The Pope’s scientists, population and the finite world

    By Robert Engelman | Conscience Vol. XXXI—NO. 2, 2010
    Catholics for Choice

    It sounds like a riddle: how many scientists does it take to change a pope’s mind about human population growth? More, apparently, than work for him. And some scientists do. In June 1994, three months before the opening of the UN International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences surprised its Vatican patron by concluding that advances in life-saving technologies “have made it unthinkable to sustain indefinitely a birth rate that notably exceeds the level of two children per couple.”

    Replacement fertility (the number of children women must have on average to eventually bring about a steady-state population) is, the advisory group insisted, “the requirement to guarantee the future of humanity.” Pope John Paul II immediately distanced himself from the report and made sure the news media registered his disapproval.

    As good scientists, the independent-minded experts were speaking truth to power, while John Paul responded with papal fallibility. On a finite planet, no tree can grow to the sky, and no species can grow infinitely. One can argue about where limits lie. (Many population growth promoters do, calculating that all of humanity could squeeze into Texas, with room for rattlesnakes to spare. They don’t mention water, however.) One can debate whether, when or how it is appropriate to try to nudge birth rates down toward long-term sustainability. But math is math, and sometimes math is Malthusian. The world is physical and biological, not merely economic and technological, so human population growth will someday—and somehow—end.

    A decade into the third millennium, the theoretical has emerged once again into real-world debate. With a billion human beings malnourished (equivalent to the world’s population when Thomas Robert Malthus first wrote on the topic in the late 18th century), with the global thirst for energy flattening mountains and spewing oil into oceans and with experts stumped at how to sustain 6.8 billion-plus human beings without overheating the planet, population growth is once again a public issue.

    We can try to evade the discomfort of the topic by focusing on too much consumption, a more satisfying object of blame than too many people. But consumption, unequal as it is, remains more a behavioral expression of our numbers than their symmetrical opposite. Consider, for example, the fact that India is now tossing away 500,000 tons of obsolete electronic gear every year, a number projected to double in just two years. Or that the subcontinent’s cook stoves send enough “black carbon”—soot, essentially—into the atmosphere to contribute significantly to the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. Or that water scarcity in eastern and southern Africa has far more to do with growing local demand than with shifts in rainfall generated by human-induced climate change.

    Granted, the small families of the industrialized countries have for decades used many times more resources per capita than the large families of most developing countries. It’s a fundamental unfairness the world has yet to begin to grapple with—and no long-term climate agreement will win support from all the world’s nations without addressing this inequity. Yet rich countries multiply their lavish resource use with vast and still-growing populations, making their numbers an issue for them as well. And developing countries are now in the position of undermining their own and the global environment with per capita consumption levels that, while modest, are climbing rapidly at the same time that large and expanding populations multiply the impact.

    Indeed, an awkward aspect of consumption is that at even the most modest levels population growth can push its consequences to ever higher plateaus, overwhelming any successes achieved by living more simply or efficiently. The common pattern—as with the computers of India, and much earlier with the hundreds of millions of consumers in the world’s wealthy countries—is for per-capita consumption to jump just after population growth rates have crested and begun moving down against the backdrop of unprecedented population size. For long term environmental sustainability, it is essential to act on both population and consumption (not to mention technology)—not as alternatives but as components of a strategy, not in sequence but simultaneously. The dangers we face as a species on a living planet are simply too great to ignore a factor as important as our numbers.

    (Photo: Axel Drainville / Flickr)

    The difficulty is in assessing the urgency of action on population and what such action might look like. The 1994 disagreement between Pope John Paul II and his scientists hints at the problem. The scientists saw the imperative of reaching replacement fertility. The pope had to reject that imperative out of fear its acceptance would undermine his vision of humanity as the crown of a divine creation subject to a divine command not to interfere unnaturally with reproduction. Even leaving aside disagreements over whether contraception and abortion are sinful, this difference in worldviews has long frustrated progress on population and quite possibly always will. For many people around the world, to suggest that an excess of births is a driver of environmental degradation is to reject the value and beauty of babies, children and human life itself.

    The challenge is to move away from simplistic either/or thinking and frameworks of blame in addressing population and its connections to development and environmental sustainability. New frames are emerging based on human rights, autonomy, capacity, potential and dignity. Leaving aside the occasional fringe view, no one is seriously proposing suicide, genocide or an end to childbearing or to the species. The dominant paradigm is instead based on the value of enduring human presence on the planet and the all-important need to prevent a slowing of population growth through rising death rates. (“I want as large a human population as possible,” biologist and population writer Paul Ehrlich once said, “just over time.”)

    There is one central principle in this approach to population, and it can serve as a confidence-building test among potential allies from different backgrounds who might consider joint action on population, development and environment. Stated negatively, that principle is: no coercion in addressing births and fertility. Stated positively, it is: intentional parenting. Mainstream and centrist organizations working in population from a public health perspective without exception frame this in terms that few people can disagree with: What harm is done, and how much good can be gained in so many arenas, when all women everywhere are fully able to choose at each step of their reproductive lives whether and when to become pregnant?

    The available statistics are less than absolutely certain but encouraging nonetheless. At least 215 million women, based on survey work in developing countries, are sexually active and do not want to become pregnant, yet are not using effective contraception. (Given high proportions of unintended pregnancies even in wealthy countries like the United States, millions of women in developed countries probably fall into this category as well, but they are not counted comparably.) If the governments of the world could make this “unmet need” a rare thing, according to calculations by Scott Moreland and colleagues at the Futures Group in Washington, DC, it is likely that world population growth would come closer to the United Nations Population Division’s low variant projection by mid-century rather than the oft-cited medium one. The medium projection foresees 9.15 billion people on earth in 2050, based on a no surprise scenario of continuation of current trends in birth and death rates. The low variant projection foresees 8 billion.

    Or consider the estimated 75 million unintended or mistimed pregnancies that occur annually in developing countries. If this number, or the unknown higher total for the world as a whole, ever approached zero, it’s likely that world population growth rates would fall by roughly half and eventually move into modestly negative territory, leading to a world population size that could be drifting downward before the century’s midpoint. Put in other words, the pope’s scientists would get their wish: birth rates indefinitely sustainable on the finite planet.

    A woman in Berega, Tanzania, who sought care after a botched abortion.

    A few caveats are needed about this likely outcome, however. One is that today’s global replacement fertility rate is, at more than 2.3 children per woman, well above the commonly understood rate of 2 or 2.1 children. Tragically, many young people die before their own reproduction, and in some large countries anti-female bias skews sex ratios toward a preponderance of males. Fortunately, the same basket of reproductive healthcare services that enable women to have wanted childbirths in safety and health, and the policies that elevate women’s status to promote intentional childbearing, should also help bring replacement fertility to its ideal level of just over two children per woman. But that means the global replacement fertility rate will be moving lower even while the world’s actual fertility rate chases it from above.

    A second caveat is that population strategies based on avoiding unintended pregnancies do not directly address migration, the third demographic force after births and deaths. From a global population perspective, this may not matter much. But from environmental and national perspectives migration matters very much—and engages yet another landscape of difficult issues around human rights and dignity.

    Thirdly, and most importantly for this discussion, uncertainty remains about both the magnitude of unintended pregnancy and the best mix of strategies both for making it rare and for downshifting those family size norms that yield desired above replacement fertility in many populations. The core strategies are agreed upon: better access to client-focused voluntary family planning services, education attainment at least part way through secondary school for girls and improved economic and social status for women and girls. But which among these deserve the highest priority and policy attention remains contentious.

    Figuring out how to prevent unintended pregnancies is far more vital to the future than the fruitless debate about whether population or consumption contributes more to the world’s environmental problems. The uncertainty about where environmental or other limits to population growth lie finds symmetry in our uncertainty about the urgency and the means with which we should hasten an end to that growth through lower birth rates that result from intentional childbearing. These uncertainties are a good basis for humility, but not for inaction. As long as the common objective is the prevention of unintended pregnancy and the commitment is collective and ironclad to reject reproductive coercion in all its manifestations, we should have safe ground on which most—even if not the pope—can stand.

    The scale of the human presence on the planet puts at risk our health, our well-being and potentially our very survival. The challenge is to face this squarely, and then envision and move resolutely forward with population strategies that do not react to fear but rather raise hope, and that do not assign blame but develop human capacities and elevate human dignity. We are in the best position in history to side with the pontifical scientists in the conviction that replacement fertility is the necessary guarantor of the human future. We now have the means and most of the information we need. We can bring replacement, wanted and actual fertility into a harmony of low numbers, based on the childbearing intentions of women and men, which can sustain us all.

    Robert Engelman is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, a globally focused environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C. He originally joined Worldwatch as Vice President for Programs and was named President in 2011. Prior to joining Worldwatch, he was Vice President for Research at Population Action International, a policy research and advocacy group in Washington, and directed its program on population and the environment. He has written extensively on population’s connections to environmental change, economic growth, and civil conflict.

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