Population Matters is a “campaigning organisation” that is dedicated to curbing population growth. One of its high-profile members is David Attenborough – he of the “humanity is a plague” quotation.  The organisation has a vision of “a global population size enabling decent living standards and environmental sustainability” – I’m not sure what that size is, and I don’t think that Population Matters has put a number on it either. How many people must cease to exist (ie die) for the remaining, lucky ones to have “decent living standards”? David Attenborough should surely be able to tell us…

Anyway, it is probably of little surprise that Population Matters has used the death of thousands of Filipinos in Typhoon Haiyan as a chance to climb back onto the anti-population soapbox.  The severity of the effect of the typhoon was apparently worsened by the fact that there are so many more Filipinos than there were 60 years ago. And of course, the big bad Catholic Church comes in for a serve for also worsening the effects of the typhoon:

“…the scale of suffering has been worsened enormously by the five-fold increase in the population of the Philippines since 1950…

Pressure on space and resources means people are more likely to live in areas vulnerable to storms…

Poverty, to which population growth contributes significantly, means that people cannot afford the sturdy dwellings which can withstand extreme weather events. The sheer numbers of people mean that more suffer when storms do strike and that recovery efforts are that much more difficult.

The average birth rate in the Philippines, though falling, is still around three per woman.(1) While family planning is now legal, decades of rearguard action by the conservative local Catholic hierarchy means that access and use is limited.”

Ok, so if I have this right, Population Matters thinks that because there are more Filipinos, there are more potential victims of storms and these potential victims are at greater risk because of poverty which is “significantly” contributed to by population growth. 

This article in Spiked magazine has a good response to the tripe dished up by Population Matters. As it notes, the Philippines is not uniquely affected by population density:

“It’s actually the fortieth most population-dense country in the world, with 329 people per square kilometre. There are many far more densely populated countries that do not suffer the same problems as the Philippines, even when big natural disasters occur. Belgium, for example, has 366 per sq km. Holland has almost 500. Hong Kong has 6,516. Which rather puts paid to PM’s claim that numbers of people and amount of space necessarily make natural disasters worse when they hit.”

But more importantly, Spiked makes the point that low population isn’t the problem, but lack of wealth. The wealthier the country, the more likely it is able to respond to natural disasters and protect its population:

“What people in the Philippines need is not ‘help [to] manage their family size’, as PM proposes, but rather industry, development, more economic growth; if the Philippines were more like Hong Kong, it would be better prepared to deal with natural problems that arise…The tragedy here is that all this finger-pointing, at both fecund Filipinos and carbon-using Westerners, distracts us from the real debate we need to have – about how to further develop countries like the Philippines in order to make them more resilient to unpredictable natural forces. What Filipinos need is not condoms and lectures from modern-day Malthusians or self-flagellating apologies from comfortably off Westerners, but, rather, meaningful and massive industrial and technological development in order to make it more like we in the West are lucky enough to be – relatively ensconced from the worst aspects of the natural world.”

To equate population growth with poverty is simplistic. The world is infinitely richer (in all sorts of ways) than it was 200 years ago and yet its population is about seven times as large. To suggest that the Philippines would be better able to deal with Typhoon Haiyan if its population were at the same as it was in 1950 is, at best, unproven.

But the most ridiculous argument that Population Matters makes is that “the sheer numbers of people mean that more suffer when storms do strike…” Well yes. I’ve got a bit of news for Population Matters; every single person who is born suffers and dies. In fact you could say that life itself is a mortal disease. No one gets out of here alive. The only way to reduce suffering and death to zero is to make sure there are no people at all (and that includes all the members of Population Matters).  Suffering and death is part of the human condition. To say that there should be fewer people so that fewer people die in storms is nonsense. It is effectively saying that if fewer people existed then those non-existent people cannot be killed in a typhoon. Do you think that that is a swap that the people of the Philippines would make? Do you think those that died would want to have swapped their existence so that they did not get killed in a typhoon? Do you think that those people morning loved ones would prefer that their loved ones never existed at all instead of being killed? That is what Population Matters is saying.

Yes, existence involves suffering and death. But it also involves human warmth, kindness, altruism, the beauty of music and literature and nature, and love. To prefer non-existence to life and death is nihilism of the most pure form.  

May all those grieving for friends and family in the Philippines find comfort and support in the memory of their loved ones’ lives and in the knowledge that death is not the end. And for all those who have died in typhoon Haiyan and its aftermath:

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.

Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...