In taking a fellow population-control campaigner to task for his implied suggestion that we give death “a helping hand” by ignoring the cries of starving Africans, “Jane” (name changed) argued that “ The Guardian is running a very popular campaign to help the Ugandan village of Katina. Imagine if we were to say, better to leave them to die and condemn the campaign as damaging to the (future) environment? To set ourselves as AGAINST decent life styles for the very poor now? …I believe arguments like those put forward by George are at the heart of why politicians and others back off from discussions about population. There are others - some despicably racist and sexist - which we need to confront head on, as they are a major handicap to promoting family planning… So for me it is indefensible to argue that more death is a solution to rising world population and it is a terrible, terrible mistake to allow the suggestion that it might be.”
To that reproach “George” responded with three questions.
“How do we recognise true compassion? If we can be tolerably certain that feeding 5,000 starving children will inevitably lead to 25,000 starving children in 20 years - isn't it more compassionate to leave the 5,000 unfed?
Of course it is not compassionate to let 5,000 starve.
My question was whether it was MORE compassionate than causing 25,000 to starve. Given the continued rate of births in, for example, sub-Saharan Africa, I fear that your supply of compassion will not be matched by supplies of food- however much we try. Are you at all willing to recognise that many of those births have been made possible by many years of compassionate aid?”
I replied to “George” with an affirmation of his stance, saying that his logic had always been mine, and enjoyed the support of several people in my organization, most notably Brishen Hoff, the President of Biodiversity First. In one excerpt I stated:
(Jane’s) attitude is enormously frustrating. I just came back from an argument at the village. Parked in front of the entrance to the store was a table with pictures of hungry African children. The woman seated at the table was soliciting donations on behalf of some group (mostly like Christian) to “help” Africans. I gave her an earful, facts and figures. When I left and looked at the queue which formed in front of the lady with their money. Soft green dupes. If I had set up a rival table I not only would not get any money, but tremendous abuse.
I have written a lot of essays on this topic in the past two years. Let me sum up my attitude. “True compassion comes with a hard edge.”
What offends me most about Jane and her like, is that they are murderers. Murderers of other species. Why should I have more “compassion” for another human infant than for the primates who are being wiped out as we speak? More kids are born in any given day THAN ALL THE PRIMATES that exist in the entire world. Should I care more about the multitude of dandelions than the precious few roses that the weeds are crowding out? Oh let me hear it. “This man is a misanthrope who places non-human life above human life.” No, actually, the “compassionate” ones, the Geldoffs and the Stephen Lewis’ are the TRUE misanthropes. For nothing is more certain to end our days as homo sapiens than fish stocks and wildlife and wetlands and forest disappearing at their current rate due to overpopulation Want to save children? Then slash their numbers.
The point I am making here is that morality is a function of time and place. And that morality will not do us any good if we are all dead.
In a follow-up email I explained that in my meeting with Bill Ryerson, Bill actually favoured “Jane’s” position, which we sharply opposed. He said that it was not possible to persuade a local politician or tribal chief whose constituents were starving to adopt our prescriptions for family planning and population control if we declared our indifference to their death or our refusal to help them. While I understand the real politik of Bill’s approach, I developed my argument thusly (edited):
Consequences Matter More Than Our Foolhardy Sainthood
…. Oddly, in Ryerson’s 16 Myths about over population, he explicitly states that birth control will not accomplish our goal. Example, India had zero population growth in 1925. Why? The birth rate was much the same as it is now, but the DEATH rate was much higher. Improvements in health care delivery, sanitation, etc. have lowered it considerably. Result: population “boom” but not birth “boom” relative to past history.
Sorry, but I thought we are in the business of population stabilization and reduction, or are we clerics and moralizers? Would my pharmacist change my doctor’s prescription because he thought I wouldn’t swallow it? I don’t frankly care whether some tribal chief, mullah, bishop or government bureaucrat with a Swiss bank account is offended, insulted or outraged by my decision not to throw more aid at a problem he won’t control. Again, I am to be compared to a loans officer in a bank. I will NOT provide you with a loan “to feed your kids” if you have a track record of siring more and more mouths to feed without getting a vasectomy and cannot find the income to support them. Is that a death prescription? No, I am not the guy who is prescribing death. It is THE FATHER of those starving mouths who prescribed death by siring them. The moral ball is in HIS court, not mine. I am NOT morally obliged to give lunch money to my teenager if he continues to spend it on illegal drugs. We are NOT obliged to foster overpopulation BY ANY MEANS including the provision of unconditional food aid that is justified by “humanitarian” reasons.
And BTW, what about “other species reasons”? What moral right has “Jane” to prescribe death for the species who bear the brunt and bitter fruit of her “compassion” for her own species, one that is killing off 43,000 other species a year (or more than that)? Humanity is like a voracious cannibal that is consuming its own legs. As I am tired of saying, by killing off wildlife and biodiversity services we are committing suicide. How is the feeding of irresponsible breeders of the killer species compassionate or sensible in that context? Once again, I ask, would Jane and her allies in this debate, as surgeons in an operating room, refuse to amputate a gangrenous leg that threatens to infect and kill the patient because “every living organ is precious and has an equal right to live?” That was the point Bill was making to me. “Everyone one has an equal right to live”. His words verbatim to my recollection. With all due respect that sounds a lot like uncompromising anti-abortionists. Risk the mother’s life by forcing her to give birth because the fetus has an equal right to live.’’ I am sorry, but I cannot accept that position as “moral”. Politically marketable maybe, but in the long run counter-productive in my judgment. In Biodiversity First, our stated motto is “Rather ecologically correct than politically correct”, and that is still my guide post. I am fundamentally a truth-teller, not a salesman or a politician. Here are the brutal facts---I have presented them and my obligations are now discharged. I have written the prescription---‘tough love’--- and you may or may not choose to fill it. Once again, Canada is not a supplicant. WE have the aid and the leverage to impose conditions. Tell me why they should not be set and enforced.
Somewhere on my archive is an essay that I wrote that is appropriate here. It is about the character played by Jack Hawkins in “The Cruel Sea”. Just he was directing his destroyer to pick up freezing survivors from a U Boat attack, he spotted the submarine, and made a decision to plough right through the struggling swimmers to pursue it. He killed them all and was heckled by a sailor who called him “a bloody murderer”. In fact, the captain knew that if that U Boat was not sunk, it would go on to kill a great many more people than the number whom he just cut through. After all, it was not him who was responsible for the survivors’ demise---but the U Boat and its crew. He just chose not to rescue them in order to foreclose MORE misery on a GREATER scale. In my moral philosophy course of some 39 years ago, I wrote a paper in defense of what is known as “Rule Utilitarianism”, roughly the doing the greatest good for the greatest number. I have still not encountered an alternative morality to contest its logic. In our case, it would be more like “the greatest good for the SUSTAINABLE number”.
Doing the right thing is not the same as achieving the right results. Future generations of hungry mouths will not appreciate that their misery was the result of our “good and compassionate” intentions. Nor would the species that they extinguished to survive, if other species could be heard. I don’t want Jane as my surgeon. I would prefer a cold-hearted, calculating bastard who has the head to compute the math, measure the odds and come up with the right answers. Like the Hawkins’ character in “The Cruel Sea”.