Vatican tells UN “population bomb” is not the cause of poverty

Vatican tells UN “population bomb” is not the cause of poverty

Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations. (Credit: Gregory A. Shemitz/CNS.)

The Vatican’s representative to the United Nations said “corruption, protracted conflicts and other man-made disasters” are the cause of entrenched poverty in the developing world, not a “healthy, growing population.” He also called on the world body to “respect life” when it comes to giving international aid.

ROME – Talk of an “impending population bomb,” the Vatican’s representative to the United Nations said on Wednesday, has led to sometimes “draconian” policies, which ignore the complex nature of population growth.

Filipino Archbishop Bernardito Auza, speaking to the UN’s Commission on Population and Development, said “differing regional and even country specific situations” need to be taken into account when speaking about demographic changes.

Auza noted that populations are growing in some countries, while stabilizing in others, but pointed out some countries are experiencing a “spiraling demographic decline.”

Auza’s reference to a “population bomb” is a reference to the 1968 book of the same title written by Stanford professor Paul R. Ehrlich, who predicted that by the 1980s mass starvation and other consequences of food shortages caused by overpopulation would lead to social upheavals across the world.

Despite the inaccuracy of his forecasts, Ehrlich still supports the central thesis of his work: Massive government population control measures, including artificial birth control and abortion, are needed to protect the planet’s future.

Ehrlich was controversially invited to a conference earlier this year on Pope Francis’s ecological document Laudato Si’, sponsored by the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Sciences.

Auza said the idea of a “population bomb” has led certain governments to adopt policies that encourage population control measures as the easiest response to the fear of resource scarcity and underdevelopment, adding that some of these policies are “draconian.”

The most obvious example of such a policy would be in China, where a “one child” policy has led to forced abortions, and the limiting of civil rights for anyone who has more children than the government allows.

The archbishop, while not naming Ehrlich in his address, countered his arguments by saying “demographic growth is fully compatible with shared prosperity.”

Auza said while “responsible parenthood and sexual behavior are always moral imperatives,” the use of “coercive regulation of fertility” undermines freedom and responsibility.

“Respect for life from the moment of conception to natural death, even in the face of the great challenge of birth, must always inform policies, especially when it comes to international aid, which should be made available according to the real priorities of the receiving nation, and not by an imposed will of the donor,” he said.

Auza also pointed out the trend to lower birth rates in the developed world began “before it had access to modern methods of contraception.

“It occurred with economic and technological advancement, as well as investments in education, infrastructure and institutions,” – Auza said – “It is well known that economic growth corresponds with lower fertility rates and, when accompanied by investment in education and health, increases productivity and the well-being of societies.”

The Vatican diplomat also said it was not a “healthy, growing population” which is causing entrenched poverty, but “corruption, protracted conflicts and other man-made disasters.”

Auza’s statement came just a month after Ehrlich’s appearance at the February 27 – March 1 Vatican conference titled “Biological extinction: How to save the natural world on which we depend.”

Despite his participation, the “final declaration” of the meeting stated increasing threats against biodiversity, unsustainable use of the earth’s resources, and accelerated extinction rates “are driven more by over-consumption and unjust wealth distribution than by the number of people on the planet.”


Mohsen Samir Mohammed never wanted more than four kids, but as his cousins and brothers living down the block in Ezbet Khairallah, one of Cairo’s poorest and most densely populated districts, welcomed son after son—and even insulted his manhood—the amiable 35-year-old started to wonder: Did he have enough children? Annoyed by their taunts, he persuaded his wife to go off birth control. Over the next four years, they added a fifth, sixth and seventh new member of the family.

Sitting in the unlit stairwell of his building, Mohammed now has regrets. His meager salary from a factory that makes steel shutters is barely enough to feed his family, which subsists on stewed fava beans and bread. With no means of affording even the 15-cent bus rides to school, his children don’t attend. But in a country where large households have long been the norm, Mohammed says he felt powerless to buck the trend. “My father had many, many children, my grandfather had many, many children, and everyone here has many children,” he says. “It’s not easy to do something different.”

Not easy at all. Egypt’s population is multiplying fast. From a little over 66 million at the turn of the century, it hit almost 93 million earlier this year. If current birth rates hold, demographers project that the country’s total will be 150 million by 2050.

That kind of growth would be a challenge for almost any state, but for Egypt, politically fragile after three regime changes in six years and in the throes of food and water shortages, this population boom threatens to undermine the country’s already fragile stability. “It even constitutes a threat to national security,” says Amal Fouad, director of social research studies at CAPMAS, the state statistics-gathering body.

Nowhere is Egypt’s struggle with food more evident than in the country’s trade and supply ministries. Egypt is already the world’s largest wheat importer, and as the country’s population grows, it’s going to have to import more and more food, which it often subsidizes. That’s expensive, and it comes as the populous Nile-side cities, like Assiut and Sohag, are eating up more and more precious farmland. So both the authorities and the country’s beleaguered farmers feel they’ve been saddled with an impossible task. “More food for more people on less land,” says Bashir Abdullah, a farmer and labor organizer in Giza, who’s been fighting developers’ encroachment on local fields for a decade. “It’s like they think we’re miracle workers.”

The surge in demand is affecting Egypt’s great river too. With each person using about 160,000 gallons of water per year—98 percent of which is drawn from the Nile—Egypt has been short on water for a decade. But by 2030, when the population is forecast to be near 120 million, that figure will have dropped below 130,000 gallons. At a time when dam construction in Ethiopia threatens to cut the river’s flow—at least temporarily—the lifeblood of the pharaohs might soon be reduced to a pitiful dribble.

Severe food and water shortages could lead to bread riots or other kinds of civil unrest, which worries the country’s security services. The revolution of 2011 was sparked, in part, by the economy’s inability to cope with the hundreds of thousands of young men entering the workforce each year. Now, with economic growth rates even weaker, and the education system still among the worst in the region, it’s no wonder some officials fear Egypt’s population growth. It’s “worse than terrorism,” Abu Bakr al-Gendy, the general in charge of CAPMAS, told a Cairo newspaper in December. Analysts suggest President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has almost come to fear millennials.

What’s doubly frustrating for family-planning advocates: The boom was preventable. Until recently, Egyptian authorities appeared to have a strong population control strategy. From a high of over 3.5 percent in the 1970s, growth rates fell to 1.7 percent in the early 2000s. Through a wall-to-wall awareness campaign over several decades, which included billboards in poor rural areas and an expansion in access to contraception, analysts say Egypt appeared close to resolving its growth problem.

But starting in 2008 and 2009, three years before the uprising that unseated Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s longtime president, the government tried something different. Perhaps complacent after earlier success, Cairo officials eased their support for various family-planning initiatives. At the same time, international nongovernmental organizations reeled in their spending, believing they could better deploy those resources elsewhere. Shortly before the 2011 revolution, the growth rate ticked up to 2.23 percent. After the overthrow of the regime, that figure leapt to 2.48 percent in 2011-12. And there was a notable spike in November 2011, exactly nine months after Mubarak’s toppling.

Some say Egypt’s post–Arab Spring baby boom wasn’t coincidental: The country’s most dramatic year-on-year population surge came during the Muslim Brotherhood’s period in power. Right after President Mohammed Morsi’s time in office, the annual growth rate peaked at 2.55 percent, with births in the Brotherhood’s southern strongholds returning to heights unseen since the 1980s. Islamist lawmakers tabled legislation that would have lowered the legal age of marriage from 18 to 13, increasing the likelihood that women—or, in some cases, girls—would have babies sooner and thereby undermining a key plank of global population control. Given the Brotherhood’s history of refusing to stock contraceptives in the vast network of clinics it once operated, it’s not unsurprising the group’s cadres displayed little interest in resurrecting the birth control media campaigns that had lapsed around the revolution.

Customers hold out subsidy cards as they buy fresh bread on December 15, 2016 in Cairo, Egypt. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s popularity dropped significantly after months of protests against rising fuel and food prices, calls for mass anti-government demonstrations and the continued terror attacks.CHRIS MCGRATH/GETTY

Family-planning advocates are also frustrated by how Sissi, Morsi’s successor, has handled the country’s population growth. Fixated on security threats real and perceived, the ex-general’s government has pushed a raft of anti-NGO laws, which have driven away many foreign organizations, including family-planning providers. In 1995, NGOs supplied 10 percent of all contraceptives in Egypt, but by last year that fell to 0.6 percent.

A half-decade of chaos and disjointed policies are not easily undone. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of children young Egyptians deem desirable for a family increased from an average of 2.5 to 3, according to Population Council studies. Contraceptive availability dropped—to 58 percent of the population, several percentage points below the pre-revolutionary average.

Despite officials’ warnings, Egypt’s large population doesn’t need to be a burden, demographers maintain. If the young were properly educated, they say, this enormous cohort of 20-something men and women could easily become a nation-building boon, boosting the economy, much like China’s youth bulge. Sissi and his senior generals have an impressive array of resources at their disposal, like gold, gas and fertile riverside land. But critics say they’ve mismanaged them, which has compounded the shortages stemming from the country’s growing population.

After decades of dictators governing in a shortsighted fashion, much of the damage has already been done. From the enormous desert cement factories, built to cater to the building boom, to the ballooning outer districts of the capital that now almost surround the pyramid complex of Giza, soaring population numbers continue to reshape the country.

To Mohsen Samir Mohammed, it seems inconceivable that his corner of Cairo might accommodate even one more person. “There are new people here, new people there,” he says. “Everywhere there are people, people, people. Where are we going to put them?”

The Earth Is Finite–a Warning from Paul Ehrlich

From the 1996 book, Betrayal of Science and Reason, by Paul R. Ehrlich and Ann H. Ehrlich:

“The choice is between permitting the continued depletion of America’s vital natural capital and making an all-out effort to save it. Science tells us that America’s population cannot keep expanding perpetually, always demanding more and more from the nation’s finite living and non-living resources. The Endangered Species Act at the very least acknowledges the preservation of living resources as a high priority, which was a historical first. By attempting to shield those resources from the piecemeal destruction that is ensured when each species is measured against some perceived immediate economic gain, it helps set the United States on a path toward sustainability.”


“Our massive tampering with the world’s interdependant web of life—coupled with the environmental damage inflicted by deforestation, species loss, and climate change–could trigger widespread adverse effects, including unpredictable collapses of critical biological systems whose interactions and dynamics we only imperfectly understand.

“Uncertainty over the extents of these effects cannot excuse complacency or delay in facing threats.


“The earth is finite. It’s ability to absorb waste and destructive affluent is finite. It’s ability to provide food and energy is finite. It’s ability to provide for growing numbers of people is finite. And we are fast approaching many of the earth’s limits. Current economic practices that damage the environment, in both developed and underdeveloped nations, cannot be continued without the risk that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair.

“Pressures resulting from unrestrained population put demands on the natural world that can overwhelm any efforts to achieve a sustainable future. If we are to halt the destruction of our environment, we must accept limits to that growth. A World Bank estimate indicates that world population will not stabalize at less than 12.4 billion, while the United Nations concludes that the eventual total could reach 14 billion, a near tripling of today’s 5.4 billion. But, even at this moment, one person in five lives in absolute poverty without enough to eat, and one in ten suffers serious malnutrition.

“No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanitty immeasurably diminish.


“We the undersigned, senior members of the world’s scientific community, hereby warn all humaity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”

Under the five things we must do, Ehrlich cites, “We must bring environmentally damaging activities under control to restore and protect the integrity of the earth’s systems we depend on. We must, for example, move away from fossil fuels to more benign, inexhaustable energy sources to cut greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of our air and water. … We must halt deforestation, injury to and loss of agricultural land, and the loss of terrestrial and marine plant and animal species.” …

And again,  “We must stablize our population.”


This Year, I’m Not Voting “For” Anyone…

I’m casting my vote against Donald Trump. There are countless reasons why, not least10592828_10153082232478508_4644565137425820442_n of which is that his sons are trophy hunters, responsibe for the deaths of elephants, leopards and untold other African animals.

But, ‘they are not him,’ you might say. No, and George W was not George Bush, Sr. But W would never have been eletected (or even thought of running) if his father wasn’t first. One sport hunter in the upper echelons of government is bad enough (and we already have one in speaker of the house Paul Ryan).

That doesn’t mean Hillary is the perfect choice either, though. Back when she rejected overpopulation as an issue by telling China (as Secretary of State) that their one-child policy was was wrong, I swore I’d never vote for her if she ran for office in the future. (At least her husband and daughter are veg.)

But Trump is clearly the wrong choice, with his statement that he “believes” climate change is a “hoax” and his selection of a fellow denialist for his cabinet.

I mean, it’s not like we’re talking about god, the easter bunny, or bigfoot; climate change is a well-documented, well-proven fact, and the most urgent issue of our time.



Operating at a Deficit

Excerpt from the 2005 book, The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, by Tim Flannery:

“The twentieth century opened on a world that was home to little more than a billion people and closed on a world of 6 billion, and every one of those 6 billion is using on average four times as much energy as their forefathers did 100 years before. This helps account for the fact that the burning of fossil fuels has increased sixteenfold over that period…

“In 1961 there was still room to maneuver. In that seemingly distant age there were just 3 billion people and they were all using only half of the total resources that our global ecosystem could sustainably provide. A short twenty-five years later, in 1986, we had reached a watershed, for that year our population topped 5 billion, and such was our collective thirst for resources that we were using all of Earth’s sustainable production.

“In effect, 1986 marks the year that humans reached Earth’s carrying capacity, and ever since we have been running the equivalent of a deficit budget, which is sustained only by plundering our capital base. The plundering takes the form of overexploiting fisheries, overgrazing pasture until it becomes desert, destroying forests, and polluting our oceans and atmosphere, which in turn leads to the large number of environmental issues we face. In the end, though, the environmental budget is the only one that really counts.

“By 2001 humanity’s deficit had ballooned to 20%, and our population to over 6 billion. By 2050, when the population is expected to level out around 9 billion, the burden of human existence will be such that we will be using–if they can still be found–nearly two planets’ worth of resources. But for all the difficulty we’ll experience in finding those resources, it’s our waste–particularly the greenhouse gases–that is the limiting factor.”

Surface Methane



Do Humans Have a Moral Duty to Stop Procreating?

by Natalie Shoemaker

Whenever any animal population gets out of control, whether it be an overrun of deer or geese, humans usually step in and make plans to curb it through hunting or damaging nests. It seems cruel, but without natural predators to bring the population down, overpopulation could have devastating effects on the local environment. Yet, humans have shown themselves to be far more destructive than any other animal on this planet, so why don’t we offer ourselves the same consideration? I’m talking about anti-natalism here, the philosophical position that opposes procreation.

“If that level of destruction were caused by another species we would rapidly recommend that new members of that species not be brought into existence,” writes philosopher David Benatar.

There’s a fair argument to be made for anti-natalism that tears at most people’s desire to reproduce and a moral responsibility that few of us consider. This planet is overpopulated and we’re consuming more resources than the Earth can reproduce. You may not know this, but last week featured Earth Overshoot Day — the day when the Global Footprint Network announced that we’ve consumed a year’s worth of resources. The GFN estimates that the first Overshoot Day may have been back in the 1970s “due to the growth in the global population alongside the expansion of consumption around the world,” wrote Emma Howard from The Guardian.

“If that level of destruction were caused by another species, we would rapidly recommend that new members of that species not be brought into existence,” writes philosopher David Benatar, author of the anti-natalist book, Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.

“Nothing is lost by never coming into existence. By contrast, ceasing to exist does have costs.”




Human Population Growth and extinction

We’re in the midst of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction crisis. Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson estimates that 30,000 species per year (or three species per hour) are being driven to extinction. Compare this to the natural background rate of one extinction per million species per year, and you can see why scientists refer to it as a crisis unparalleled in human history.

The current mass extinction differs from all others in being driven by a single species rather than a planetary or galactic physical process. When the human race — Homo sapiens sapiens — migrated out of Africa to the Middle East 90,000 years ago, to Europe and Australia 40,000 years ago, to North America 12,500 years ago, and to the Caribbean 8,000 years ago, waves of extinction soon followed. The colonization-followed-by-extinction pattern can be seen as recently as 2,000 years ago, when humans colonized Madagascar and quickly drove elephant birds, hippos, and large lemurs extinct [1].

The first wave of extinctions targeted large vertebrates hunted by hunter-gatherers. The second, larger wave began 10,000 years ago as the discovery of agriculture caused a population boom and a need to plow wildlife habitats, divert streams, and maintain large herds of domestic cattle. The third and largest wave began in 1800 with the harnessing of fossil fuels. With enormous, cheap energy at its disposal, the human population grew rapidly from 1 billion in 1800 to 2 billion in 1930, 4 billion in 1975, and over 7 billion today. If the current course is not altered, we’ll reach 8 billion by 2020 and 9 to 15 billion (likely the former) by 2050.

No population of a large vertebrate animal in the history of the planet has grown that much, that fast, or with such devastating consequences to its fellow earthlings. Humans’ impact has been so profound that scientists have proposed that the Holocene era be declared over and the current epoch (beginning in about 1900) be called the Anthropocene: the age when the “global environmental effects of increased human population and economic development” dominate planetary physical, chemical, and biological conditions [2].

  • Humans annually absorb 42 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial net primary productivity,30 percent of its marine net primary productivity, and 50 percent of its fresh water [3].
  • Forty percent of the planet’s land is devoted to human food production, up from 7 percent in 1700 [3].
  • Fifty percent of the planet’s land mass has been transformed for human use [3].
  • More atmospheric nitrogen is now fixed by humans that all other natural processes combined [3].

The authors of Human Domination of Earth’s Ecosystems, including the current director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, concluded:

“[A]ll of these seemingly disparate phenomena trace to a single cause: the growing scale of the human enterprise. The rates, scales, kinds, and combinations of changes occurring now are fundamentally different from those at any other time in history. . . . We live on a human-dominated planet and the momentum of human population growth, together with the imperative for further economic development in most
of the world, ensures that our dominance will increase.”

Predicting local extinction rates is complex due to differences in biological diversity, species distribution, climate, vegetation, habitat threats, invasive species, consumption patterns, and enacted conservation measures. One constant, however, is human population pressure. A study of 114 nations found that human population density predicted with 88-percent accuracy the number of endangered birds and mammals as identified by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature [4]. Current population growth trends indicate that the number of threatened species will increase by 7 percent over the next 20 years and 14 percent by 2050. And that’s without the addition of global warming impacts.

Edward Humes

When the population of a species grows beyond the capacity of its environment to sustain it, it reduces that capacity below the original level, ensuring an eventual population crash.

“The density of people is a key factor in species threats,” said Jeffrey McKee, one of the study’s authors. “If other species follow the same pattern as the mammals and birds… we are facing a serious threat to global biodiversity associated with our growing human population.” [5].

So where does wildlife stand today in relation to 7 billion people? Worldwide, 12 percent of mammals, 12 percent of birds, 31 percent of reptiles, 30 percent of amphibians, and 37 percent of fish are threatened with extinction [6]. Not enough plants and invertebrates have been assessed to determine their global threat level, but it is severe.

Extinction is the most serious, utterly irreversible effect of unsustainable human population. But unfortunately, many analyses of what a sustainable human population level would look like presume that the goal is simply to keep the human race at a level where it has enough food and clean water to survive. Our notion of sustainability and ecological footprint — indeed, our notion of world worth living in — presumes that humans will allow for, and themselves enjoy, enough room and resources for all species to live.



  1. Eldridge, N. 2005. The Sixth Extinction.
  2. Crutzen, P. J. and E. F. Stoermer. 2000. The ‘Anthropocene’. Global Change Newsletter 41:17–18, 2000; Zalasiewicz, J. et al. 2008. Are We Now Living in the Anthropocene?. GSA Today (Geological Society of America) 18 (2): 4–8.
  3. Vitousek, P. M., H. A. Mooney, J. Lubchenco, and J. M. Melillo. 1997. Human Domination of Earth’s Ecosystems. Science 277 (5325): 494–499; Pimm, S. L. 2001. The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth. McGraw-Hill, NY; The Guardian. 2005. Earth is All Out of New Farmland. December 7, 2005.
  4. McKee, J. K., P. W. Sciulli, C. D. Fooce, and T. A. Waite. 2004. Forecasting Biodiversity Threats Due to Human Population Growth. Biological Conservation 115(1): 161–164.
  5. Ohio State University. 2003. Anthropologist Predicts Major Threat To Species Within 50 Years. ScienceDaily, June 10, 2003.
  6. International Union for the Conservation of Nature. 2009. Red List.

Humans: Never Satisfied

Quoting John A. Livingston from his book, The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation, in a chapter called “The Arguments: 243

“Before we go further, it will be useful to sum up those arguments for conservation that are based in individual and collective human self-interest, as put forward here. The most fundamental message is: if we can’t be good, at least we can be prudent. The message has been delivered historically and is delivered today in a number of ways: the ‘wise use’ arguments involve husbandry, stewardship, harvest, future resources…

“The guts of the self-interest family of arguments is that they are entirely and exclusively man-orientated, anthropocentric. Whether it is directed to individual, group, nation, or species, the appeal is to the human being and the human interest.

“Throughout we assume nature as ‘resource,’ whether for physical use or as a source of aesthetic enjoyment. In this sense, living sensate wildlife beings are no different from water, soils, and land forms, all of which were set in place by a beneficent nature expressly for human purposes. Whether man is good steward or renegade, whether answerable to God or to the bio-system or to the future human generations or not, there is no question about the locus of vested power and authority on Earth. This is illustrated best, I think, in the monumentally dull-witted arrogance of the concept of ‘harvest’ as applied to wildlife species.

“I no longer believe that there is, in practice, such a thing as a ‘renewable’ resource. Once a thing is perceived as having some utility–any utility–and is thus perceived as a ‘resource,’ its depletion is only a matter of time. I know of no wildlife that is being ‘renewed’ anywhere–not yellow birch or hemlock or anchovies or marlins or leopards or salmon or bowhead whales or anything else. ‘Renewable resource’ is self-contradictory in coherence, at least as applied to wildlife.

“If ‘resource’ continues to mean something that is put to human use, then no resource is renewable. Our demands have quite outstripped the capacity of those resources to satisfy them, and much less to satisfy them on a ‘sustainable’ basis. And we are, of course, never satisfied.”

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