The morality of population control

Talking about population gets you into trouble. Mention it and you're 'anti-human', an 'extreme Green', 'racist', 'anti-immigrant', or dictating to developing countries how they should behave. You're told the real issue isn't over-population, but lack of equity in distribution of resources.

It's hard not to sound misanthropic when discussing population. Conservatives accuse you of favouring abortion, contraception, fertility control and sterilisation in developing countries, and progressives say you're a cultural imperialist diverting attention from social justice.

Discussion of population lost respectability in the mid-1980s following the sterilisation policies of Congress Party governments in India and the one child policy in China. In contrast Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh have run successful population programs without draconian measures.

There are also powerful vested interests maintaining high rates of immigration in Western countries which have reached zero population growth. Business wants to maintain consumers for goods and services, regardless of the pressure this puts on local environments. In market-oriented thinking new immigrants add to the pool of consumers rather than impacting a fragile environment.

The result: politicians avoid population issues like the plague (except when, like Kevin Rudd and Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, they're beating the drum for an even 'bigger Australia').

The consequence is our country has a higher per capita growth rate from immigration (2.1 per cent for the year ending June 2009) than Indonesia. This will have a very large impact on Australia's attempt to cut greenhouse gas emissions because so many of these people are coming from countries with a lower standard of living and a much lower contribution to global warming.

These kinds of disconnects in policy formulation occur because immigration and population have become taboo topics among bureaucrats and politicians who fail to see, or are unwilling to tackle, the mutual contradictions involved. Global warming is lost between the discontinuities.

The great religious traditions have only the most rudimentary views on the morality of population limitation. Because the religious traditions have been largely absent from this debate, it has been mainly carried on in secular and economic terms by biologists, demographers and economists.

The reason why religious people have avoided this issue is simple: it is a theological and moral minefield. Embedded in it are a whole range of acute ethical issues and challenges to ingrained attitudes.

A basic moral conundrum concerns the ethical issues involved in inter-generational rights: if we consume so many resources now that the quality of life of future generations is compromised, are we acting in a morally responsible way? I think we do have serious and binding moral obligations to those who come after us. They have as much right to a quality of life as us.

Then there's the moral issue of the imbalance between the living standards of developed regions such as North America, Western Europe and Australia and the 20 per cent of people who are starving or under-nourished.

Does this imbalance create an ethical demand that developed countries lower their standard of living and dispose of food surpluses to needy countries at concessionary prices? Is there a basic moral right, overriding the powers of nation states, to allow migration from countries of over-population and chronic shortage to those with apparent space and surplus food?

And what about the right to reproduce: what limits can the community place on the rights of individuals to decide their fertility and family size? Women play a key role in this. We already know that women will use the educational opportunities they receive to improve standards of living for their families; then, with a consequent reduction in child mortality, they are more willing to limit conception.

Whenever women are liberated with guaranteed rights and equality, the birthrate has been reduced. They also need employment and interests beyond the home.

There have been real successes in improving the lot of women. Between the late 1960s and 2000 the total birthrate of developing countries has been reduced from six to three births per woman. While Catholicism is widely criticised for its opposition to contraception and abortion, the contribution of religious orders and Catholic care agencies to education and higher standards of literacy, health care, development aid and the breaking down of social and class barriers have been important contributions to changing the role of women.

While Catholicism and Islam are often blamed for imposing oppressive conditions on women, the actual oppression that they experience is the result of tribal and patriarchical cultural attitudes. Sure, religion is used as a major component in the enforcement of the social mores of male control, lack of female education, and high fertility. Clearly they reinforce each other but it is unfair to blame religion for the whole problem.

So a basic element in a morality of population is education and liberation of women, giving them control of their fertility. Religious people must be proactive in emphasising women's rights as a moral issue, and prepared to confront unequivocally the abuse of women. And we must recover a proper biological perspective: we aren't the sole reason for the earth's existence, just part of it, perhaps even a minor part. We need to recover humility.

Paul CollinsAuthor and historian Paul Collins is a former specialist editor- religion for the ABC. 

Topic tags: Paul Collins, bigger australia, population control.two child policy, sterilisation



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Existing comments

Education for girls is central. The state of Kerala in India once had a communist government which introduced free, secular and compulsory education. No subsequent government dared change it. Consequently, Kerala has long had the lowest rate of population increase in India. The cultural prohibition of education for girls, disguised as religion (e.g. by the Taliban) is a great danger to future of the world.
Michael Grounds | 17 December 2009

There is no doubt whatsoever that the rapid growth of human population is not sustainable to the whole of humankind. However, I keep remembering that Germany in the 20s was Europe's, if not the Western World's, culturally most advanced country. Yet within less than a decade it had plunged to the depths of the degradation of all civilized thought. I'm left wondering what contemporary or government is immune to such a cultural downfall?
Population control? Yes. But in the end, who and what kind of people will be left to survive the inevitable global climate disaster?
Alex Njoo | 17 December 2009

A mother of 8, irish/catholic in WA moved with hb work in 1959. Home with family until 1973, started work and studied to Post Grad level in health issues. Worked to age 68, Hb tradesman got early dementia, family educated. I believe PM wrong in his plan for future population. Aust is a large land with limited natural resources, we are ruining much of them already. I grew up without aircon, lived in tropics with out it and still live without it, the young ones just have to be practical and I am glad I learned when young to manage with what I had, I have passed it on. Enough of a lecture
margaret o'reilly | 17 December 2009

I think that when, in Exodus, God gave humanity 'dominion' over his other creatures and told them to 'go forth and multiply' he was giving us responsibility for others and the power to procreate, both to ensure that the whole of creation would prosper: Paul is right to point out that discernment comes from having the time and means to think of more than the survival of one animal or particular combination of genes, and the natural selfishness of those who have power without empathy. Well said.
Moira Rayner | 17 December 2009

Well presented Paul. An interesting analysis of the problems facing us.
Gavin | 17 December 2009

People do need to be free to decide ("choose" is a political term now) but as couples, not just women. It is necessary for a man to become informed on how to cooperate with his wife in finding the best time and means to conceive, or to avoid conception. It is empowering for a man to exercise personal restraint, and not be just a puppet. His dignity is damaged by denying the crucial role, not just his genetics, in creating a much loved child and in his healthy attitude to creating a nurturing environment for the child to grow. Feeling part of the process (and mystery) is crucial to being a happy supportive father. Population control is a depersonalizing concept, rather let it be initiatives to help couples and families, starting with the natural part of family planning.
Geoff O'Brien | 17 December 2009

must admit I mostly agreed with Paul's article re population.

However, (and were you not expecting this?)

'While Catholicism and Islam are often blamed for imposing oppressive conditions on women, the actual oppression that they experience is the result of tribal and patriarch cal cultural attitudes. Sure, religion is used as a major component in the enforcement of the social mores of male control, lack of female education, and high fertility. Clearly they reinforce each other but it is unfair to blame religion for the whole problem.'

But surely this is what 'religion' does? Women are denied the deaconate, to be acolytes and of course the priesthood because they are women!! Not saying this is the case in all Christian denominations or in fact in Islam as I believe there are female Inman's. But of course when one thinks of Christianity one does think of the Catholic Church - and it is religious as well as a cultural attitude that needs to be challenged.
Helen Oxenburgh-Lowe | 17 December 2009

Paul mentions that Western countries have reached zero population growth. They have achieved this notable degree of prudence through provision of adequate health care and education to their citizens.

It hasn't come without cost; in an exploitative, competitive world, if you're not growing you must be dying; just how far in advance of (unsustainable, in the long term) population growth has Australia's GDP REALLY grown?

In the long term, on a finite planet with finite resources, a society that does not wean itself off unsustainable resource exploitation must necessarily suffer resource depletion.

In the long term, a society that does not value each and every one of its members, affording each person the best education, the best health care, makes a fundamental mistake. It is the people that are a society's finest resources, and a society that does not wean itself off unsustainable resource exploitation must necessarily suffer resource depletion.
David Arthur | 17 December 2009

Well positioned comments.

Personaly I believe our 'developed' societies leaders do not want to look at a looming frontier offering so much potential: How do you achieve economic growth without population growth?

PS I do believe we need 'economic growth', in the right ways incorporating life Quality not 'Quantity', for All life.
Em | 17 December 2009

I live in Lakemba in Sydney - probably the most culturally diverse spot in all of Australia and guess what? It's a great place to live and bring up a family. Tolerance abounds - religion, dress, food and customs - everyone gets along fine. No signs of oppression here. I should know - I took the photo you have used of the crowd in the street. It was a great day and happens every year - Haldon Street Festival - a celebration of Community.
Trevor Lawrie | 17 December 2009

Congratulations Paul for grasping the "nettle" and discussing this issue. The planet is one gigantic organism (Gaia) or ecosystem. Our species has evolved to the point of being able to exploit and indeed destroy components of the system in a manner that weakens it. This affects the survival especially of the large species - both plant and animal (forests, whales), many of which have already perished, but also of ourselves.

Our pollution of the atmosphere is the final straw in reducing the capacity of the planet to sustain the global ecosystem. Human population density is the driver of this destruction and the failure of leaders even to mention it (with the exception of China, that cops fierce criticism, especially from our religious leaders!) is suicidal for our species. Desperate times indeed.
Mike Foale | 17 December 2009

Very nice article, great points brought up.

I think the core of the question is a point Paul brought up, if we consume so many resources now that the quality of life of future generations is compromised, are we acting in a morally responsible way?

I think our future existence depends on this moral question -- I think we are too short-sighted as a species to find the answer for this question. Humans by our very nature are self interested beings, it is a product of our evolution - to promote our own lineage with little regard past our own needs and those we find close to us (this could be extended to family, fellow countryman, fellow religious brethen, etc). It's a serious issue that needs to be addressed possibly by religion, politics, but of course curbing our own freedoms is quite possibly the straw that we cannot force ourselves to break.
Tom | 18 December 2009

China has "educated and liberated" women for years. That certainly has not prevented authoritarian control over women’s so-called "reproductive rights"

It must come as a great sigh of relief to Paul Collins' neo-Malthusian mentality that there are 300 to 400 million fewer people on the planet as a result of China’s one-child policy.
Nathan Socci | 18 December 2009

The morality of population control can not be realistically discussed without some science and economics.

What is the "carrying capacity" of Planet Earth?

Is it 6.9 billion - which I understand is the current world population - as some commentators and scientists suggest?

And at what standard of living?

Wouldn't if be wise if political parties each put out a population policy?

I think Kelvin Thompson ALP is talking population (officially? or unofficially?) from the sidelines despite his leader Kevin Rudd's 35 million aspirations.

Even THE GREENS refuse to put out a Population policy despite having policies on many other environmentally sensitive subjects of interest.
Margaret Wilson | 18 December 2009

Readers may be interested in the following article by Andrew C Revkin
in the wonderful New York Times Science section.

He appeared on ABC’s LATELINE on Friday 18 December 2009 from Copenhagen.

The Missing ’P’ Word in Climate Talks
- Dot Earth Blog- NY Times
December 16 2009
MW | 19 December 2009

So much information.

I am always intrigued by the statement that we must give our children what we have enjoyed.

Why is this so?

Is our society so grand that we want to pass it on?

Are not some benefits we enjoy the very things causing pollution, ripping up our forests, and making us a materialistic society?

Do we put those starving in our planet, at the top of our concerns? or do we give them what is left over, from our frantic spending?

Yes, we could reduce our population, perhaps so that fewer people could have more.

I believe there is credit in the opinion, that the distribution of wealth may be a major component in causing muuch poverty on our planet.

Our moral conviction 'to serve' could could solve many of our economic problems.

Perhaps Paul Collin's article needs closer scrutiny, so that we may arrive at some unpleasant truths.

I guess living a truly Christian life is not easy, and easily hidden by seemingly 'good' philosophies.
Bernadette Introna | 19 December 2009

"This will have a very large impact on Australia's attempt to cut greenhouse gas emissions because so many of these people are coming from countries with a lower standard of living and a much lower contribution to global warming."

Actually you could argue the reverse, as much of energy emissions are a fixed cost, such as baseload generation, it will lower our per capita emissions.
Jonah Bones | 22 December 2009

Excellent article, Paul.

It is reprehensible that our elected leaders defy calls for a population policy in deference to their short-term political objectives, namely re-election on the back of a spurious economic measure (GDP) that purports to benchmark our wellbeing. I have previously discounted any role for religion in this debate however your article rightly highlights the moral responsibility in not only lifting billions of people out of poverty but also in vouchsafing a healthy planet for future generations………this can only be achieved by encouraging a smaller population and/or reducing the average consumption level…..for long-term sustainability, these are the only two options available. I hope religious leaders embrace this and join the chorus of dissent.
Geoff Buckmaster | 24 December 2009

Rudd's general pro-growth agenda seems to naturally extend into expanding the number of consumers and workers (that's all we are in economic rationalist terms). But does it stack up even within his own paradigm? I've seen well-argued accounting that makes it clear that such massive population growth is not the economic boon that Rudd and friends believe. So even with ecological arguments excluded (as usual), Rudd needs to justify his 'populate or perish' agenda. Ecological and economic issues aside, I'm afronted by the way that Rudd decided to enact such a huge increase in immigration without any public consultation. Population policy was not within the scope of the last election and likely won't make it into the main debate prior to the next. If any other individual or agency sought to undertake a policy change or project with the scale of economic and ecological impacts as Rudd's huge increase in immigration, it would have to be subject to proper debate, consultation, and impact assessment. Rudd's actions on this matter are exceptionally undemocratic and irresponsible. What's the bet he later decides to make an equally large cut to immigration and then claims this as part of his reduction of national greenhouse gas emissions?
Steve Douglas | 31 December 2009

The hidden purpose is to turn the world religious but only under their religion. That needs to populate the world with believers. Unless that happens, the competition between two major religions won't cease.
But appreciation should go to celibacy. If religion preaches celibacy to the larger population, the plastic would never have replaced the moral commitments. But this might lead to the defeat of Christianity and the glory of Islam.

As the world has changed, other religions joined into the game as well - for different reasons.
AZURE | 06 January 2010

I have to disagree with Paul Collins as I find a replacement level birth rate in our country is a cause for celebration, not a reason to start digging up the outdated and erroneous theories of Malthus or spurious ecoonomic concepts that go along the lines of "If I get more, he gets less,"

By bringing immigrants into our country we are allowing them to enjoy the opportunities for personal advancement and fine living standards that we do. This is something that few lefties wish to acknowledge as they'd rather have 800 million indians living in poverty if it means we'll save a few glaciers.

We can provide for these people, provided their economies are freed up and people and businesses are allowed to acquire capital to imrpove their own intrinsic assets through health and education and the nations in roads, factories and the like.

Cheer up Paul, the rate population growth is falling around the world so your rather heretical request for catholic women to limit their progeny is uneeded and plain evil.
Nick of Perth | 08 January 2010

Is there no-one to comment on the teachings of the true Catholic Church on this, a supposedly Catholic publication. Have the author and the commentators any faith in God? Can't you see the importance of marriage and the procreation of children.

The Western culture is not even sustaining itself any longer. We are headed for a "demographic winter." Go forth and multiply is the teaching of God. God the Father gives us this day our daily bread. I have read that all the people on Earth could live comfortably just in the space of the state of Texas. Malthusian arguments were stupid at his time on earth and are stupid still at this time and will be in the future.
Have true Faith in God and save your souls, not your bodies for a Utopia on Earth that does not exist. Only by the true teachings of the true Catholic faith spread across the world is there the chance of peace, love at any time.
Trent | 05 August 2010


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