Over-population fading as greatest moral challenge of our time


Climate change, over-population, and a demographic winter are all competing for nomination as the Greatest Moral Challenge of Our Time. This could lead to some odd political alignments.

George Monbiot, columnist for The Guardian and an environmental activist, recently published a column, “Population panic lets rich people off the hook for the climate crisis they are fuelling”, whose sentiments are almost identical to those of Pope Francis, a man whom he once denounced as an ally oftyrants, land grabbers, debt slavers and death squads”.

The issue du jour is over-population. A recent article in The Lancet predicted that “global population is likely to peak then crash much sooner than most scientists had assumed”. Monbiot accepts that the world is facing both an environmental and a demographic catastrophe:

Before long, this reproductive panic will disappear. Nations will soon be fighting over immigrants: not to exclude them, but to attract them, as the demographic transition leaves their ageing populations with a shrinking tax base and a dearth of key workers.

However, a generation of activists is still stuck in a time warp where Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb is about to explode. The legendary primatologist Dame Jane Goodall, for instance, appeared at Davos this year to tell the great and good that: “All these things we talk about wouldn’t be a problem if there was the size of population that there was 500 years ago.”

One sign of the times, Monbiot notes, is that a movement called BirthStrike has decided to disband. It had been created by women who wanted to call attention to the horror of environmental collapse by sacrificing their desire for children – climate change nuns, so to speak. But it was interpreted as a practical way of reducing the population by latter-day Malthusians.

Focusing on over-population, says Monbiot, is too often an excuse to continue with self-destructive excessive consumption. “If the answer to environmental crisis is to wish other people away, [they] might as well give up and carry on consuming,” he writes.

The problem with environmental degradation is not too many people; it’s too much consumption. “When affluent white people wrongly transfer the blame for their environmental impacts on to the birthrate of much poorer brown and black people, their finger-pointing reinforces these narratives. It is inherently racist.”

That seems very much like vintage Pope Francis.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge




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