A (Len) Puglisi. 

Len Puglisi is an urban environmental writer and former planner with State and local government bodies. His article, 10 checkpoints for urban planning in an age of disruption, appeared on the SPC website in May 2014.
World Population, Anders Sandberg, flickr cc

Pope Francis enters the vexed question of population growth in Paragraph 50 of his new encyclical, Laudato Si’. He says, in what is being seen as his headline view on the subject, Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate…” (full text below.)

Given that the encyclical, in laudatory emphasis, puts so much weight on the fact that environmental degradation severely affects the poor, it might be useful to pause for a moment on the state of research about the main factors leading to our actions, as Francis says with obvious feeling, “We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation, and filth”.

Widely discussed amongst researchers, the most common position on causes of environmental impacts is a composite, first proposed by John Holdren and Paul Erhlich, two eminent US environmentalist-scientists in the early 1970s. They formulated the position, namely, EI=PAT, that is, environmental impact is a product of population size, affluence/consumption levels, and technology used. Clearly, it’s a composite which seeks to analyse a range of factors to keep in mind when looking at significant environmental problems.

So there are these many quantifiable/analytical factors – including, too, many specific country and city circumstances – which affect environmental quality, and therefore the wellbeing of the poor . It would not seem helpful, given our current state of knowledge, to select just one factor – whether that be the level of affluence or the birth rate, or whatever – over the others. Caution here should be the order of the day.

However, it’s not necessary for my following comments to attempt to resolve the issue raised by Francis’s comment. The outcome of further analysis of the respective merits of a reduction in the birth rate versus consumption restraint by the wealthy in the interests of the poor may require research by someone inclined to delve into what would be very complex, probably on a country-by-country basis.

My emphasis in this note, however, is to make another point strongly: it would be a mistake to limit to the opening sentences of Paragraph 50 the Pope’s view on population growth. Further into the paragraph, Francis says:

“Still, attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on 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.”

It’s my contention that this sentence, in practice, puts a significant qualification on Francis’s views about how we should be dealing with population growth.

My ‘take’ on population issues is usually to separate out two areas of concern: the global dimension (7 billion, possibly rising to 10), and population growth in cities (read metro areas) and regions.

city korea
Urban View: the Republic of Korea’s Second Largest City, United Nations Photo, flickr cc.

Regarding questions of global dimensions of population, I think it would have been helpful for Francis to say something like, “In keeping with all our concerns about the rise of extreme consumerism, we must also accept that a rise in untold billions of people will only make the task of restoring humanity’s damaging effects on this precious Earth so much harder. We cannot be oblivious to this global dimension of potential harm”.

As a  minimum comment on the issue of population growth, such a statement would have been helpful, including for people who are also desperately trying to address what Francis calls “excessive consumerism” and the plight of the poor. If he had wanted to go further, given that he may fear an outbreak of hurtful attitudes to the cultural sensitivities of poor people about the sizes of their families, he could have added comments about “who can look at a new-born child and think, ‘you are a danger to the planet’?”. And, just perhaps, there might have been room for a comment about some serious reported polluting effluents – especially in water – from the increasing use of contraceptives.

But the main point of my comments concerns the second aspect of population growth: population of nations, regions, and cities. I think there is considerable value in Francis’s additional comment: “Still, attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density…” (quoted in full above). There is no doubt, considering all the problems caused by ‘population density’ to nations and regions (including cities), that most of these could be made easier to handle with reduced populations. This may be particularly true if one sees merit, for example, in noted US sociologist Saskia Sassen’s warning that with growing global conurbations, we face situations of ‘global glamour zones and global slums’.

Or should one want to heed Francis’s tweet: “(S)cientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history”. We hear calls every day expressed as the need for ‘an innovation-led’ recovery, and for engagement with ‘disruptive’ economics. But we hardly ever hear: “hang on, where is all this, altogether, leading humanity as individuals and as a species?”.

Francis’s use of the word ‘density’ should not be equated with the way we talk about ‘density’ in Australia – that is, high versus low, high-rise versus low-rise, etc. With his use of the term ‘population density’, I take Francis to mean the sheer numbers of regional, metropolitan, and city dwellers, a justified interpretation given his references to “environmental pollution, transport, waste treatment, loss of resources, and quality of life”.

These are clearly problems with strong local aspects. Thus, in Australia today, we are deluged with an unchallenged economic growth mantra which would see our major metropolitan regions more than doubled in size (Melbourne to 7.7 million, for example.), all in the name of that growth. And to make matters worse, this will occur within a timescale (35 years), and in a period of scarce public infrastructure funds, while pushing into hitherto undeveloped landscapes, or being built up into nature-diminished high-density living for areas subject to flooding from sea-level rise and storm surge threats.

Immigration levels in Australia, a major component of our population growth, are now being held at very high levels. With its thin soils, variable rainfall, and highly-mixed range of regional landscapes, the priority for population stabilisation, with appropriate consideration for people from distressed countries, should be self-evident. The prosperity of cities is hugely dependent on the ecosystem services of its rural areas (water filtration, maintenance of soil fertility, pollination, pest control, cultural and spiritual stimulation, nursery grounds for fish, nesting, and resting sites for migratory birds).

These are relentlessly in decline, and this has to be a non-negotiable starting point. Simply, the threats to these services from the growth aspirations of many (principally business and economic commentators, and developers), are risks that past performance suggests we should not take, especially considering their very short-term (1-, 5-, 10-, 20-year) perspectives on environmental issues. Don Watson’s book The Bush is a timely wake-up call for us all.

I would expect none of these precarious factors to be excluded from Francis’s thinking about “imbalances in population density” and actual and potential problems of the poor.

My inclination, then, in seeking to understand Francis’s position on population growth? It’s important to think carefully about the full text of Paragraph 50, and especially his caveat about national and regional population density.

Paragraph 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 [Footnote 28]. 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, whereby a minority believes 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” [Footnote 29]. Still, attention needs to be paid to imbalances in population density, on 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”.


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