We have for many years on this blog argued that the calls for population control as a means of minimising environmental degredation and limiting humanity’s damage to the Earth are misguided. They are wrong because such calls can easily lead to gross inhumanity such as is found in the forced sterilisation programmes in India, or in the one child policy of China. They are also wrong because they often seem to be a convenient way for none of us in the west to have to confront the real problem – our rampant consumerism and over-use of resources per capita.

The problem isn’t so much that too many sub-saharan Africans are being born, it’s that too many Americans, Europeans etc are living a lifestyle which is not sustainable. Similarly, when Travis Rieder’s views are canvassed in NPR in a story entitled “Should We Have Children in an Age of Climate Change?” (views which boiled down to urging Americans to not have children) doesn’t that dodge the really hard answer? That is, urging Americans to change their lifestyle? 

Interestingly enough, this view was also shared by Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato Si’”. He wrote in it:

“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.” 

This part of his encyclical was attacked by many academics who were otherwise supportive of the work. The journal Nature published a commentary from Paul Ehrlich (seriously, why does anyone take this failed doomsayer anymore seriously than any other failed end-of-times sandwhich board man?) in which he called the Pope’s argument “raving nonsense”. Something perhaps that Ehrlich is an expert in.

But as Charles C Camosy at Crux points out most succinctly:

“It is certainly easier for academics to focus on other people’s reproductive practices than it is to resist the ways we actually contribute to climate change: travel for conferences and vacations, eating meat, buying stuff online, etc.”

In fact, the West, with its falling birthrates and indeed in some instances, falling populations are exactly the places where the world’s carbon emissions mostly come from. We are used to our privileged, resource-rich lifestyle and would prefer if others had fewer children so that we don’t feel so guilty about it. As Camosy writes:

“Instead of encouraging a US culture-already inhospitable to life-to become even more inhospitable to life, academics like Rieder should follow the pope’s advice and focus instead on patterns of consumption. It is the fight to change these patterns where the battle over climate change will be won or lost.”

That is, in the hearts and actions of every single one of us.

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...