Paul Collins, Catholic writer


How Many People Can Earth Sustain? An Acute Moral Dilemma

9 July 2013
(Based on Paul Collins, Judgment Day: The Struggle for Life on Earth, New York: Orbis, 2011)

As a species we humans are the most important, acute and intractable moral issue that we face. Our sheer numbers and our rate of increase are simply wiping out other species and destroying landscapes in ways that are increasingly making the earth uninhabitable for other species and those who come after us. In all of history there have never been so many of us. The statistics could not be clearer:

In 1804 there were 1 billion people in the world
In 1927 (123 years later) there were 2 billion people
In 1960 (33 years later) there were 3 billion people
In 1974 (14 years later) there were 4 billion people   
In1987 (13 years later) there were 5 billion people
In 1998 (11 years later) there were 6 billion people
In 2009 (11 years later) there were 7 billion people
In 2021 (12 years later) there will be 8 billion people
In 2035 (14 years later) there will be 9 billion people
In 2054 (19 years later) there will be 10 billion people
In 2093 (39 years later) there will be 11 billion people

This kind of exponential growth looks even more vivid when you represent it as a graph.

Nevertheless population is a particularly difficult issue to discuss in polite society. If you bring it up you are attacked by both the right and the left (who are often worse than the right) and accused of being ‘racist’, ‘anti-human’, an ‘extreme green’, ‘anti-immigrant’, ‘alarmist’, or wanting to dictate to developing countries how they should behave. You are told you’re misinformed because the ‘real issue’ is not over-population, but lack of equity in the distribution of the goods of the world. You are accused of favoring abortion, enforced fertility control, sterilization, and limiting the rights of couples to decide the number of children they have; or you are a neo-colonist, paternalist, or lack a sense of social justice.

So it is difficult not to sound misanthropic when discussing population. Recently Sir David Attenborough spoke of the ‘absurd taboo’ of not speaking about population pressures. He says that there ‘seems to be some bizarre taboo around the subject’ (Daily Mail (11/3/11)).  Yet discuss it we must because since the advent of homo sapiens almost all extinction scenarios are attributable, either directly or indirectly, to our actions and pressures on the rest of nature. Even though the statistics are overwhelming that we have a serious problem, there are still enormously powerful vested interests in maintaining high rates of growth, especially in western countries which have reached ZPG. This is often led by business leaders who want to maintain high rates of immigration to maintain the work force, the number of consumers and markets for growth.

Australia is an interesting example of these vested interests. We actually have a higher overall growth rate than Indonesia. The overall growth rate is the combination of immigration with natural fertility growth. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics:  

"an [overall] population growth rate of 2.1 per cent was recorded for the year ending 30 June 2009, up from 1.7% from 2008. This is the highest growth rate in 40 years. As at 30 June 2009, Australia's population had grown to 21,875,000, an increase of 443,000 people over the previous year. Australia’s net overseas migration contributed more than half of this growth, at 64 per cent or 285,000 people. Natural increase (the excess of  births over deaths) contributed 158,000 (36 per cent)." (ABS, Media Release, Australian Demographic Statistics, June 2009).

Four years later the ABS noted that:

"Australia’s Population Clock [reached] 23 million on 23 April 2013 at 9:57pm … Net overseas migration accounted for 60% of Australia's total growth, with the remaining 40 per cent due to natural increase for the year ending 30 September 2012. This is the highest annual increase in net overseas migration in almost five years." (ABS, Media Release, 23 April, 2013).

It is interesting to compare these growth rates with the United States (0.97), Canada (0.90), and the United Kingdom (0.42).

A 2010  report commissioned by the Department of Immigration and prepared by the National Institute of Labour Studies at Flinders University entitled ‘Long-Term Physical Implications of Net Overseas Migration: Australia to 2050’ found that neither the environment, nor our resource security, nor our quality of life were likely to benefit from the very rapid growth of population that Department of Treasury predicted and that business lobby groups continue to demand. The report looked systematically at differing levels of Net Overseas Migration (NOM), from zero up to 260,000 a year. It shows that all of them lead to worryingly unsustainable positions, but that higher figures for NOM lead to even worse outcomes. Water supplies to Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney … are insecure already, but will be far worse with higher NOMs. 

Groups with a vested interest in high immigration intakes often use the furfy of a so-called ‘sustainable population’. The usual definition comes from the 1987report Our Common Future.  It says ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future gen­erations to meet their own needs.’ This definition says nothing about protecting nature. It is all about humans. Perhaps that reflects the fact that it was written two decades ago. This is like the loggers destroying old-growth forests claiming that their actions are ‘sustainable’ because the forest will probably grow again. Perhaps, but it won't be an old-growth forest for another 400 years, if ever. It will be a monoculture. Many of the species that depended on the complex interlocking system of the old-growth forest will be gone. Essen­tially, then, sustainability is in the eye of the beholder.

How many people constitute a sustainable population? The UK-based Optimum Population Trust has calculated countries’ carrying capacity by com­paring actual population numbers with how many people a specific country could sustain with a ‘modest footprint carrying capacity’. It defines this as a lifestyle broadly related to European standards of living with a reduction of about three-fifths of present consumption of fossil fuels. However, by this standard most countries are already living far beyond their carrying capacity:

Australia 22 million 18 million
United Kingdom 60 million 23 million
United States 280 million 254 million
Israel 6 million 1million
Italy 58 million 16 million
China 1.3 billion 168 million
India 1 billion 103 million
Egypt 67 million 6 million
Bangladesh 135 million 6 million
Nigeria 111 million 10 million
Pakistan 138 million 26 million

If we calculate the total numbers for these countries, their carrying capacity is approximately 630 million, but their actual population far exceeds this: 2.9 billion!

These statistics vividly illustrate how unsustainable our present population situation is. So even if rich countries lowered their standard of living and the poor achieved this ‘modest’ lifestyle, the earth’s carrying capacity would still be far exceeded. So unless develop­ment goals, equity and social justice for the third world are linked to reduction in population numbers, the situation is impossible. Human numbers are now so far beyond sustainability as to render the concept of sustainability irrelevant.

Our basic problem is that we have no overarching moral framework to deal with this issue. So what are we to do? The great religious traditions have had little or nothing to say about population. Catholicism is particularly crippled by its stance on contraception, although this has little impact in developed countries like Australia where Catholic fertility is now 0.5 below the natural average. Many Catholic countries are in negative territory regarding population growth. For example Italy has a -0.13 growth rate and Croatia, Lithuania and Poland (-0.15) are all below replacement rate.

There are a range of responses to the unsustainable situation regarding population which the world now faces. First there are the Malthusian pessimists for whom the problem is intractable and it will only be solved by draconian measures such as enforced contraception. Then there are the naturalistic optimists who argue that humanity is very adaptable and equilibrium will be reached by market forces without regulatory intervention. Thirdly there are the interventionists who believe that it is only through some form of direct intervention that population stability will be achieved. Various forms of intervention are suggested. Some say a more equitable distribution of world resources and surpluses is needed. Some favor intervention by government to limit reproduction through contraception, sterilisation or abortion. They are opposed by those who emphasise human rights, or who come from some religious perspectives. Then there are those who focus on education and liberation of women. David Attenborough says correctly that ‘Wherever women have the vote, wherever they are literate, and have the medical facilities to control the number of children they bear, the birth rate falls’. There are many examples of this. Finally there are those who say the only solution is a pandemic like the Black Death of 1348-9 or the Spanish Flu epidemic just after World War One in 1918-9.

Basic to our dilemma is that we have never been in this situation before. Therefore, while drawing on our traditions and experience, we have to develop new ways of facing the population catastrophe confronting us. This will involve radical rethinking some of our oldest and most treasured moral presuppositions.

So what needs to be rethought? First we have to jettison anthropocentrism: this ugly word comes from the Greek anthropos ‘meaning man in the generic sense of humankind. To be anthropocentric is to be so focused on humankind and its needs and aspirations to the exclusion of all other species and priorities. It is the unconscious assumption that the earth exists for us and that its total meaning is derived from us’ (Paul Collins, Judgment Day, p 18). Thomas Berry says that anthropocentrism is rooted in ‘our failure to think of ourselves as a species, interconnected with and biologically interdependent on the rest of reality’ (Dream of the Earth, p 21). Berry says that we have become besotted with ‘the pathos of the human’ and take ourselves and our needs as the focus, norm, and final arbiter of all that exists.

Anthropocentrism unconsciously underlies so many of our assumptions about our place in the world. We have completely lost our sense of our ‘biological interconnectedness’, as Berry calls it, with the rest of creation. This underlies not only the Christian theological assumption of the centrality of the human, but also leads straight to the absurd assumption that 8 billion people in 2021 can live a middle class standard of living. When it comes to food security many people still assume that the entire world can be subsumed as a feed lot for humankind with the loss of all wildernesses and the extinction of tens of thousands of species.

As well as anthropocentrism we have to abandon the myth of progress, the notion of infinite development, the idea that limitless human advancement is both possible and desirable. The remote origins of the myth lie in Jewish and Christian notions of an apocalyptic era in which a kind of heaven on earth can be achieved. The proximate origins lie in Rene Descartes’ notion in his Discourse on Method that the purpose if humankind is ‘to elevate our nature to its highest degree of perfection’ and in the Calvinist notion that material wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. Geoffrey Barraclough points out that the scientific revolution and technological progress introduced ‘a new spirit of inquiry into all branches of knowledge, [which] led with revolutionary suddenness to the perfection and dissemination of a new cosmology and a new outlook on the world … From this time forward it is possible to trace the rise of the idea of progress as the determinative principle in human history; but it was not until the immense advance in human science during the 19th century that the idea really took hold over the popular imagination’ (History in a Changing World, Oxford, 1957, pp 223-4). History came to be seen as a continuous progression from the earliest life forms to the present day. This was a deeply optimistic view of human history particularly and formed the basis of the notion of human perfectibility.

In the 19th century this notion became secularized and was promoted through universal popular education. The theory of evolution also played a major role because in the popular understanding evolution was always toward more complex and developed realities. Herbert Spencer, with the lack of self-doubt so characteristic of many Victorian thinkers, argued that ‘progress, therefore, in not an accident, but a necessity … As surely as … evil and immorality disappear, so surely must man become perfect’ (Social Statics; or the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness, London, 1851). The myth of progress was also promoted through the historians J.B. Bury (The Idea of Progress (1920)), H.G. Wells (Outline of History (1920)), and V. Gordon Childe (What Happened in History (1942)).

Nowadays the myth of progress has been further transformed and transmuted into economic terms with economic neo-rationalism’s perfect, infinite ever-growing market, a pseudo-religion if ever there was one! Nowadays one has faith in the Market and consumption is now a form of divine grace, despite the fact that it is underpinned by a cosmology that is anthropocentric, materialistic and evolutionist.

Our biggest problem is that humanity has never been in this kind of situation before and this means we will have to rethink some of our previous moral presuppositions. At the core of the population problem is a conflict of rights: the right of individuals to reproduce, and the right of other species and whole ecosystems to continue to exist. For some this is not a problem for they see the whole earth system existing for humankind with no meaning outside us. of humankind.

It is interesting that the role of forces like anthropocentrism and the myth of progress are often forgotten when discussing population, while the role of the great religious traditions and especially Catholicism are highlighted. Catholics get blamed for their failure to confront the population problem in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific and parts of Asia, particularly the Philippines. Certainly Catholicism cannot escape this problem. Because of the contraception issue the Catholic Church has largely failed to do this, for which it is rightly criticized. The papal focus on contraception has been a massive distraction and is one of the papacy’s most disastrous decisions in the last millennium of church history because it has distracted Catholicism from confronting the much more important and long-term social and environmental problems embedded in the increasing number of people on earth.

While the tendency is to blame institutional Catholicism for its focus on the intramural issue of contraception rather than the immensely more important universal issue of population, there are enormous strengths built into the Catholic (and more broadly Christian and religious) systems. The importance of religious faith is that it influences people at a basic personal and community level to think about the moral issues embedded in having children. ‘One of the positives of religious faith is that it helps people think, at a personal and community level, about the moral issues involved in having children’ (Judgment Day, p 98).

Firstly faith situates the issue within the context of a community. It is a very modern notion to think that children are born into the isolation of a nuclear family. For most of human history a child was born into a clan and community context. This immediately raises the question of basic reproductive rights. Any prudent discussion of human reproduction must include the full circumstances into which the child will be born. A key element in that equation is the question of the demands that human fertility place on the ecological and bioregional structure into which a child is born. To decide to have a child is not a purely subjective act by an individual couple or woman. It involves broader social and environmental issues. Socially, the moral question is: can this child be nurtured, cared for and fed? Can the family and the community support it? For sure, high fertility rates are understandable in poor, work-intensive societies because children provide agricultural labor in rural areas and extra support in urban slums. ‘Children are economic assets in poor countries, not liabilities like their middle class counterparts [in developed countries]’ (Asoka Bandarage, ‘Control cash not people’ in Ecologist, 38/8, October 2008). And it is true that population numbers in some poor countries are dropping due to improvements in living standards, basic economic security, education, health care and voluntary family planning. The reduction of social and gender-based inequalities usually leads to a lowering of the birth-rate. But this is not true everywhere.

Environmentally, the moral question is: what demands will meeting the child’s needs place upon the local ecology? Can these be met? Is there evidence that the particular area where the child is to be born is already over-populated leading to environmental destruction? If the region's ecology is already compromised, what is the prognosis for the future for its ability to support human life at all if present degradation rates continue? Another relevant issue here is that excessive fertility leads to a youth bulge in populations with large numbers of unemployed young men which in turn leads to violence and civil conflict. This form of internecine strife can be particularly vicious as the 1991 to 2002 civil war in the West African state of Sierra Leone showed. There are many other examples in Africa and elsewhere.

Up until now both Catholicism and democratic states considered that these are non-questions. They maintain the very recently developed notion that reproduction is a private act in which the community and the state have no say. But this not true historically. Before the mid-nineteenth century reproduction was not a purely personal decision between consenting adults. The birth of a child was seen as the arrival of a new member of the tribe, clan, or community, maintaining its numbers, contributing to its common well-being and extending its ability to protect and develop its territory. Throughout human history to reproduce has always been a social act endowed with religious and ethical connotations. To decide to reproduce is not just a private decision to fulfill and complete oneself or one’s relationship. Of course the personal and relational aspects have importance, but the right to reproduce must be re-situated back within the context of the common good, broadly understood. The community has rights with regard to reproduction. Such a decision must be taken within the context of the ability of both the couple and the community to care for and support the child. It must also be taken within the context of the present population crisis and the rights of nature and other species.

Secondly, it is women who bear children, so their social, educational and economic position must be a key issue in reproduction. All of the evidence from the World Health Organization and other international organizations, as well as from scholars who have examined this issue, is that the status and education of women is centrally important. Their freedom, literacy and security from familial or spousal violence are essential to them making informed and rational decisions about their fertility. ‘The number of children that women choose to have is usually lower when they are educated, have equal rights to property and equal access to work with equal pay’ (Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The Population Explosion, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990, p 2160.  In Cuba, China, Thailand and the Indian state of Kerala, women have the right to inherit property and in all of these places the birthrate has been reduced. This is confirmed by the work of demographers at the Australian National University. Access to cheap and efficient contraception is also a key issue.

This is where religion plays an important educational role. In many developing countries churches provides a supportive and caring community where information can be made available and where women and couples can talk the issues through with informed people. Both women and men can be helped to understand that high fertility is not necessarily ‘natural’ or the ‘will of God’. This needs to be accompanied by practical medical help including contraceptive advice. In fact this is precisely what is provided in many Catholic communities in the developing world, despite the official stance of the Vatican. It is here that the tragedy of the 1968 papal condemnation of artificial contraception lies. This was a major chance to use the church’s moral authority and persuasion to change attitudes, especially in developing countries with large Catholic populations. Instead the official church has rendered itself all but useless, although many courageous lay Catholics, sisters and priests have understood the issue and used their ministry to offer moral, educational and medical services to assist poor women to make their own decisions about fertility.

Another role that the church should undertake is educating boys and men in patriarchal, hierarchical, honor/shame type societies to respect women’s freedom and basic rights. Parts of Latin America and Africa are examples of this. The fact that Mediterranean Latin-Italian culture is still dominated by an honor/shame anthropological style after almost two millennia of Catholicism points to the complete failure of the church in instill genuine Christian values. Here male-female polarization creates an emotional distance between men and women and it is really only nowadays that these kinds of clan structures are breaking-down.

While religions such as Catholicism and Islam are often blamed for imposing harsh conditions on women to maintain a high fertility rate, the actual oppression that women experience in the Latin world and in parts of Africa are just as much the result of cultural attitudes as they are of religious conviction or teaching. Religion is used as a confirming element in the enforcement of male control, lack of female education and high fertility. So a fundamental element in a morality of population is the education and liberation of women, giving them control of their fertility.

The second element is that the church must be proactive in emphasizing women’s rights as a moral issue and must be prepared to confront unequivocally the abuse of women by men. Violence towards women can never be justified, especially within a Christian context. While the church must be intimately present within the structures of a society, it also has to act as a strong counter-cultural force.

The third moral element is that fertility control and family planning be made as accessible as possible. However, there are real problems here because birth control and family planning is sometimes cast as a Western plot to impose a set of values favoring smaller families on developing countries. Latinos and Africans have traditionally seen fertility as a blessing. This has been reinforced by Catholics bishops claiming that they are protecting cultural traditions in countries like the Philippines and Kenya, both of which have high fertility rates. But this doesn’t mean that in the present circumstances the wider international common good demands that these cultural traditions be judged in a broader ethical context. It is precisely the failure of Catholicism to confront the causes of unsustainable population increases in countries like these that has led to devastating environmental degradation.

This is never going to be an easy issue and has recently become an almost taboo topic, even among progressive people. Part of the problem is that there has been a heavy emphasis on the mistakes that were made in birth control programs in the past, especially in India. The Columbia University historian Matthew Connolly has catalogued them in relentless, and some might say needless detail. There has been a concerted push from some quarters to discredit family planning, including from a minority of powerful Catholics.

So what are we to do? What can be creatively recovered from the Catholic tradition to assist in the development of a population ethic? Is it possible to develop a genuine Christian ethic which confronts the question of population?

At the heart of the discussion will be the cardinal virtue of prudence, combined with responsibility to coming generations. Given the already known impact of an out-of-control population, prudent moral action certainly demands that we act to bring human numbers back under reasonable control. Prudence, as understood by Saint Thomas Aquinas, is the ability to discern the right course of action in particular moral circumstances and that it is focused on real, concrete ethical decision-making. It is an acquired virtue that calls for an alertness and shrewdness of mind; it doesn’t necessarily come naturally. Its opposite is folly, lack of judgement and stupidity. To ignore the escalation in human population would be foolhardy.

Prudence is intimately linked to temperance and justice. Temperance involves self-control, self-sacrifice and genuine asceticism. In this specific moral context it imposes on developed nations a demand that they reduce their use of resources, as well as lowering over-the-top standards of living in order to assist poorer nations now, as well as considering those who come after us. Social justice is also a key part of moral decision-making here and perhaps the word which best sums it up is equity. Justice demands an equitable, fair, impartial distribution of the goods of the world between all its members. Prudence has an inter-generational aspect; that is we cannot exhaust resources and destroy the earth without consideration of those who come after us. From a Catholic moral perspective equity for the poor of the world is an essential element in any moral discernment about population. For developed countries the fundamental moral issue is equity and social justice, the development of an asceticism that is prepared to sacrifice standards of living so that people in poor countries will be given a fair share of the goods of the world. ‘Temperance involves self-control, self-sacrifice and asceticism … Justice (equity) demands an equitable, fair, impartial distribution of the goods of the world among all its members’ (Judgment Day, p 98).

I would be the first to admit that they are not only difficult, but explosive. It is no wonder that politicians in democratic countries avoid such questions like the plague.

Care to comment? .