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Population and the Planet Understanding the issues

by Dermot Grenham

All booklets are published thanks to the generous support of the members of the Catholic Truth Society


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Seven billion people just like you and me . . . . . . . . . . .3 Some demographic background . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .6 The history of population concerns . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .14 The Catholic Church’s position on the population question . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .21 Dealing with concerns about overpopulation . . . . . . . .35 Some demographic terminology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .57 A two-sided debate . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .62

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Seven billion people just like you and me “The human race, to which so many of my readers belong…”1 so started G. K. Chesterton one of his books. It’s unlikely that there will be any non-human readers of this booklet, which is just as well as it is all about the human race, our race: its past, for which we ought to be on the whole grateful, its present, which we ought to live with passion, and its future, about which we ought to be optimistic.2 At some point during the second half of 2011 or possibly early in 2012 planet Earth will play host to seven billion people.3 That’s seven billion people just like you and me – same desires, same hopes, and same fears. For some this will be a reason to celebrate as they will be aware that people are generally living longer, healthier lives. For others, however, it will be a cause for great concern, as they think that such an enormous population will use up the Earth’s finite resources and destroy the environment. The debate about the advantages and disadvantages of large and growing populations has a long history and goes back to way before Malthus. He was writing at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. It’s Malthus’ name which is most often

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associated with dire predictions about the consequences of population growth. As the Earth’s population continues to expand at least for the next few decades the debate will undoubtedly continue. The Catholic Church has a keen interest in this debate because she is concerned about each and every woman and man as Pope John Paul II expressed in 1979: “Man as willed by God, as chosen by him from eternity and called, destined for grace and glory - this is each man, the most concrete man, the most real; this is man in all the fullness of the mystery in which he has become a sharer in Jesus Christ, the mystery in which each one of the four thousand million human beings living on our planet has become a sharer from the moment he is conceived beneath the heart of his mother… Man is the primary route that the Church must travel in fulfilling her mission: he is the primary and fundamental way for the Church…”4 This booklet provides an explanation of the history and status of the population debate, distinguishes between genuine concerns and simple scaremongering and explains the Catholic Church’s teaching regarding population issues. It has deliberately been written in nontechnical language to make it accessible to as wide a readership as possible and also because most of the debate takes place in non-technical language. For those interested, brief explanations of some of the technical

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terminology used and a discussion of how the UN and other organisations produce population projections are included in the final main section of this booklet. There are two population debates going on at present. The first is about the size and growth of the human population and whether this is sustainable at its present let alone future level. The second is about the ageing populations currently being experienced in most developed countries and not a few developing countries and the impact this will have on their society and economy. I will start off by giving some demographic background. This will include a brief history of the population of the World and a look at some of the key demographic issues. With this background I will then look at what key writers have written about population through the ages to show that concerns about overpopulation stretch back for a very long time. I will then look at the Catholic Church’s teaching on population related issues. The final section will cover the main areas of the debate about population growth such as its impact of economic development and the environment.

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Some demographic background Demography is the study of populations particularly with respect to their size, structure and development. It focuses on mortality, fertility and migration as these are the key processes affecting how population size changes over time. Assumptions about these processes are used in making population projections. History and future of the world’s population The graph on the following page shows the history of the world’s population over the past 250 years.5 While it took many thousands of years for the Earth’s population to reach 2 billion (around 1930), the global population has reached successive billions increasingly faster. Growing from 2 to 3 billion took around 33 years, and from 3 to 4 billion took a further 14 years. It will have taken around 13 years for the population to increase from 6 billion to 7 but this is where the trend changes. Not only has the rate of increase in the world’s population slowed down (which started happening in the early 1970s) but the actual annual increase in the population is falling. Current UN projections estimate that the world’s population in the middle of the 21st century will be just over 9 billion and will be around 10 billion at the end of the current century.

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7 900





8 7


6 500 5 400 4 300

Population (Billions)

Increments per decade (Millions)

History and Future of the World’s Population













The bars show increments as measured on the left hand axis. The line shows the global population as measured on the right hand axis. UN Population Division (1999) The World at Six Billion.

Causes of global population growth The fundamental cause of the large increase in the global population over the past couple of centuries has been the reduction in death rates, particularly among the under 5s. According to the UN 6 , average life expectancy worldwide is now around 68 years compared to 50 years half a century ago. Although

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these averages hide wide disparities, life expectancy has increased in all countries over the past 50 years with only a couple of exceptions. Most countries have moved or are moving, except in some countries currently badly affected by HIV/AIDS, from a position where mortality was high, especially at very young ages and due to communicable diseases, wars and famines, to a situation where mortality rates are relatively low, with life expectancies at birth of over 60. At the same time, most countries have moved or are moving from a position where fertility was high to a position where fertility is low. This combination of declining mortality and fertility is known as the demographic transition and is illustrated in the diagram on the following page. All countries have at least started along the path of the demographic transition even if they have not completed it. During the demographic transition mortality rates usually fall earlier and faster than fertility rates and it is this which gives rise to population growth. The longer it takes for fertility to fall to the same level as the mortality rates the more population growth there will be. Therefore, in the words of Nicholas Eberstadt, the world’s population is growing, “not because people are breeding like rabbits but that they are no longer dying like flies�.7

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The Demographic Transition

Rates per 1000

40 30 Birth Rate 20 Death Rate 10 0

Stage 1 Stage 2

Stage 3

Stage 4

Time The Demographic transition.

Population decline Most of the 3 billion or so increase in population over the rest of the 21st century is projected to take place in the less and least developed countries. In most of the more developed countries population is expected to fall and has already started doing so in some countries, such as Russia. Countries with low birth rates and high levels of emigration are particularly exposed to population decline. In a number of countries, for example, Italy, mortality rates are higher than birth rates and it is only immigration which is preventing the population declining. As a consequence, developing countries will continue to make

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up an increasing proportion of the world’s population. This increased population relative to the currently developed countries is likely to bring with it, as we are already seeing in the case of some of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China), greater influence in global affairs. The other side of the coin though is that developed countries are likely to see their influence diminish along with their populations. A sign of whether, in the long run a country’s population will grow or decline is whether its fertility rate is higher or lower than the “replacement rate”. The replacement rate is the number of children that women, on average, need to have for the population to remain the same size, over the long term. This rate is normally around 2.1 children per woman. It is slightly greater than 2 first of all to allow for those women who do not survive to the end of their reproductive years. A second reason why it is greater than 2 is that in almost all populations more boys are born than girls, typically around 105 boys for every 100 girls. Therefore, to ensure that the number of females remains the same (and after all, it is women who give birth) there has to be, on average, slightly more than 2 children born per woman. Almost all developed countries and an increasing number of developing countries have a fertility rate well below the replacement rate.

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Population ageing At the same time as the population of the world is projected to get larger it is also projected to get older. This is a necessary consequence of the demographic transition. Current population ageing is mainly due to lower birth rates. Increased life expectancy also contributes but not so significantly at present. If birth rates stop falling then further increases in life expectancy will have a larger impact on population ageing. Population ageing can start to be a serious problem if there are not enough productive people to support the increasing number of non-productive people in a society. It is not possible to set an age at which people stop being productive and become non-productive, this will depend very much on the individual and on his or her health, training and skills. It will also depend on how easy a society makes it for older people to continue in the labour force. In countries where the state provides a pension, the debate is often framed in terms of the age at which this pension is paid. In the UK this is currently 65 for men and 60 rising to 65 for women. However, as people live longer and are generally healthier for longer, it would not seem unreasonable, and in fact would seem to be in line with the Church’s teaching on the need for everyone to contribute to the Common Good, that people should work longer, assuming of course that appropriate

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employment opportunities are available to them. An ageing population could be a bigger problem in societies with little by way of social protection for elderly people as the responsibility for looking after parents will fall directly upon the few children and grandchildren that they have. Faced with an ageing population, a society may be tempted to allow euthanasia to a great or lesser extent as a way of reducing the burden of paying pensions and healthcare for the elderly. It is probably no coincidence that increased calls for legalising euthanasia have arisen within societies where there is already a certain level of pessimism about the future. It is probably the same pessimism which led to a reduction in birth rates in the first place. The impact of government population policies As an example of the dangers inherent in governments interfering too heavy-handedly in demographic processes, one can look at the example of China. As a result of the Chinese government’s one child policy (which is currently closer to a one and a half child policy), a cultural preference among Chinese couples for having sons, and access to sex-selective abortion, there are currently around 120 boys born for every 100 girls8 the highest level in the world. This will have the effect of pushing up the replacement rate for China to around 2.3

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and therefore will cause China to age more rapidly than it would have done with a more normal sex ratio at birth. The imbalance of males over females at birth is compounded by the neglect of young girls leading to the phenomenon of “missing women�9. This affects not only China but also India and some other countries with a strong cultural preference for sons and worldwide it has been estimated that there are between 50 and 100 million missing women. Among the problems that the Chinese are storing up for themselves as a result of their government’s demographic policy is the social consequences of increasingly large number of males who are unable to find brides. Another cultural consequence is that within a couple of generations relations such as aunts, uncles and cousins will become increasingly rare.

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The history of population concerns The name of Reverend Thomas Malthus, an Anglican clergyman, is closely associated with pessimistic views about the effects of an increasing population. Current day pessimists are often referred to as neo-Malthusians on account of the similarity of outlook if not always an identical line of argument. However, Malthus was not the first to worry about the impact of too many people. Ancient times Plato and Aristotle in their books ‘Laws’ and ‘Politics’ respectively, discussed the ideal size of a population. Tertullian, an early Christian writer, got carried away in his book ‘De Anima’ when arguing against the theory of the transmigration of souls, and wrote “What most frequently meets our view (and occasions complaint), is our teeming population: our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly supply us from its natural elements; our wants grow more and more keen, and our complaints more bitter in all mouths, whilst Nature fails in affording us her usual sustenance. In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of

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pruning the luxuriance of the human race.”10 Clearly a Malthusian before his time. The Middle Ages Machiavelli writing in the early 16th century said more or less the same in his book ‘Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius’ although he sees events such as floods and plagues as having a moral as well as an economic effect on the population: “So likewise as regards that composite body the human race, when every province of the world so teems with inhabitants that they can neither subsist where they are nor remove elsewhere, every region being equally crowded and over-peopled, and when human craft and wickedness have reached their highest pitch, it must needs come about that the world will purge herself in one or another of these three ways [floods, plagues, and famines], to the end that men, becoming few and contrite, may amend their lives and live with more convenience.”11 The Enlightenment However, during the 17th and 18th centuries there tended to be more concern about underpopulation than overpopulation and “populousness” was praised and encouraged by writers such as David Hume and JeanJacques Rousseau who saw a growing population as a proof of good government.

An Extract of Population and the Planet  

This booklet explains basic terms used in this field; and, through a clear analysis of the history of the debate, as well as looking at Cath...