I have been reading Peter Singer’s latest book, The life you can save: Acting now to end world poverty. Yes, that Peter Singer, the animal rights philosopher whose ethical system encompasses infanticide and euthanasia. While I have some grave reservations about his reasoning, his conclusions seem unobjectionable. His main point is that the wealthy West can end world poverty if it really wants to by giving effective aid to the developing world. To drive his point home, he describes a number of wonderful projects which cost little and change lives forever, like drilling wells for waterless villages in Ethiopia (cost US$10 per user) or curing the horror of obstetric fistulas in Africa (cost $450 per woman).
Ending poverty has become a crusade for Singer and this book could make him into a Mother Teresa figure in some circles. I’m not sure what the connection is with his radically utilitarian philosophy – perhaps he uses donations to Oxfam to offset his dark vision of human dignity. He has often lectured on the topic and is used to batting back hard balls from cynical listeners. Often, he says, people sneer, “Saving the lives of poor people now will only mean that more will die when the population eventually crashes because our planet has long passed its carrying capacity.”
Much to my surprise, Singer demolishes that objection.
But the problem is not that we are producing too little food; rather we’re not eating the food we grow. Nearly 100 million tonnes of grain per year is turning into biofuel that goes into American gas tanks… The world is not running out of food. The problem is that we – the relatively affluent – have found a way to consume four or five times as much food as would be possible if we were to eat the crops we grow directly. (pages 131, 132)
He winds up with the catchy slogan: “while [Malthus] envisaged the growth of populations leading to mass famines, so far the only looming danger is mass vegetarianism” (page 132). I am no fan of Professor Singer, but at least he has not been swept away by doomsday scenarios.