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Is population a problem?

I feel as though I cannot enjoy anything anymore. Every action seems tainted by nagging questions about environmental impact or sustainability. For example, I really like hamburgers but the carbon footprint of cattle production is so high that my beef consumption has dwindled to near-zero. I love sushi, but continually hear reports of how the world’s oceans are overfished. Travel is important (as Saint Augustine of Hippo said, “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page”), but the environmental impact is horrendous. Long showers have always been a favorite indulgence, but in many places (including where I live) overuse has brought the water supply to dangerously low levels.

How did we get here? I am pretty sure that neither my parents nor my grandparents worried about the carbon footprint of beef. My answer always comes back to two key trends:

1. We (in the industrialized world) have generally become so wealthy relative to the cost of most goods that our consumption is no longer constrained by financial capacity but instead by our (rather insatiable) appetites, and
2. There are a lot of people in the world.

We are making progress on the first problem, albeit at a painfully slow pace. By raising awareness of environmental problems and their causes, we as a society have asked our citizens to use conscience and morality as a guide for limiting their consumption. Even the Vatican has joined in, labeling pollution as “an offense against God“. However, as the appeal to conscience has had a sadly limited impact, our state and federal governments have been forced to introduce legislation that would embed the cost of environmental degradation into the price of certain goods such as electricity and gasoline. Amazingly, some people are still resisting this effort, but the trend is inevitable, as is the eventual inclusion of other resources such as water in such schemes.

The second issue is much larger, more complex, and difficult to address. I brought it up with a friend recently and was left somewhat speechless by his ultimate response: “We Muslims believe that Allah will provide whatever is needed for everyone.” I have heard similar statements from Christians as well — and not only that God will provide what is needed, but that the church actually encourages people to have more children. Again, I quote St. Augustine: “Our bodies are shaped to bear children, and our lives are a working out of the processes of creation. All our ambitions and intelligence are beside that great elemental point.”

I have difficulty reconciling these attitudes with my conscience when I see the environmental impact of a burgeoning population. Notwithstanding the exaggerated concerns of economists like Thomas Malthus, who believed that rapid population growth would lead to widespread famine, there is a correlation between population and environmental degradation. Should my responsibility to the Earth and to my fellow citizens outweigh any inclination I may feel to reproduce? If I desire the experience of raising children, shouldn’t the moral notions of charity and generosity, combined with my environmental conscience, prompt me to prefer adopting parentless children instead of adding to the total?

This line of reasoning also raises questions about whether I should be doing more to help others plan their families more carefully. Evidence suggests that women elect to have fewer children when they have greater equality and access to family planning resources, and that a strong inverse correlation exists between standards of living and fertility rates in most countries. Perhaps some of the resources that I would otherwise spend on my own children could — or should — be used to make life better for others who are already here.

I have a deep respect for the faith embodied in a notion like “God will provide for all.” We are human and there are practical limits to our understanding and abilities. At the same time, in situations where we possess the faculty to understand and address the challenges before us, it would seem that we are being given a responsibility and should be ready to take it on. I am thus reminded of my favorite quote from Saint Augustine: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”

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