Editor’s Note: Alistair Currie is the head of campaigns and communications at Population Matters, a UK-based charity campaigning for a sustainable human population through ethical means, to protect nature and improve people’s lives. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Pope Francis’ comments that couples opting for pets instead of children were acting selfishly, has reinvigorated an important and timely debate about the future of our species. The pontiff’s comments, however, are wholly wrong.
“Today we see a form of selfishness. We see that people do not want to have children, or just one and no more. And many, many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they have just one – but they have two dogs, two cats … Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children,” the Pope told an audience at the Vatican Wednesday.
“This denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us, it takes away our humanity,” he added.
The Pope’s suggestion that failing to have children is selfish is far from the truth. Especially for those of us living in countries with a large environmental footprint, the choice to have a small family, or no human family at all, is one that helps everyone – particularly children, whose future depends on a more sustainable planet.
Additionally, a person’s value, moral standing and character is not defined by parenthood. And showing love for animals is surely something that enhances and demonstrates our humanity – rather than diminishing it.
The Pope has been a strong advocate for the environment and deserves praise for speaking out on inequality, consumerism and social justice. He recognizes the profound threat posed by climate change and biodiversity loss. And in raising his voice and challenging the complacency of politicians, he has done much good.
What the pontiff hasn’t done is connect the dots between environmental collapse and the Catholic Church’s position on family size and contraception. Indeed, his comments this week echo the church’s teachings about the importance of couples either bearing or raising children – while making unjustified claims about the potential demographic consequences of not doing so.
But population growth is one of the key drivers of both climate change and biodiversity loss, according to authoritative sources. A 2017 study published by Global Environmental Change suggested that if global population growth meets or exceeds the United Nation’s medium projection (most likely 10.9 billion people by 2100), it would be impossible to stay under the critical threshold of 2 degrees Celsius warming above pre-industrial levels.
Project Drawdown, a major analysis of all available climate policy solutions, found that achieving the medium projection instead of the higher projection by 2050 (a difference of 1 billion people) would result in emissions savings of 85.42 Gigatonnes of CO2 – making it one of the most powerful actions we can take in limiting global warming.
It’s not just population, of course. There is an urgent need across multiple fronts, not least addressing grotesque inequalities in consumption and the disproportionate contribution to environmental destruction among those of us who are wealthy by global standards – inequalities Pope Francis has done much to highlight.
The hundreds of millions of people living in poverty worldwide deserve far more land, food, water, energy and infrastructure than they currently have. And the more people there are squeezing nature and generating emissions, the harder it is to dig ourselves out of this hole.
Meanwhile, the Pope calls for more children. The pontiff has been part of a baby bust panic – touted by Elon Musk, among others – decrying a “demographic winter,” in reference to falling birth rates. Let’s put this in perspective. Half the world’s population is under 30. Ageing societies are a challenge, but effective, affordable policy solutions already exist. What doesn’t exist are solutions to melted glaciers or extinct species. The fundamental prerequisite of a decent future for young and old is a healthy planet.
Does it matter what the Pope thinks? After all, Catholic Italy has one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe, something unlikely to have been achieved by the contraceptive methods the Vatican endorses. But not everywhere is Italy. While Europe and the Americas are still home to a majority of the world’s Christians, according to the Pew Research Center, that share is much lower than it was a century ago. At the same time, the Catholic population has grown enormously in sub-Saharan Africa and the Asian Pacific region.
Despite this, provision of contraception worldwide is grossly underfunded. It needs all the support it can get – and the Pope and his church could do immeasurable good in supporting, rather than opposing it.
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Worldwide, 270 million women have an unmet need for modern contraception. Investing in global family planning is also extraordinarily good value for money. A 2014 assessment by the Copenhagen Consensus Center found that every US dollar spent on achieving universal access to sexual and reproductive health services yields a $120 benefit in improving health and reducing pressure on other services.
Our humanity is enhanced by making careful decisions about the size of our families and by giving others the right and opportunity to make those choices too. The “winter” we face if we don’t make wiser decisions about how we live – including about how many children we have – is not demographic but planetary. The Pope understands that threat. He can and must bring his church’s policies into line with it.