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.