“Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?” Albert Bartlett (1923-2013)
Population Growth: 7 Billion and Counting
Population growth seems to be a “politically incorrect” theme for many people, including many highly respected leaders in the international sustainable development community. The reason is that population growth is tightly coupled with issues of human sexuality that many people still find difficult to discuss openly. In some cultures, these issues elicit visceral reactions pursuant to upholding ancient family and institutional structures widely considered to be sacrosanct. This book is a significant contribution to fostering awareness about the criticality of demographic realities for sustainable development and the urgent need for all responsible world citizens to face the absurdity of infinite population in a finite world.
The contents are listed on the right-hand side of this page. The foreword by Musimbi Kanyoro poses the fundamental question: “Can we say, with an honest heart, that the suffering of the earth and millions of her children is not linked to the exponential growth in human numbers?” Biblical literalists would say that this is God’s plan since the beginning: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28) They conveniently forget that God also “took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15) Furthermore, God created humankind, male and female, as rational animals capable of taking care of each other and making decisions for the common good.
The “Lord Man” parable by Tom Butler provides a panoramic view of how men and women gradually replaced the Lord God’s plan with a plan made by human hands; a plan that has little to do with responsible caring and much to do with irresponsible abuse of the entire community of creation. The path from the pristine “garden” of the beginning to the polluted planet we now inhabit has been guided by the insatiable desire for more stuff, more power, more honors. It is not insignificant that this path started after the original communion of man and woman was cursed and replaced by male domination and female subordination (cf. Genesis 3:16).
Coupling of Population and Consumption
The introduction by William Ryerson eloquently describes the magnitude of the “overdevelopment, overpopulation, overshoot” challenge, and correctly focuses on population growth as the crucial issue: “How many people can the Earth sustain, at a reasonable standard of living, while leaving room for diversity of life to flourish?” One by one, he shows the logical absurdity of all attempts to avoid facing this fundamental question. Can we reduce consumption? Even if consumption per capita is reduced to subsistence level, we would eventually run out of space to stand, let alone move around and make room for clean water to flow and food to grow. Can we count on technological breakthroughs? Any technology can be used for the common good or against the common good, and the lessons of human history are not reassuring. Use of contraceptives and other artificial methods of family planning? Fertility rates have declined in some population sectors but continue to be high in others for cultural and/or religious reasons, especially among the poor who can least afford demographic imbalances.
The photo essays are spectacular, and convey in a powerful way the magnitude of the ecological crisis. The parable redux for the “Lord Man” path is ecological conversion of the kind that would have saved past civilizations that collapsed when they outgrew their resource base; except that now we need an even more universal conversion in human relations to prevent a global ecological collapse. Is humankind capable of such conversion?
In the afterword, Eileen Crist provides a tentative answer by way of exploring a population-related question, i.e., what would it take to feed a global population of 10 billion or more people? Could it be done without making the planet uninhabitable? Barring “acts of God,” she convincingly argues that the reasonable answer is negative, but offers a more attractive alternative: “that by choosing the wisdom of limitations and humility, humanity can reject life on a planet converted into a human food factory and allow for the rewilding of vast expanses of the biosphere’s landscapes and seascapes.” In other words, limits to growth with freely and voluntarily embraced limits to totalthroughput of materials, waste, and energy as required for sustainability; which, in turn, would necessarily require limits to both fertility and consumption rates.
This is where “the rubber meets the road.” After analyzing all the economic forces that perpetuate high fertility rates, such as the need for cheap labor and more consumers to feed the growth engine, huge cultural forces are identified as the most pervasive and difficult to overcome. The most powerful resistance comes from the ancient mindset of male domination and female subordination, further exacerbated by religious patriarchy: “the population question is indeed pressing in countries where patriarchic, polygamous, fundamentalist, and military cultures are keeping women handcuffed and thus adding roadblocks to a restored future.”
In brief, we need a massive experience of ecological conversion. What kind of policies and actions would contribute to remove these formidable cultural obstacles? At the grassroots level, nonviolent protests and pronouncements by millions of global citizens would be helpful. At the level of local and national governance, as well as international collaboration, it is opportune to consider how the vast amount of knowledge encapsulated in the text and photos of this book is reflected in some of the more important current initiatives, such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the recent papal encyclical on taking care of our common home, and the recent Paris agreement about managing climate change.
Sustainable Development Goals
It is undeniable that, by reducing the amounts of food that must be produced, the amounts of materials and energy required to meet other basic necessities, and the amounts of waste and pollution thereby generated, mitigation of population growth rates would be helpful for sustainable development. However, the Sustainable Development Goals do not explicitly mention the need for population stabilization, let alone reduction by any ethical and culturally acceptable means. Goal 5,“achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, comes close in that it recognizes the human rights of girls and women and the importance of family planning; but there is no explicit recognition that infinite population in a finite planet is a mathematical impossibility.
Recent Encyclical on the Care of Our Common Home
This encyclical is a comprehensive and very appealing discourse on the ecological crisis, and “shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution.” (Laudato Si’, #114). It recognizes that “attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density” but only after stating that “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development” (idem, #50). Also, “valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary” so that we can “joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment” (idem, #155). However, the encyclical evades facing practical issues of human fertility and responsible parenthood, and fails to encourage couples to voluntarily (and by mutual consent) limit the number of pregnancies, even if only by natural methods.
Paris Climate Agreement
The COP21 Paris Climate Agreement is good news that made front page in many newspapers worldwide, and should help in the process of penetrating the global collective unconscious. But anthropogenic climate impacts, like all environmental impacts, are the product of population and consumption for any given set of technologies; and no mention is made of human population and the undeniable fact that anthropogenic climate change would be a nonissue if we had, say, 2 billion people living on the planet instead of 7 billion. Even if the funds requested by developing countries (100 billion dollars) are provided, it is not clear how much will trickle down for real climate mitigation (disaster prevention and remediation) and climate adaptation projects after the governments and elites get their cut. Parsing the “shalls” and “shoulds” in the agreement shows that all the binding “shalls” apply to bureaucratic actions, and all the really physical TBDs are “shoulds.” Another good exercise in the “art of the possible,” but the demographic dimension of the issue continues to be conveniently ignored.
Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot
Given that issues of human sexuality and population growth are crucial for sustainable human development, it would be sensible to engage in all manner of dialogue about these matters, and analyze them from every conceivable perspective, to seek ways of family and population planning that are compliant with human rights, culturally acceptable, and ecologically sound. This is easier said than done, but resigning ourselves to the fact that the subject is taboo, and avoiding it, will not make demographic or ecological issues go away. The textual and photographic essays of this book constitute a shining example of how to bring them up in a compelling way that is also fully respectful of cultural sensitivities. Copies of this book should be made available to all responsible stakeholders, and it is good to know that there is already an initiative to this effect