Article from Green Christians 44: Winter 2000/2001. The Jounal of Christian Ecology Link|
THE LESSONS OF HISTORY
Our concerns about overpopulation are not new. Michael O’Gara, a ‘cradle Catholic’ who has campaigned against the ban on contraception, takes us on a tour of early writers who expressed the same fears as many environmentalists today.|
The previous Green Christians issue - 43 - which announces that this copy will cover population, itself touches on the question. Page 13 contains a review by Edward Echlin of Soil and Civilisation by Edward Hyams which deepened the reviewer’s awareness ‘that all living earth creatures are soil organisms, interdependent for breath, water and food and that when humans become too numerous they turn into "a disease of the soil" destroying other creatures and then themselves’.
Overpopulation can exacerbate many other problems such as housing and traffic. Automation makes workers redundant yet we still hear talk of a high birth rate being needed to provide workers to support an ageing population. This may be overlooked to such an extent that many feel there should be laws against ageism analogous to those against racism and sexism. Moreover a low birth rate means there will be fewer children to support.
Environmental and population questions are not solely the concern of the late 20th and 21st centuries. John Stuart Mill (1806-73) argued in favour of ‘the stationary state’. In Political Economy (Vol II) he wrote that ‘economic growth’ may be ‘a necessary stage in the progress of civilisation.... but the best state for human nature is that in which while no one is poor no one desires to be richer, nor has any reason to fear being thrust back by the efforts of others to push themselves forward’.
He links the environment and population as follows: ‘Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature with every rood (sic) of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of producing land for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds and birds which are not domesticated for man’s use are eliminated as rivals for food’ every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted up in the name of improved agriculture’. Mill realised that the industrial revolution had not benefited the poor, as well as the dangers of over population and concluded: ‘Only when, in addition to just institutions, the increase of mankind shall be under the guidance of judicious foresight, can the conquests made from the powers of nature by the intellect and energy of scientific discoverers become the common property of the species, and the means of improving and elevating the universal lot.’
This shows that not all malthusians ignore the plight of the poor as marxists argue. Marxists have a bad reputation over population. Having come to power, the Chinese communists encouraged a high birth rate. As recently as 1970, Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex (Chapter 10) criticised ‘the Chinese boogy-woogy’ (population increases defence strength). It is only in more recent times that the Chinese have come to see their error and have tried to reduce the population through their one-child-per-family policy. Western liberals are shocked by the drastic means used to enforce this but the problem would have been made easier if the communists had not been so complacent earlier on.
Long before Mill, Plato (427-347 BC) argued that excessive consumption could lead to war as the resources of the state proved insufficient to provide for unnecessary luxuries and the growing population needed to provide them. Plato realised the dangers of overpopulation (‘Fear of poverty and war will make them keep their family within their means’, Republic Book II, pp. 372-3).
I myself became green though concern for population. In 1969 I was campaigning against the Papal ban on contraception when I read a letter in The Times from the (now defunct) Conservation Society urging that, because of overpopulation, family planning should be provided free on the National Health Service. I joined the Conservation Society whose slogan was: ‘Conservation - Population, Resources, The Environment’.
When campaigning against the Papal ban on contraception I felt I was faced with another Galileo case but had misgivings, as I had been brought up to obey the Pope. The fact that Paul V was wrong in the 17th century (about Galileo) did not prove Paul VI wrong in the 20th century (about contraception). However, I then came to realise that the encyclical Humanae Vitae which condemned birth control was self-contradictory. In Section 12 the Pope declares the procreative aspect of the sexual act ‘essential’ while in section 24 he urges research to perfect the ‘safe period’ method of birth control which would enable sexual intercourse to occur without the allegedly ‘essential’ procreative aspect. It is now my belief that the ban on contraception is a relic of the now discredited belief that sex for pleasure was sinful.
Michael O’Gara is a retired advice worker, born a Roman Catholic in 1928. When already aware of the views of Plato and Mill on population, he joined a group of ‘rebel’ Catholics who were challenging the traditional teaching of the Church on family planning. Michael is himself an only child and unmarried.
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