The Democratic Party would do well to strip the religious references and theological discussions from Pope Francis’s recent papal encyclical on the environment and place what’s left into its 2016 platform. Unfortunately, many Democrats may find Francis’ program too radical to implement, as it would take money out of the pockets of most Americans other than the poor. In the encyclical, Francis proves to be a stand-up guy, on the side of angels, progressives, scientists and the human race.
At the request of a good friend, I read the entire encyclical, which is titled On the Care of Our Common Home. Now if it were me, I would take it for granted that the Earth is our common home and that it is our job as humans collectively to care for it. But the Pope being the Pope, Francis used religious precedent to demonstrate that it is his responsibility to comment on the matters at hand and to demonstrate that we do share a common home.
The Pope makes a very clear message: The rich nations must pay to clean up the world they polluted and, with the transition to a world based on non-fossil fuels must come a more equitable distribution of the “common good,” which at one point Francis says includes the climate. Francis explicitly connects the depletion of our natural resources with consumer society, suggesting that we of the industrialized world will have to reorient our concerns away from crass material possessions. Francis ties being a good Catholic directly to abating and addressing global warming and developing a non-fossil fuel society. The way to god, under Francis, is not only through the Church, but also through our actions.
Another causal connection Francis makes is between the privatization of land and resources and the decline in the overall quality of human life. It’s an example of the global inequality that the Pope sees everywhere. He blames the current economic paradigm for degrading the environment to make the rich richer and the wealthy nations wealthier. He terms the collective pollution of the wealthy—mostly northern—nations, their “ecological debt,” which they owe the poorer nations of the south.
The Pope makes some very specific recommendations, all of a general nature:
- Replace fossil fuels with renewable fuel sources.
- Develop a lifestyle that is not based on the consumption of ever more goods and services, which essentially entails redefining what constitutes the good life.
- Do not create a “carbon credit” market, which will be used as an excuse to keep polluting.
- Allow poor nations to develop their economies and thereby place the burden of cleaning up the environment on the wealthy nations.
- Set as the goal of politics and government not the facilitation of an economy dominated by a search for technology-driven efficiency, but one that serves all human life and protects our common home.
All in all, Pope Francis’ encyclical on environmental issues is a courageous document which tends to question the basic premises of modern industrialized civilization and recognizes that if we are to save ourselves from the horrors that global warming will bring— pestilence, famine, resource wars and disease—we need to embrace a different set of values. Since the Catholic Church sold its soul to the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century of the Common Era, the Church has rarely said no to power, although sometimes it has preferred one power alignment to another. We must admire Francis for saying “no” to the powers that prevent us from addressing environmental degradation. That Francis has embraced the natural sciences to bolster his argument is especially significant, since so many who try to convince us that global warming is either not occurring or not man-made evoke ancient religious texts as proof.
But unfortunately, a long-term Catholic policy prevents Francis from mentioning the single most important factor in addressing environmental degradation, resource shortages and global warming: Birth control.
Suppose, for the sake of dreaming, that every person in the world today would have just one child. Since having a child takes two parents, in about a generation the population would begin to naturally fall and within a century, we would have somewhere between 500 million to one billion people in the entire world. With a century of investment into recycling, solar, wind, biofuel, smart grid, water conservation, earthquake proofing, agricultural and other technologies, we could very easily support a billion people with a fairly comfortable western middle class lifestyle, especially if we follow Pope Francis’ dictates and become less acquisitive as individuals.
But what of the transition costs, some may ask. Remember that in most places, people have it drummed into their head that the only good economy is one that is growing. But what if we know that the economy is going to shrink because there will be fewer people to serve? It’s such an easy problem to address.
Now as the population shrinks, labor shortages will grow everywhere, as there will be progressively fewer young people entering at the bottom rungs of the economic and age ladder while the upward part of the ladder will always be relatively larger. The number of people retired and supported by the workforce will also be relatively larger but that impact will be offset by a small population of children to serve. Since we will have all this demographic information in advance, we can train more people for professions serving the elderly and spend fewer resources to serve children, although hopefully more resources per capita than today’s paltry standard. All it takes is intelligent central government planning and implementing the right mix of taxes, incentives and regulations.
Additionally, developed nations can readily fill their labor shortages with people from the undeveloped world. Western Europe has been doing just that as its native populations start to decline, e.g., in Italy and Germany. It’s too bad that many of the locals and some governments in Western Europe are reacting to the newcomers so poorly. After all, it is this instream of immigrants that can enable the world to make a painless transition to a shrunken human population.
The last point I want to make about the transition costs of peaceful negative population growth is that whatever they are, they’re better than war, famine, pestilence or disease.
Humans are pushing against the upper limits of the earth’s carrying capacity for the current incarnation of our species, and natural history tells us that this situation typically leads to decline or outright extinction. We can “right size” our species in a peaceful way or we can make a lot of people suffer.
The Catholic Church has expressed a long-standing opposition to all birth control other than abstinence and the highly unsuccessful “rhythm roulette,” despite the fact that studies show that 95% of all Catholic women practices birth control at one time or another during their lives. Our current world leaders, even those at the forefront of the environmental movement, tend to downplay the positive impact that a zero or negative population growth campaign could have. Some want to rely on tenuous predictions that the population will peak at nine billion and then begin to gradually fall in a natural way sometime in the next century, or after a whole lot of damage has been inflicted on our environment. Many leaders in many countries are afraid to upset social conservatives, but they are also afraid to upset the economic rightwing, who in their heart of hearts know that throughout history, when populations fall, the price of labor increases and society enjoys a more equitable distribution of income and wealth. Usually the cause of population decline is war, famine or disease. Conscious population growth policies give us a gentler, less disruptive way to mitigate the enormous impact that our out-of-control population is having on the Earth.
Thus, while we should applaud the Pope for his gutsy stand on what we have to do to address global warming, we should do so with but one clapping hand until Francis and the Catholic Church change their view of birth control.