Population ‘Bomb’ Already exploded

Like many commentators before him, Kevin Bain’s ‘Prospects for refugees and migrants if the population bomb goes bust’ (Pearls and Irritations, 23/7/20) assumes that population is a future problem, ignoring the fact that the world is already over-populated.

Population is not a ‘bomb’ threatening to explode when we reach some theoretical future number. It is a massive problem now in 2020 with 7.8 billion people on earth. It doesn’t matter what the population is going to be thirty years hence, because we are wreaking havoc on the earth now. We’ve already far exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity and the implications for the environment and global warming are horrendous.

But back to the article: Essentially, it argues that education and liberation of girls and contraception are already slowing population increases and that by 2100 ‘183 of 195 countries will not have the fertility rates to maintain their [present] population.’ It says that before this happens developed countries like Australia need to seize the opportunity to bring in ‘tens of millions of workers and their families [who] are eager to become contributors,’ before migrant numbers dry up because their source countries develop sufficient capacity to be able to employ their excess people.

I have problems with all of this. First, the assumption is that developed countries ought to maintain and increase their population in order to preserve present economic models that are totally unsustainable. It also assumes that nothing untoward, like Corona virus, is going to happen in the meantime, despite overwhelming evidence of global warming.

And finally, but significantly, the article is completely anthropocentric, that is it assumes that we humans come first before all other species, and that we must prioritize the needs of humanity over those of natural world. The irony is that given humans make-up just 0.01% of all living things, the notion that we constitute the entire meaning of the world is unbelievably presumptuous.

However, the article is right in that it actually talks about population, something that is usually a taboo topic. That’s because population throws up moral and religious conundrums about family size and the right to have children, it confronts us with the role of the community and state in determining the number of children couples can have, and it asks questions about whether developed countries, like Australia, are already over-populated. Over-population is also one of those realities that just doesn’t fit the individualistic, post-modern zeitgeist. We find it extraordinarily difficult to face-up to widescale and complex issues like this.

The definition of a sustainable population is much debated. A 1994 study G.C. Daily and Anne and Paul Ehrlich focus on sufficient resources for people to enjoy freedom, human rights, culture, education, intellectual development, while preserving biodiversity and ecosystems. Their estimates for an optimum world population size is somewhere between 1.5 and two billion people. Other estimates are around 3.5 billion. A 2015 survey by the Australian Academy of Science found that a small majority of some sixty-five studies on how many how many people constitute a sustainable world population agree that the earth’s capacity is at or below eight billion. Thirteen of these studies says that the earth’s carrying capacity is four billion or less. The mathematician Joel E. Cohen, having asked the question in his book How Many People Can the Earth Support? (1995) declines to answer the question because, he says, it all depends on how people live their lives.

What is clear is that with the present population we are already beyond the earth’s biocapacity, that is human consumption is out-stripping the world’s regenerative ability. At present we are chewing-up one and a half earths as we exploit the world’s reserves. For instance, on July 29 2019 we had already consumed all the natural resources available for that year and for the next five months we lived on credit. By 2050 we will consume three earths per year.

Those concerned with human rights and equity of distribution constantly repeat that the problem is not absolute numbers, but the scale and nature of consumption of resources by wealthy nations. I understand what is being argued here; it is summed-up by the well-known Gandhi quotation: ‘The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.’ The problem is that the Mahatma died in January 1948 when the world population was 2.4 billion; it is now more than three times that number. The problem facing this call for equality of distribution and lowering of living standards is that it is very difficult for democratic governments in developed countries to persuade their citizens to live simply and consume less, when their entire economies are based on the myth of infinite growth.

Also, the social justice tradition tends to idealize the poor. It assumes that once lifted out of poverty, they would not be as grasping and selfish as people in developed Western countries. It’s as though lowering the standards of the rich countries and raising those of poor countries would lead to everyone meeting in the middle at a happy, sustainable level. Unfortunately, humankind is not that altruistic.

With the majority of studies saying that eight billion is the earth’s outer limit carrying capacity—which I think is far too high—with 7.8 billion now we are already in an unsustainable situation. So even if rich countries lowered their standard of living and the poor attained a modest lifestyle, the earth’s carrying capacity would still be far exceeded. This indicates that unless development goals for third world countries and the abandonment of excessive consumer life-styles in the West are inextricably linked to a serious reduction in human numbers, the situation we face remains impossible. While equity for the poorer nations is essential, we will just be whistling in the wind until we reduce our numbers to a sustainable level.

The only solution is to adopt a radical moral principle that puts earth and biodiversity first. The fundamental point that I’m arguing is that the natural world and the survival of other species takes priority over absolutely everything else, including the desires, needs and even the welfare of individual human persons and communities. There is no middle position here, no compromise to make this principle more palatable.

Even for our own survival, this principle must be accepted as normative for all moral and ethical action. Otherwise the future is going to be very bleak indeed for younger people alive today, as well as for our grandchildren.

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Paul Collins is an historian, broadcaster and writer. A Catholic priest for thirty-three years, he resigned from the active ministry in 2001 following a dispute with the Vatican over his book Papal Power (1997). He is the author of fifteen books. The most recent is Absolute Power. How the pope became the most influential man in the world (Public Affairs, 2018). A former head of the religion and ethics department in the ABC, he is well known as a commentator on Catholicism and the papacy and also has a strong interest in ethics, environmental and population issues.

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