Religion steps into the politics of population and poverty

The links between population growth, poverty and consumption were clearly expressed by the British Medical Journal in August, just before the world economic crisis changed the context of the debate.

“The world’s population now exceeds 6.7 billion and
consumption of fuel, water, crops, fish, and forests exceeds supply.

“Every week an extra 1.5 million people add to greenhouse gas emissions and
escaping poverty is impossible without these emissions increasing.”

British Medical Journal – August 2, 2008

 This week’s statements from Poznan that climate change may have to play second fiddle to attempts to shore up the world’s financial markets have an uncanny echo for the 84% of the world’s population that were told the discussion of the Millenium Development Goals, designed to address world poverty, would have to wait until the economic crisis on Wall Street settled down.

By world poverty, we do not mean that some people’s retirement funds are frozen and so they cannot meet their house repayments, we mean that two billion people face every day with no income, no possessions and no visible means of support. They have less than you would, here in one of the world’s richest countries, if you had $1 per day to purchase your food, accommodation and clothing. Like them, you would be able to afford a cup full of dirty water and just enough nutrients to remain alive.

They have no future. Every year about one percent of them die, hideously, and their children are condemned to follow their footsteps.

This is the reality of the new world order.

By 2015 there will be twenty cities collectively containing 500 million people. More than half of those people will be this poor. These urban poor are the world’s new slaves. Unlike the Africans transported to the Americas three centuries ago, these new slaves are not fed and housed, their children are not nurtured and employed. These people are discarded if they injure themselves at work and swept out with the garbage. There are more slaves now than at any other time in human history and those slaves are worse off than they have ever been before.

This is the reality of the new world order.

The world’s richest people, five percent of the total population, control fifty percent of the world’s wealth. The world’s poorest people, fifty percent of the total population, control five percent of the world’s wealth. Wealth has been becoming more concentrated since the end of the second world war.

The point of underlining this huge disparity in wealth, which is reflected directly in resource consumption, is because it goes to the very heart of the population debate.

The challenge for governments of every political flavour is that there are no palatable solutions.

The state of the debate

The standard answer from United Nations agencies, the political wing of the environmental movement and commentators such as George Monbiot is that the world population is flattening out. It will stabilise at around 9 billion people somewhat conveniently, about one billion or so below the estimates of the earth’s carrying capacity.

The projection is based on the fact that as people become more affluent and better educated, they delay having children until later in life, or decide not to have children at all. As the Pope correctly observed, the birth rate of most European nations is below the death rate. As their native populations shrink they rely on immigration to supply the labour force necessary to support the aging population.

“Educate and empower women,” David Suzuki has said a number of times, “and you will reduce population growth and increase affluence at the same time.”

The challenge is that because we are nearing the upper limits of the available resources we cannot increase the affluence of the poorer four fifths of the world without reducing our own.

As Professor Thomas Malthaus correctly observed in 1798, human greed dictates that political solutions will be difficult to achieve. “No fancied equality, no agrarian regulations in their utmost extent, could remove the pressure of it even for a single century …  the argument is conclusive against the perfectibility of the mass of mankind.”

He actively campaigned against the poor laws of the time, arguing that since the poor were destined to die miserably because of the fundamental laws of population there was little point wasting precious resources on them.

The real challenge of our time is to prove him wrong.

The Millenium Development Goals were signed by 189 countries in May 2000 and set specific targets to be achieved by 2015. Halfway to the timeframe, we are less than half way toward achieving any goal and moving backwards on many of them.

Even more disturbingly, our leaders have proven incapable of reaching any long term agreement on sharing resources more equitably for the long term good of humanity collectively. The collapse of the Doha round of trade talks earlier this year and the stale mate at Poznan last week indicate the depth of the challenges meeting any framework, even one as clear, simple and well-supported as the Millenium Development Goals.

Alternative solutions

When the dilemma’s raised by world’s best practice cannot be resolved by the best thinkers and diplomats of our time, some people have begun to wonder if we are asking the right questions. California Interfaith Power and Light is not a utility company spawned by the excesses of Enron, but a theological movement that attempts to find a morality that can save the world.

Their “Love God, heal the world” message is in keeping with many other organised churches that have recently made statements to the effect that it is immoral to consume resources that will condemn future generations to a poorer lifestyle than we enjoy.

More profoundly, groups like the Forum on Religion and the Ecology are exploring the nature of morality, the relationship between secular politics and moral imperative and the role of authority in guiding human behaviour.

The annual forum was held in New York last month and explored the views of many different religious traditions on these important matters.

The challenge is whether a cynical 21st century audience can be driven to adopt a moral framework that limits their immediate personal satisfaction for the sake of the long term good. If the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, it looks like things will get pretty grim before we learn our lesson.

Leave a Reply