Dominic Lawson: Affluence, not control, is the answer

Once they claimed we should prevent Africans being born to prevent starvation. Now we're told we should be saved from the consequences of their prospering

In a way, it is appropriate that the Royal Society has launched an inquiry into world population levels – or "population explosion scrutinised as scientists urge politicians to act", as this newspaper reported yesterday. Both Prince Charles and Prince Philip have long expressed the view that there are far too many people and that Something Must Be Done.

It is also no surprise to see that Prince Charles's long-time adviser and friend, Sir Jonathon Porritt, is prominent on the "People and the Planet" working group set up by the Royal Society. Sir Jonathon, who like Prince Charles has a visceral loathing for the modern agricultural methods which have actually made food cheaper for the world's teeming masses, is also a patron of the Optimum Population Trust, a neo-Malthusian organisation whose only purpose is to reduce the number of people being born. Its website shows a population "clock" which ticks away ominously, as each new child is supposititiously born. So just as the actual parents experience the unique joy of bringing an actual child into the world, the sad folk who log on to the OPT's website can feel a little stab of vicarious disapproval.

The Optimum Population Trust is in fact a rather small organisation, which has been in existence for fewer than 20 years; yet somehow the Royal Society thinks it right that no fewer than three of the OPT's patrons should grace its working group. Apart from Sir Jonathon, there is Sir David Attenborough – who says that there is "no problem that would not be easier to solve with fewer people" – and Partha Dasgupta, a professor of Economics at Cambridge University. Oh, and there are a couple of panellists who can bring a very special international perspective on how to "encourage" people to have fewer children: Zheng Xiaoying of Beijing University's Population Institute and Cai Feng, of the Chinese Academy of Social Science's Institute of Population.

Will these eminent Chinese scholars propose that the British follow their country's one-child policy, backed by the threat of enforced abortions for those women who don't do as they are told by the state? I'm sure they will be too diplomatic; but on the arguments used by the likes of Sir Jonathon and Prince Charles – that the problem is essentially one of excessive consumption of the earth's resources – there is a much stronger argument for enforced birth control in the wealthy, high-consuming West. They know, however, that such policies can only be pursued by dictatorships which have a vast standing army permanently available to quell dissenters.

A similar strategy in India, enthusiastically backed by the West's population control movement, resulted in the biggest electoral defeat in that country's history, when Indira Gandhi's Congress party was all but wiped out by the public's revenge for its coercive birth-control policies. The best account of this demarche – and indeed the whole history of population policies, worldwide – can be found in Fatal Misconception, by Professor Matthew Connelly of Columbia University. Strangely, however, despite the widespread acclaim accorded to Professor Connelly for his work, he does not appear to have made it on to the Royal Society's Population and the Planet working group. Perhaps his invitation got lost in the post.

Another name which one might have expected to appear on the Royal Society's working group was that of Fred Pearce, possibly Britain's leading writer on matters environmental, and whose latest book, Peoplequake, was published earlier this year by Eden Project Books. Or perhaps it was not such a surprising omission: for Pearce's theme was that, quite independently of any pressure from governments, birth-rates have been declining dramatically across the world.

Thirty years ago, 23 European countries had fertility rates above replacement levels. Now, none do. In fact, on the basis of the straight-line extrapolations traditionally used by the likes of the Optimum Population Trust to scare us out of our wits, Italy would be on course to lose 86 per cent of its population by the end of this century, Spain to lose 85 per cent, Germany 83 per cent, and Greece 74 per cent.

You might think that the population explosion doomsters would be issuing press releases announcing the good news – it now seems highly probable that, after peaking around the middle of this century, the world's population will start to decline dramatically, for the first time since the Black Death. They won't be celebrating because they take their cue from Sir David Attenborough: however much the population declines, nothing is too good for the planet. Only when the beastly human race, with all its sinful greed for resources at the expense of innocent animals and insects, is extinguished, will the earth's ecological problems be permanently solved. No people, no problem.

It is true that the population of sub-Saharan Africa, exceptionally among the regions of the world, is still rising rapidly. Cleverly linking its own permanent obsession with fashionable concerns about man-made climate change, the OPT has launched PopOffsets, a way for those in this country to offset their own lavish CO2 emissions by paying for family-planning programmes in Africa: we can justify our own continued existence, just so long as we fork out to prevent more Africans occurring.

Presumably this will be one of the policies which Porritt and Attenborough will be pressing the Royal Society to back. It's interesting to see the arguments which the OPT made when launching its PopOffsets: "We acknowledge that the carbon emissions per capita in growing economies is relatively low compared to those in industrial nations. One can not assume, however, that people will continue to live in relative poverty and these growing economies will, inevitably, lead to greater emissions per capita."

So, stop an African being born today before – the horror! – he becomes as affluent as we are when he grows up. In the old days the population control movement claimed we should prevent Africans being born in order to save them from inevitable future starvation. Nowadays it says we should save humanity from the terrible consequences of their not starving, but prospering, instead. It's hardly surprising that Oxfam's head of research was provoked by PopOffsets into retorting that "If their arguments were based on logic alone, the population control lobby would probably be advocating compulsory euthanasia rather than birth control, but its preponderance of elderly white male members makes that pretty unlikely."

Remarkably, it does not occur to such seers as Porritt and Attenborough that it is precisely through becoming affluent – and thus escaping the genuine horrors of high infant mortality – that the inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa will begin voluntarily to have smaller families than they do today. There is no reason for supposing that increased prosperity and urbanisation will not have the same effect on the reproductive habits of Africans as it did on us; to believe otherwise is to imagine that they are genetically less capable of rational thought than we are, a profoundly ugly doctrine.

In fact, that is exactly what Thomas Malthus, the eternal hero of the population control movement, did believe. He was also, by the way, a fellow of the Royal Society.