(NCR Online) It’s been nearly a week since the much-anticipated release of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment. Since then, the document’s many beautiful and challenging elements have been justifiably lauded in both the religious and secular media.
His call to replace fossil fuels is bold, his understanding of overconsumption and scarcity is prophetic, his compassion for the earth and all of its creatures is stunning. I could go on, but so many other commentators and theologians have done the work of parsing and praising the document so well that I will focus on an issue that remains woefully underdeveloped in the encyclical: overpopulation.
I say “woefully” because few people who are as concerned about ecological destruction as Francis is would deny that overpopulation is one of greatest threats to the earth’s survival.
In 2012, the United Nations issued a special report on the looming crisis. By 2040, the global population is expected to swell from 7 billion to 9 billion. The U.N. estimates that by 2030, the world will need at least 50 percent more food, 45 percent more energy and 30 percent more water.
If the global community fails to stabilize population growth, the report said, we risk condemning 3 billion people to extreme deprivation.
But the pope, who has made caring for the poor the central theme of his papacy, doesn’t seem ready to use the term “overpopulation.”
In section 50 of his new encyclical, he instead refers to the crisis as an “unequal distribution of the population.” Though Francis acknowledges that “an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment,” he insists that rising population “is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.”
Francis recognizes that “imbalances in population density” can lead to “problems linked to environmental pollution, transport, waste treatment, loss of resources and quality of life.”
Nevertheless, he argues that the world doesn’t need a lower birth rate — it just needs to distribute its food better.
“To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some,” he writes, “is one way of refusing to face the issues.” [More]