The earth’s climate is changing. Last year was among the hottest on record. And human population continues to grow. Current projections estimate that the human population will grow to around 11 billion by the end of the 21st century, reaching 9 billion well before then. That’s an increase of between 25% and 50% from the current population of 7 billion.
Imagine 100 people crowded into a warm room. Now put 25 or 50 more people in that space. Now imagine them all wanting to live and consume resources at the level that Americans enjoy. If the scientists are right, we are heading toward a hot and crowded future.
The good news is that by now nearly everyone admits that the climate is changing. President Barack Obama mentioned climate change in his State of the Union speech. Pope Francis will address the issue in an encyclical to be released this year. And the U.S. Senate voted 98-1 this week to affirm that climate change is real.
Unfortunately, 49 senators voted against the claim that human activity causes climate change. This includes Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, chair of the Senate Environment Committee. According to Sen. Inhofe, the Bible shows that humans can’t cause climate change — only God can.
A similar sort of denial occurs with regard to population growth. Pope Francis said this week that people should not “breed like rabbits.” But Francis backtracked a bit, later in the week, explaining that every child is a gift from God.
One obvious solution to both issues is birth control. Unfortunately, this solution is often taken off the table on moral grounds. The Pope, for example, opposes artificial birth control, advocating only natural methods for controlling sexual urges and channeling them properly within marriage.
Birth control is not the only solution. Another solution would be to reduce consumption. We could fit more people onto our crowded planet if each person consumed less. This is especially true if those of us in the developed world consumed a whole lot less. The earth could support a large human population if we all became vegetarians and lived much more simply.
But the difficulty of this solution is clear. The vegetarian option runs counter to our culture’s love of meat. And the idea of simplifying our needs runs counter to capitalism, which is based upon a model of continuous growth.
Carnivores, Catholics and capitalists do not appear to be inclined to change their thinking. We are creatures of habit, who remain committed to old ideas, even when they no longer make sense in present contexts.
We are also not very good at controlling our desires. Our inability to restrain ourselves helps explain a lot: from credit card debt to obesity and addiction. We readily sacrifice long-term goods for short-term pleasures. This explains why birth control — whether artificial or natural — fails. In the heat of the moment, passion undermines good judgment.
Good judgment also encounters resistance from strong cultural forces that are slow to change. When ideology is connected to self-interest, profit, and political gamesmanship, it is even more difficult to respond rationally.
The big question here is whether human beings are rational enough and virtuous enough to regulate our own behavior. Perhaps we are not much better than the rabbits of the Pope’s memorable analogy. Rabbits will continue to breed until they outstrip their food source, at which point the population declines. If human beings are like rabbits — unable to limit our reproductive or consumptive behavior — we may be doomed to a similar fate.
We often continue blithely along, ignoring reason and morality. We don’t change until we run out of money, until we are rushed to the emergency room, or until our addictions destroy our lives. We may be more like rabbits than we like to believe.
The ultimate solution is to stop hopping along the bunny trail. We should restrain our sexual activity, curtail consumption, avoid greed and profligacy, and live in balance with the world. Those are old moral ideas that make even more sense in light of the contemporary science of ecology. But these ideas will only prevail when we stop living like rabbits and start behaving like rational human beings.