Friday, 17 July 2009

CONTROVERSIES: 2. Population control

Is there a population problem? Yes and no. The Zenit news service, which has been running a helpful series of commentaries on the new encyclical, recently interviewed the president of CESPAS (the European Center for Studies on Population, the Environment and Development). Riccardo Cascioli points out that the Pope rejects the view that population increase is the cause of underdevelopment. There is a demographic crisis, but “it is that of the developed countries, which for more than 40 years have a birthrate lower than that of the generational replacement level. In many countries, he says, attempts to reduce population have
“diverted important resources needed to promote true development projects. Moreover, the savage application of these policies – as in the cases of China, India and other Asian countries – has caused grave social disequilibrium, of which the absence of hundreds of thousands of women is merely the most striking aspect. It is no coincidence that this encyclical does not use the concept of ‘sustainable development,’ which is based precisely on a negative view of population.”
Some care in needed here. The Pope does talk of, and advocate, sustainability – for example when he says in section 21 that “The economic development that Paul VI hoped to see was meant to produce real growth, of benefit to everyone and genuinely sustainable,” or when he speaks of “investing in rural infrastructures, irrigation systems, transport, organization of markets, and in the development and dissemination of agricultural technology that can make the best use of the human, natural and socio-economic resources that are more readily available at the local level, while guaranteeing their sustainability over the long term as well” (27), and by implication elsewhere when he argues for taking a long-term view, and for “inter-generational justice” (48).

As far as population control is concerned, the Pope rejects coercive population policies and the fostering by developed nations of an “anti-birth mentality” which is too often confused with cultural progress, arguing instead that “Openness to life is at the centre of true development” (28) and “Morally responsible openness to life represents a rich social and economic resource” (44). He points out the disastrous economic consequences for developed nations of a population failing to replace itself, as well as the positive contribution that a youthful population and large families can make to economic as well as social development. The Church has to remind the world that sexuality “cannot be reduced merely to pleasure or entertainment, nor can sex education be reduced to technical instruction aimed solely at protecting the interested parties from possible disease or the ‘risk’ of procreation. This would be to impoverish and disregard the deeper meaning of sexuality”. But he is speaking of “responsible procreation” (44), for he trusts human beings, couples and families to make the right decisions if they are educated and informed.

There are certain technical controversies the Pope does not venture into. One of them is the question of “carrying capacity” – whether of particular countries or of the earth itself. But what has become increasingly clear to everyone in recent years is that population growth, even if it causes problems in many areas and will cause more in the future, is less of a problem than the technology with which it impacts on the environment. More on that another time.

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