Laudato Si’ is the first encyclical written wholly by Pope Francis and is making headlines around the world. This is largely because in it the Pope accepts that climate change is happening, that it is largely down to humanity’s actions and that it requires urgent steps to combat it. Of course, for many climate change activists this is a God(‘s vicar on Earth) send.
However, what is probably not going to be as popular (or as widely reported) is what the Pope has to say about efforts to combat climate change through population control. Population control is often touted as one way to reduce carbon emissions: fewer people = less pollution. This logic however has often seemed to me to be the easy way out. Parts of the world consume far too much and pollute far too much, therefore the answer is for people (usually other people) to have fewer children. As well as not addressing the core issues relating to our economic system and pollution, such thinking is in danger of descending into state-sanctioned population control whereby what is considered an “ought” becomes a “must”. See China, Vietnam, Burma etc etc 
Laudato Si’ has this to say on the overpopulation point:
[50] Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. 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, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor”. Still, 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, as a result of the interplay between problems linked to environmental pollution, transport, waste treatment, loss of resources and quality of life.


[60] Finally, we need to acknowledge that different approaches and lines of thought have emerged regarding this situation and its possible solutions. At one extreme, we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change. At the other extreme are those who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited. (Emphasis added)

Or to put it another way, pace David Attenborough, humanity is not “a plague”. We have also blogged here over the last few years about the food wastage point (see here, here and here).
If we want to do something about how we are currently treating the Earth, then the Pope is asking us to address the heart of the issue, not to turn to the easy but dangerous answer of population control that leaves us in the West comfortable in our current high-consumption, high-waste society. 
Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...