The Climate Encyclical and Biophysical Limits

A recent commentary in Nature Climate Change by Paul Ehrlich and John Harte highlighted an important limitation in the Pope’s Climate Encyclical and its recommendations for fighting climate change. Although it is a passionate and compelling call for enormous changes in our global society, it lacked cohesion in terms of solving the two inseparable issues of inequality and demographic growth. The Climate Encyclical states quite clearly that the biophysical limits of our Earth ought to not stand in the way of our push for equality while simultaneously allowing with open arms unfettered demographic growth as this passage from the Climate Encyclical states:

Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health’. Yet while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues (§50).

If one peers deeper into the complexities of inequality, the economy and biophysical limits of Earth, the realization that continued demographic growth is not compatible with sustainable development will likely arise. After all, more people equates to more resources required from a finite planet that is already surging past its safe operating capacity. “More people using more fossil fuels means more climate change; more people eating more food means more land conversion (with associated loss of biodiversity), more overdraft of groundwater for irrigation, and more pressure on threatened marine resources; and more people consuming more material goods potentially means more toxic waste products and more mining.”

Humans are not stupid: we tend for the lowest hanging fruits first. Think back when copper could be picked up with near 100% purity like a rock from the river, and now we are digging farther than 1 km below the surface to mine copper ore of no more than 3% purity. Think back when oil gushed from the ground with little drilling challenge, and now we are forced to turn to oil sands, and more challenging still, the Artic circle, in order to appease our ever increasing demand for oil. It does not take a genius to understand we are on a resource extraction trajectory requiring ever more energy and chemical-intense techniques for rendering the pure and useful compounds and metals that we demand both for necessity and for sheer desire. We’ve created an obvious trend where increasingly difficult resource extraction results in greater environmental impact. Humanity’s Impact on the planet invariably boils down to the multiplication of the variables–though globally diverse–Population, Affluence and Technology (aka the I=PAT equation). If P(opulation) or both P and A(ffluence) increase then we put ever more pressure on T(echnology) to ensure a reduced environmental impact. If we allow A and P to grow without concern we are putting all of our risks into the technology bucket. We cannot put all of our faith in the green or the nano or the nuclear fusion revolution to save us from our clear and present predicament. There are likely no quick fixes just like there is no such thing as a free lunch. Allowing demographic growth while simultaneously allowing the poor to catch up with the rich would create nothing more than an even faster runaway train chugging towards the precipitous edge of sudden economic and ecosystem collapse.

These two issues of demographic growth and inequality are so intertwined with multifaceted layers of complexity that we would be foolish to try and treat them separately. “Focusing on only half the source of, or half the potential solution to, a complex problem can be nearly as ineffective as ignoring the problem altogether, when both factors jointly determine the outcome.” Biophysical limits of Earth will simply not allow everyone–at least with our current technology–to live like an average upper-middle-class person from a developed nation and this is something that policymakers need to understand. Demographic growth will not make the solving of our inequality issues any easier and we already have so much to fix already with our current population and our skewed distribution of wealth.

“Those who champion increased equality as a means of achieving global food security must team up with those who urge curbing over-consumption and humane transitioning to a much reduced and thus sustainable population. Otherwise, the new political and economic institutions desperately needed to redirect humanity toward sustainable food security and away from the fiction of perpetual growth will not evolve.” As Genesis 1:28 has commanded, we have been fruitful and we have multiplied and subdued the Earth. Perhaps we have done enough multiplying and subduing and we should now focus more on achieving a sustainable balance with nature, a balance where the Church’s obsession with abortion and contraception  is dissolved and exchanged for  a leadership role in family planning and women’s rights.