Sustainable development is about decarbonization, not depopulation

Last week, I wrote about the major Vatican symposium on climate change and sustainable development. In that post, I wrote about the unfortunate journalistic tendency to give equal weight to the world-renowned climate scientists in the hall, and the rag-taggle bunch of climate change denialists from the Heartland Institute shaking their fists outside.

[This article is part of a reading list on Catholicism and the environment.]

In his most recent column, John Allen does the same. He notes that the Heartland people were “pointedly not invited inside the Vatican and UN conference”. Well, of course not. I don’t think the people who believe the moon landings were faked get invited to NASA gatherings either! It’s a peculiar quirk of American journalism to give credence to what is essentially quackery in this area.

But Allen then goes one step further. He talks to an Italian activist called Cascioli – seemingly his sole source for this story – who assures him that “environmentalism and population control are intrinsically linked”.

This is wrong on so many different levels. At its core, sustainable development is a holistic framework that encompasses not only economic growth, but also social inclusion and environmental sustainability. It's about laying down the preconditions for human flourishing in a global economy that has increased 240-fold since the industrial revolution – on a scale that is slamming into some core planetary boundaries and altering the climate at frightening scale and speed.

If we stay on a “business as usual” path, we can expect global temperatures to rise by 4-6 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by end-century. This will prove catastrophic for lives and livelihoods - through droughts, extreme storms, heat waves, and rising sea levels. And it will hit the poor especially hard, the people who are least responsible for climate change and least capable of adapting to it. For example, a 4 percent temperature increase could lead to a decline in crop yields in Africa by up to 50 percent. Devastating.

If this were not enough, we also have an obligation to reduce extreme poverty; make agriculture more sustainable; and provide safe water, sustainable energy, as well as decent healthcare and education for all the world’s citizens. A tall order, yes. But – as Cardinal Peter Turkson noted in his speech last week - sustainable development is the great challenge of our time, and it is a deeply moral challenge. It is predicated on human dignity and solidarity across space and time.

But we get none of this in Allen’s piece. Instead, he talks about “radical eco-activists” who “deny the unique spiritual status of human beings in a way incompatible with Christian orthodoxy”. No doubt these people exist. But they were certainly not at the Vatican symposium. And their concerns are far removed from the genuine concerns of sustainable development.

The most outrageous quote from Cascioli is the assertion that sustainable development implies that “to eliminate poverty, all you have to do is to physically eliminate the poor.” In reality, sustainable development affirms the agency and dignity of the poor. At its heart, it’s about reducing carbon, not people – especially among the rich, not the poor. It’s about summoning the will to move to a zero carbon economy - and to help poorer countries walk this path.

Allen also quotes Cascioli arguing that “every human life is sacred and cannot be sacrificed for any motive - not even to save the planet”. Well, yes, but the sustainable development agenda never engages in such crass consequentialist calculus. Rather, it is the “business as usual” path – continued reliance on high-carbon forms of energy – that degrades the sacredness of human life and sacrifices the poor in the service of free market extremism. This is what I believe Pope Francis understands, but Cascioli clearly does not.

One final point: there are, of course, plenty of people who believe that smaller family sizes – especially in places like Africa – will do wonders for poverty reduction. And indeed, a declining family size is a standard feature of the development path, and is tied to rising educational and occupational opportunities for girls and women. The Church has no problem with this, and of course strongly endorses female education. Even more, the Church has no real issue with the idea of planning families for economic reasons – just as long as it’s not by artificial means.

Yes, there is indeed some strong disagreement with Church teaching on this particular issue in some policy circles. But let’s stay focused and not get side tracked. The real issue here is carbon not condoms!

This “population control” canard is a favored distraction of those who oppose taking action on climate change. It gives their arguments a moral grounding that otherwise is lacking. It’s just a pity that a columnist as good as John Allen didn’t paint the bigger picture.  

Anthony Annett is a climate change and sustainable development advisor at the Center for Sustainable Development - Earth Institute at Columbia University and in this position is affiliated with Religions for Peace.

Also by this author
Educational Video on Laudato si'

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Collections
Collections