Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Population bomb defused?

For the first time in human history, more people live in cities than outside them. The world’s population has been rising steadily, from 3 billion in 1960 to nearly 7 billion now, and in forty years more it may reach 9 billion.

The numbers sound huge, but Paul Ehrlich’s alarmist prediction in his 1966 book The Population Bomb that in the 1970s hundreds of millions would starve to death has been proved false. Advances in agriculture (the “green revolution”) enabled the world to double its grain supply to compensate for increasing demand. Continued expansion of our population may similarly be offset by further advances in technology. This should not lead us to ignore the possible impact of such a huge increase of numbers on social, political and economic systems, as well as the environment. But Catholics, who are frequently confronted with arguments in favour of contraception based on the “population bomb” thesis, can take some heart from a recent study by National Geographic that emphasizes how hard it is to predict the effects of the population explosion. The real issue, it turns out, is not numbers (which in any case are due to level out by the end of the century) but the use of resources. A person in the developed world uses 32 times as many resources as someone elsewhere, and emits 200 times as much carbon dioxide.

What are the implications? You can have bigger numbers, but people have to stay poor. Or the consumption of the wealthy has to be reduced. Eliminate poverty, and educate third-world women, and population growth will cease. But eliminate poverty, and everyone will be consuming more resources. There is another way, one that allows bigger numbers while combatting poverty, and it goes by the name of “sustainable development”. That is where Catholic social teaching really comes into its own, based on an appreciation of the natural laws written into the created world. This is where we need to devote more research, to find ways to promote development without destroying the earth around us. For more on this, see the earlier post commenting on Caritas in Veritate. See also the book by Fred Pearce, Peoplequake.


  1. Gregory Lippiatt4 February 2011 13:07

    A stark counterpoint to the concerns about explosive population growth can be found here: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/10/11/think_again_global_aging

    There is more commentary on the subject by James Matthew Wilson over at Front Porch Republic here: http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2010/10/the-population-bomb/

    Here's also an academic study of replacement rates in a number of OECD countries by Francis Castles for the Journal of European Policy: https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=gmail&attid=0.1&thid=12de11900413edf0&mt=application/pdf&url=https://mail.google.com/mail/?ui%3D2%26ik%3D5ddda32e4d%26view%3Datt%26th%3D12de11900413edf0%26attid%3D0.1%26disp%3Dattd%26realattid%3Df_gjmrbjkx0%26zw&sig=AHIEtbTumHDZ3UwnZ8svXg8TB-LxhTcUMw&pli=1

    It may be that the bigger problem is massive depopulation in critical areas of the world, particularly Europe and Japan, which threatens to have disastrous consequences for indigenous cultures.

  2. Re use of resources and Catholicism: today we celebrate every day like a feast day. The cornucopia of goodies in Waitrose is too tempting. If only we could remind ourselves and train ourselves that we don't need to feast daily, we could go a long way to cutting out resource use and emissions. It's feasty-food (meat and dairy, out of season things, exotics) which is most intense in resources and emissions. We could free up resources for the additional people. Whether the economic system could get the resources to those people is another question.