Page 8, 12th September 2008

12th September 2008
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Page 8, 12th September 2008 — What is the greatest threat to the planet?

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What is the greatest threat to the planet?

The world's resources are running out and many environmentalists blame the Church's teaching. Mark Dowd investigates their allegations It's some seven months now since I left the world of television to begin a new post as an environmental campaigner with Operation Noah. As climate change has shot up the agenda of concern, there has been no shortage of requests for public appearances up and down the country on the theology. science and politics of global warming. And in among all the discussions on stewardship, melting ice caps and the search for a successor to the Kyoto Treaty, I have noticed a pattern. Whenever certain members of the audience discover you are a Catholic, in a flash, before you can even say Humanae Vitae, out it pops the P-word.

The P-word we are told, is "the elephant in the room" (how many times have I heard that phrase since January?). Now this is odd. "The elephant in the room" (according to that icon of modem reference tools. Wikipedia) is "a term referring to a controversial issue that is obvious. but which is ignored by a group of people out of embarrassment or taboo".

Population, ignored? I think not. In recent weeks we have been spattered by a host of Malthusian offerings offering a simple formula cut back the number of humans and many of the environmental problems of the world will disappear. First it was a British Medical Journal editorial advocating a maximum of 17 million as the optimum population figure for Britain (which 17 million, it did not say). Then we had the entertaining, but frequently rather excitable, Johann Hari of the Independent advocating the building of a "global anti-Vaticanand arming the world's poorest women with those vital tools of contraception and abortion to keep a lid on unnecessary births. At least he had the honesty to preface his remarks with the words: "This is a column I don't want to write. Its subject is ugly.

Ugly indeed. For in truth, it's easy to see how such sentiments, taken to their logical conclusions, end up in state-sponsored Orwellian nightmares of enforced sterilisation and the like, scenarios in which individual dignity is trampled over and faceless bureaucrats inside government ministries ride roughshod over what should be the most intimate and private area of human life. So what's the truth about population and the climate threat and what should a responsible Catholic approach be?

There's no donbt that the Genesis edict to "subdue the earth and multiply" has been taken to heart and acted upon by homo sapiens with great gusto. A global population of one billion at the start of the 21st century has risen to six and a half and is headed for nine billion by 2050 at current rates of expansion. But is population per se the big factor in our arodety • about spiralling carbon emissions? Closer examination cautions against any monocausal analysis, On the latest birth/death net figures, Britain is currently adding roughly 150,000 new lives to the global population each year. The annual figure for a country like Bangladesh is way above at over three million. Yet each British citizen per year is responsible for an average 11 tons of carbon dioxide the figure for Bangladesh would be nearer half of one ton. A Bangladeshi couple would need to have 22 children for each one in Britain for the environmental impact to be comparable. Put like this, the issue swiftly moves away from population to consumption.

And just as the Chinese get upset at finger-wagging Americans and Europeans lecturing them on coal-fired power stations given our legacy of a 150 years of smoked-stacked industrialistaion, so countries like Bangladesh and others think it a bit rich to be told they are the fount of ecological damage when the rich nations of the world are tucking into 10 to 20 times their share of the carbon cake per capita.

So should we be worried about population at all? Can we, in a world of intensive agriculture and GM crops,

cope with any number? A responsible answer would be No. Limits apply in all situations and this isrxrerteeption. But-you would think from the antiCatholic stereotypes that abound among some environmentalists that Church teaching in this area is just downright irresponsible. I've come across more than one or two fellow "greens" in recent months who believe that the Holy See's main goal is to outbreed global Islam and win some kind of numbers war. Compare that crude analysis though with the words of John Paul II in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: "One cannot deny the existence, especially in the southern hemisphere, of a demographic problem which creates difficulties for development. One must immediately add that in the northern hemisphere the nature of this problem is reversed: here, the cause for concern is the drop in the birth rate with repercussions on the ageing of the population, unable even to renew itself biologically."

Seven years later, in a meditation, he developed these points further He said: "Catholic thought is often misunderstood... as if the Church supported an ideology of fertility at all Costs, urging married couples to procreate indiscriminately and without thought for the future. But one need-only study the pronouncements of the Magisterium to know that this is not so. In deciding whether or not to have a child, they [couples] must not be motivated by selfishness or carelessness, but by a prudent, conscious generosity that weighs the possibilities and circumstances, and especially gives priority to the welfare of the unborn child."

Measured and sane words.

So what's the way forward? Taking first the southern hemisphere, if restraining numbers is to be achieved without recourse to crass authoritarianism, every study shows that the key approach is through raising standards of female education and literacy. Women who excel in these areas frequently, according to the vast majority of research literature, undergo a transformation in attitudes to family planning.

This is an area in which the Church, due to its myriad of religious orders and cam agencies, can be proud of. All over the world, we know there are thousands and thousands of individuals whose lives are inspired by the Gospel to impart higher stan

dards of learning and literacy among the poor of the world. Such programmes are designed to get families out of poverty and it is poverty that is frequently cited as another enormous factor in the population boom. Anecdotal evidence is all I can offer here, but in more than 15 years of documentary making in countries as varied as Brazil, Sierra Leone, India and Indonesia,! came across many parents who were no strangers to eight, 10, nay even 12 children. You engage them in conversation and time again you're aware of a tottery mindset that is informed by the view that says: "Just one child, one child a success, a doctor, an administrator and we'll have that elusive breadwinner to transform the family's dire fortunes."

Earlier I spoke of "elephants in the room". Contraception? Well, I am sure I am not the only Herald reader who accepts that there are convincing arguments that say it must be part of the mix, despite the Holy See's consistent line on that 1968 encyclical. But a reluctant concession of this kind is a far cry from the panacea advocated by those who think all we need to do is parachute in sacks of condoms and oestrogen pills and all will be well. The thinking behind such a simplistic approach is reductivist and shallow and does scant justice to the dignity of human communities.

So much for the so-called south. What of the north? Until relatively recently there was a stage when birthrates in a courtfly in Britain got so low that genuine fears were being voiced about future demographic patterns and whether shrinking numbers of labourers would be able to sustain an ageing society of elderly members. Recent spurts in the birth rate have all but allayed such worries. Britain looks set to modestly increase its numbers in the decades ahead from a present figure of around 60 million to 71 million by 2030. This need not be cause for alarm bells, but so long as we begin to tread more lightly on the gift that is God's creation. In short, it strikes me that we have a huge responsibility for leadership.

Reining in our excessive consumption is essential for two reasons: fast in the fight against runaway climate change, but secondly we have to radically alter what appears in "the shop window".

Developing economies that hanker after gas-guzzling cars, limitless possessions and a materialism bordering on hedonism will end up condemning their citizens to a spiritual emptiness that threatens to play havoc with the planet's increasingly frail state. Cafod's livesimply campaign hits the nail on the head in this respect. Pan of a new contract between us and the emerging economies ought to be the transfer of low-carbon technologies that allows such countries to harness renewable energy without adding hugely to the stock of greenhouse gas emissions. It's simply a matter of justice. What we have (perhaps unwittingly for long periods) damaged, we must put right.

Is there 'a simple prophetic way in which Christians in the west can make an impact? I end with a story and a challenging thought. Some weeks ago I gave a talk in Ealing Abbey to around 60 or so west Londoners. At the end of my 45-minute address, out of the stalls with the first question was a rather vexed looking woman in the front row.

"You said nothing about eating meat," she cried. I knew what was coming. Livestock farming and its practices account for nearly one-fifth of all the carbon dioxide emitted around the globe every year. It isn't just flatulent cows: it's the huge quantities of fertiliser taken to grow the grain that finds its way into animal feed. There's a direct link too between deforestation and carnivorous eating habits. Massive swathes of the Amazon are being cleared to grow soya to export to America and Europe for animal feed. This is not sentimental "Bambi theology"; it's a hard-nosed assessment of what we are doing to our world. According to the US Department of Agriculture, modem food consumes roughly 10 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food energy produced. Farm an acre of decent land and you can produce only 20 lbs of beef protein from it, but farm the same acre by producing wheat and you'll get 138 lbs of protein. And use a fraction of the water in the process.

Catholic vegetarians? Has this man lost his mind? Well no actually. I am reflecting a development gaining more and more ground among religious ethicists who speak out loudly in favour of an "eschatological vegetarianism". Such voices quote biblical precedent in early Genesis: "I give you all plants that bear seed everywhere on earth and every tree-bearing fruit which yields seed: they shall be yours for food." This is the pre-lapsarian account of the world, a world without predation and one in which. as Isaiah goes on to speak of, a world in which "the wolf and the lamb shall feed together and the lion shall eat straw like the ox". It is only after the Flood that nature, red in tooth and claw, transforms us into flesh-eating mammals.

Chinese annual meat consumption per capita has risen from 9 lbs in 1968 to 120 lbs today. Eating meat is seen as aspirational, but if human numbers are to grow at such a steep rate and if we are going to avoid the worst excesses of climate change. something will have to give.

Shunning meat and relying less on animals for masses of dairy produce might he one way, in the long term, of exercising restraint and making sure that human stomachs are full without precipitating irreversible damage to the biosphere.

Mark Dowd is a journalist and broadcaster and campaign strategist of Operation Noah (

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