Too many humans, or maybe not?


“Laudato Si”, the second Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis, focuses on environmental degradation and irresponsible development. Paragraph 51 comments on demographic growth and suggests that the size of the human population does not impact the environment in a significant way. My intention is to investigate this argument, explore the leading views on the issue and try to define a common ground for future discussions.

“It must be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development” – this unequivocal statement can be found in the abovementioned document. It seems the Pope advocates for the so-called positive approach to the relationship between population and sustainable development. This viewpoint, shared by the numerous scientists and human rights activists, encourages to recognize the potential and creativity of each person. It is believed that if we focus on human development (mostly through education and employment) we will be able to develop technologies that will alleviate the harmful impact of human activity. Likewise, it is argued the pressured society is more innovative in order to “serve the masses”. After all, the number of people would not be a problem if we came up with the solution of how to reconcile the people’s needs with the protection of nature.

On the other hand, multiple documentaries (e.g. “Before the Flood” by Fisher Stevens), articles, books (e.g. the very famous and in fact controversial “The Population Bomb” by Paul and Anne Ehrlich) are pointing out the threat of overpopulation. They take the so-called negative approach and claim that people are the problem. Each additional person is seen as a burden on the environment and on economic growth. Even when taking into account the gradual implementation of green energy and constantly raising ecological awareness, the supporters of this approach claim we still cannot be sure that we will be able to balance the mankind’s demand for non-renewable resources. Even if these issues were handled, it does not automatically mean that the human population can grow endlessly.

Thus, the question arises – is there any way to compromise these two opposite camps? Do they have anything in common?

At first glance, one can immediately notice that both sides show a deep concern regarding environmental problems. They prioritize the relationship between humankind and nature (even though one is a part of another, let’s make this distinction for a moment) and do not take for
granted the today’s still rather manageable situation. It is laid down in the Laudato Si that “it cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected”, therefore the Pope is fully aware of the interrelation between population growth and the need to work on long-term solutions for sustainable development. Francis is blaming overconsumption and stresses the need to change in lifestyles, models of production and consumption. It is safe to assume that the supporters of the negative approach would agree with these calls. The same situation with the access to quality education (including environmental education), eradication of poverty, consciousness-raising and the prevention of environmental risks, all proposed and encouraged by the Pope

Even though the two camps analyse the problem of the overpopulation from different angles, they possess the very same tools to alleviate the situation. Moreover, taking into consideration positive (people as the problem) and negative (people as the solution) approaches, without disregarding overconsumption or being too dramatic when the humanity reaches the unprecedented size, it is crucial to have a holistic view of the problem. A “sense of intergenerational solidarity”, mentioned in the Laudato Si, applies to everybody, and only by working together the constructive solution can be found.

by Magdalena Smenda

ELP fellow