Pope Francis’s long-expected encyclical on the environment was released yesterday. It is well worth reading in full: in elegant language, it touches on many facets of our planetary predicament. We can hope that it will have a beneficial effect in catalyzing and informing the debate that needs to be happening.

Of course, adherence to long-standing Catholic doctrine means that the encyclical gets the population question wrong, but even so, the paragraph treating population is admirably nuanced:

50. Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor”. Still, attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on both national and global levels, since a rise in consumption would lead to complex regional situations, as a result of the interplay between problems linked to environmental pollution, transport, waste treatment, loss of resources and quality of life.

Certainly we can agree that “thinking of how the world can be different” needs to be on the agenda. We can agree that the spectacle of the rich part of the world pressuring the poor part to reduce its birthrate is a bit unseemly, if unaccompanied by recognition of our vastly greater responsibility for environmental damage so far. But on a finite planet, it is ultimately false to assert, without qualification, that “demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development.”

Overall, though, a welcome contribution, and one that accords well with a one-sentence summary of turn21’s position:
Business-as-usual / politics-as-usual is morally unacceptable.

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