Risteárd Mulcahy’s essay On the Survival of Humanity,
published as a 52-page booklet by Liberties Press, March 2016.
The cover of this booklet grabbed my attention in The Workman’s Club on the Quays. I mean, could there be a more momentous subject? The booklet set me in mind of such pamphlets as Hesse’s Glimpse Into Chaos or H.G. Wells’ Mind at the end of its Tether, or a fascinating pamphlet pressed into my hands on Henry Street by a man in a saffron robe – the cover showing hybrid creatures cavorting, and bearing the title: Intellectual Animalism.
The acknowledged antecedent of Of the Survival of Humanity is Malthus’ work An Essay on the Principle of Population published in 1798. That essay famously pointed out that while population increases exponentially, food production grows only arithmetically, and concludes that human population will inevitably be limited by war, epidemics, and famine. The work had a massive impact on its era, not all of it positive: the eugenics movement drew some of their foundational ideas from it, and there is also a direct line to the laissez-faire economic policies that led to many unnecessary extra deaths in the Irish famine.
Mulcahy quietly drops in the figures for population: 6.5 billion in 2006, 7 billion in 2012, and likely 8 billion in 2035. I quickly calculated there are four as many people alive now as there were when Mulcahy was a toddler. There is an online world population counter, where you can even view all the people in the world printed as 7.4 billion little symbols on a single webpage. http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/
I won’t digress by describing how I felt as I watched these cheerful icons blip-blip-blip-blip into being.
“More than anything else, we find self-denial among people about the future of humanity as we raise the question of our environment and the future of man. We write or talk about it but people seldom wish to think about the reality of Armageddon.”
This sentence seems odd: how can people be writing and talking about these issues and yet not thinking about them? It’s awkwardly phrased, but it what he means is that a large proportion of people have become habituated to any such discussions. Or perhaps they feel unable to do anything about it and prefer to think about things more within their circle of concern. Mulcahy is in his tenth decade: undoubtedly he perceives a span of forty years in a very different way to a fresh graduate. His father, Richard James Mulcahy, fought in the 1916 rising. This is someone for whom the broad course of history is a personal matter. And the issue that is most within his circle of concern is not the party politics of this drenched island, but the vertigo-inducing rise in population.
Mulcahy writes very clearly and reasonably, in a rather distant schoolmasterly tone. “The urge to acquire things or simply to buy is widespread and shows no evidence of being controlled in town or suburb – a competitive urge inspired by the commercial world and the urge for profit.” “Nor does the public seem overly concerned. It is overpowered by the effects of industry, by personal ambition, and by our desire to embellish our standards of living.”
It makes for a speedy and sobering read, though short on detail at times. One of his key theses is that “sustainability” has become a word that lulls us into complacency. He claims there has been a failure to achieve any worthwhile progress over the last 30 years of government summits. A more radical alteration of our lifestyles is needed to protect the planet: “There should be a prohibition of unnecessary travel by private car, plane and rail as long as these modes of transport depend on fossil fuels. Energy in the form of domestic and public heating must be curbed …”
But generally the essay is low on specific solutions, and is instead more of a wake-up call.
He quotes from a letter he wrote to the Irish Times: “Population limitation has always been an emotive subject, largely shoved under the carpet worldwide, partly because of lack of realism on the part of society in general and of religious leaders in particular, and certainly because the implications of overpopulation are too horrendous to impact on society’s consciousness.”
I think Mulcahy misses the point on why it is taboo. What would a government policy on “population limitation” entail? People might readily accept the idea of special taxes on plastic bags, inefficient engines, outdoor heaters, etc. but incentives (or restrictions) to reduce the number of births is an entirely different matter. There are associations with “social engineering”, human rights abuses, and so on. Mulcahy doesn’t elaborate or give an opinion on, for example, China’s one-child policies. I can’t help but suspect he is shying away from the issue – something he accuses governments and international conferences of doing. It’s worth noting Malthus published his 1798 essay anonymously. The topic seems to have proved itself to be an enduring taboo.
On one point he is specific. He references how Pope Francis has shown an awareness of ecological damage and the issues such as climate change. “Fortunately the Church’s negative views about birth control are not followed by all his adherents, but open approval worldwide by Francis I would have a powerful effect in reducing the annual number of births in the world.” It would be astonishing if the pope reversed a long tradition of disapproval of contraceptives, and began encouraging one-child families. But stranger things have happened.
Plenty of food for thought in this calmly-written exhortation.