Papal Paradox: Curb Global Warming, But Don’t Curb Population Growth?

Posted on June 29, 2015


Yea, verily, I say unto thee, the Apocalypse is upon us, and it ain’t the Apocalypse of John. It’s more like Genesis in high-speed reverse.


In his recent encyclical, the Pope says global warming is real, is a threat, and is partly caused by humans. I love him for that.  What I don’t love so much, though, is his stance that controlling human population growth is not the answer; that the answer is to end our culture of over-consumption by a few wealthy nations and individuals, to promote equity throughout the world, and to end poverty. To this I say: he is just as willfully blind on the damage done by overpopulation, as the wealthy consumers are concerning the damage done by their selfish lifestyles. Both of these things, together, are the problem.

It’s simple logic. The Earth is finite. Every single thing that we hunt, or fish, or produce, or use, or farm, or build, or make, or dispose of – all of it, every shred, has some impact on the environment, in the form of depletion, pollution, or other damage. More people means more damage, and fewer resources to go around. More individual consumption means more damage, and fewer resources to go around.

Let’s over-simplify for a moment, and say that Mother Earth can sustainably give $100 per year to her human offspring. Let’s say, for a simple argument, that the lowest possible subsistence level amounts to 50 cents. Let’s say there are a hundred people, and sharing is inequitable; then maybe ten people have five dollars each, and the other 90 people only get 55 cents each. The Pope would have us share equitably, so that our population of 100 people gets one dollar each. Sounds great, but let the population spike up to 250 or so, and now everyone is below the subsistence level of 50 cents. Divide it up as you like to try to save your own skins and let others starve, but in the final accounting, the only numbers that matter to the environment are the grand totals. In real life, fixing inequities and reducing consumption won’t solve the problem if the population continues to balloon. And balloon it has… it has not just doubled, it has more than tripled in the last century alone.

Yes, yes, I realize that the $100 example is a gross over-simplification, but the analogy holds. Extracting more fossil energy means more toxic pollution. Growing more crops means more depletion of groundwater and natural habitat. And so on. Everything is a trade-off, everything has an impact. And thanks to both a skyrocketing human population level never… never, ever… seen before, and a throwaway culture of over-consumption, those impacts have snowballed to disaster levels. Yea, verily, I say unto thee, the Apocalypse is upon us, and it ain’t the Apocalypse of John. It’s more like Genesis in high-speed reverse.

For decades now, we have been over-drawing our accounts with Nature, removing renewable resources far faster than they can be replenished. We are a bunch of rioting chimps ripping Eden up faster than God created it, and it is as much an issue of sheer unsustainable numbers as it is sheer unsustainable consumption.

I think the Pope knows, on some level that he cannot admit, that overpopulation absolutely is part of the problem. His encyclical is riddled with such telltale declarations as these:

“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish.”

“It is not only a question of industrial waste. Detergents and chemical products, commonly used in many places of the world, continue to pour into our rivers, lakes and seas.”

“… we are conscious of the disproportionate and unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in, not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation, and visual pollution and noise. Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water.”

All true, but overpopulation and mismanagement have more to do with these scenarios than over-consumption somewhere else. In Delhi, for instance, the city is so crammed with people, and so filled with haphazardly thrown-together slums pilfering from the water supply, that in many parts of the city no water ever reaches the taps. Residents spend many hours per day just trying to get water, and must pay for the dubious privilege of a bucket of silty stuff from a vendor. This is what overpopulation looks like; this is the kind of poverty that results. There are only so many gallons of water in the system; there are too many people; once the water is pulled from the system, there just isn’t any more to be had.

And that is an apt analogy for the finite Earth, as well. As the Pope sadly writes:

“Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”