A year after the highly anticipated publication of Laudato Si’ I continue to ask myself, “Is Pope Francis really pro-life?” That was my first question on reading through his lengthy encyclical letter a year ago. The pope had a fantastic opportunity—from the most visible pulpit in the world—to address the causes and treatments of one of the greatest threats to life on earth: anthropogenic climate change. I’m glad he took this opportunity, and I hope he’ll revisit the topic.
However, the encyclical leaves one glaring omission: not once in forty-thousand words did Pope Francis say a single thing about one of the two critical drivers of accelerating environmental degradation: human overpopulation. By our sheer numbers and our energy-extravagant lifestyle, we Homo sapiens are driving huge numbers of our fellow species—and possibly ourselves as well—toward theprecipice of extinction. In this respect Laudato Si’s analysis and treatment of a complex problem is surprisingly weak.
Please do not mistake this as an anti-Catholic diatribe. I write as a lifelong Roman Catholic and a trained theologian. I have deep loyalty to my church and her gospel of freedom, to her ministries of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and educating tens of millions around the world. I believe that how we live our faith in light of climate change may be the biggest ecclesiological issue of our time: without a livable world there will be no church left at all.
Along with global overconsumption of finite resources, overpopulation is one of the twin pillars underlying all our ecological crises. Together they account for the exhaustion in a few centuries of fossil fuels laid down over hundreds of millions of years. Together they are responsible for skyrocketing CO2, melting glaciers and rising sea levels, inundation of island nations and coastal cities, and accelerating ecological refugeeism around the globe. Together they account for coral reef bleaching, deforestation, habitat destruction, and worldwide extinction of species on a scale unseen for millions of years.
In a century and a half the human population has skyrocketed from one billion to 7.42 billion, fueled by a one-time bonanza of fossil energy. The industrial application of fossil fuels improved agriculture and furthered the advance of science and technology. More food meant fewer people died of starvation, and modern medicine found ways to decrease the infant and child mortality rate and increase the human life span. In themselves these are good developments, but when they are not matched by a corresponding reduction in birth rate, a population surplus quickly starts to build.
Why might a “pro-life” pope fail to recognize that human overpopulation is a problem for all life on earth? Of the sixteen occurrences of the word “population” inLaudato Si’, only three are relevant to this point. These are found in paragraph 50, in the context of the discussion of human numbers. The first instance is a flat-out denial: “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and to a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.” Pope Francis seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge that there is a biological limit to Earth’s carrying capacity for humans just as there is for every other species on our planet.
The second use of the term correctly points to the arrogance and danger of ignoring excessive consumption: “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.” Indeed, it would be completely wrong simply to point fingers elsewhere and ignore the thirty-times-greater environmental impact children born in the developed world have than those born in developing nations: “It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized.” The pope correctly addresses here the second pillar of environmental degradation.
But the pope’s third reference shows that his understanding of population issues does not reflect the facts of biological equilibrium: “Attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on both national and global levels, since a rise in consumption would lead to complex regional situations.” The claim that population density is a merely local problem is false on many counts. The delicate balance between earth’s inhabitants is constrained by numerous factors related to the population of competing species.
Lions once ranged widely across Africa and into Syria, Israel, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, and northwest India. 2,000 years ago more than a million lions roamed the Earth; today there may be as few as 20,000 left. Demographers estimate the African human population will be four billion by 2100, equivalent to the entire global population in 1974. Tigers likewise are in precipitous decline: the Bengal Tiger population stood at 100,000 in 1900, and numbered fewer than 4,000 in in 2013. With India at 1.4 billion humans today, the human/tiger ratio is 35,000 to one.Examples of other fauna being crowded out by humans include African elephants, rhinoceros, pandas, polar bears, sharks, whales, and other large species. By our sheer numbers we humans are presiding over the sixth great mass extinction event in the history of earth.
Ultimately we humans are just as vulnerable as all the other species we are extinguishing, and sooner or later our population in excess of carrying capacity will be pitilessly trimmed by the factors of famine, disease, refugeeism, and brutal wars over water, energy, land, and resources. This should be recognized as a serious moral problem for a pro-life position. Twenty-five years ago Catholic missionarySean McDonagh asked in The Greening of the Church, “Is it really pro-life to ignore the warnings of demographers and ecologists who predict that unbridled population growth will lead to severe hardship and an increase in the infant mortality rate for succeeding generations? Is it pro-life to allow the extinction of hundreds of thousands of living species which will ultimately affect the well-being of all future generations on the planet?”
Pope Francis has said many important things in Laudato Si’, and my critique should not detract from what is an excellent first foray by Catholic Church leadership into discussions of ecological degradation. But sweeping overpopulation under the carpet is like leaving the eggs out of eggs Benedict. I hope Laudato Si’ is only the first installment in a courageous reappraisal of theology-as-status-quo, and that we can look forward soon to another encyclical addressing the problem of human overpopulation in its integral relationship with overconsumption.