billion people up to seven billion (and rising) in the space of a century. But because running the “Haber process” requires huge amounts of energy in the form of fossil fuels, the extra six billion people can only be kept alive as long as fossil fuels last, or alternatives are developed.

    Another major factor was the Catholic Church. By forbidding artificial contraceptives to its flock, the various Popes have been irresponsible in causing much of the global population explosion and the attendant miseries for many.

    Humans are no more an enemy of the planet than any other species which procreates exponentially and invades other habitats. At least humans have the capacity to be aware of the destruction we cause and to take steps to end it.

    Of course we regard medicine as beneficial. What sensible person would turn their backs on preventing suffering and the effort to find cures for illnesses? It’s true that there are applications of medicine which actually prolong suffering needlessly, or are used for profit and to appeal to our vanity. But it is surely foolish to wish for a world prior to the giants of medicine and science such as Harvey, Jenner, Koch, Pasteur, Liston, Lister, Semmelweiss, Ehrlich, Esterich, Fleming, the brave and selfless volunteers Kissinger and Moran, and Salk (all dead white males by the way).

    And genetic engineers can’t “bypass” Darwin (and they know better than most that they can’t). Resistance will emerge as part of Natural law. Survival and reproduction are always going to be a game of cat-and-mouse.

    So what’s the humane (i.e. not war and nuclear annihilation) solution to the human population, and consequently, the Gaia problem?

    The only solution is more science and technology, combined with diplomacy aimed at reaching a global consensus.

    More specifically, we need to get away from our addiction to “stored sunshine” (as Prof. Tony Ryan of The University of Sheffield describes fossil fuels) by raising the efficiency of solar energy )i.e. conversion ratios of solar cells and plant photosynthesis) and using it to make methanol (a transportable store of energy) to keep the Haber process running. At the same time, we need to cut energy consumption, which is going to be difficult as the developing world’s middle classes move towards a profligate “Western” lifestyle.

    By the way, wind, water, geothermal and hydro might be clean, but they are pipe dreams. They are inefficient, intermittent, involve large transmission losses, can never replace the base load, and will never generate enough energy to cover the world’s needs, apart from local applications. A second “Green Revolution” is also needed – this will have to come from GM crops, especially if we are to move away from factory farming.

    Vaccination and disease prevention programs by the WHO post-WWII in the third world has led directly to the global population explosion and the destruction of nature. Most of the science and technology was developed by Western “civilization”. But it is something you guys should be proud of and boast about. Sure, there were unintended consequences. But the answer is not to wring your collective hands and pine for the past. Instead, you need to double down and give the world more and more of your brilliant ingenious thinking, science and technology, this time leavened with more awareness of the long-term (admittedly difficult to predict) consequences. We in Asia can also start contributing, but we are very much the students of your great scientists.

    • Sheilagh, sorry but your fourth paragraph is nonsense. The ‘population explosion’ has occurred in non-Catholic countries. Indigenous population growth in all the major Catholic countries has stalled or been falling for years.