Overpopulation: A Secular Viewpoint

Fr. Bloom,

I enjoyed your pages on the overpopulation issue. Most of the Christian sites devoted to overpopulation tend to be excessively strident on the abortion/family planning issue and weak on the problems with people like Ehrlich.

As a personal aside, you noted my overpopulation faq was from a secular point of view. In fact I'm an atheist, but have spent much of the past year or so defending the Catholic position on family planning/abortion at least as it pertains to the overpopulation issue.

The reason I mention this is because when you talk to people about population there's one strategy I've found extremely effective: namely emphasizing that people like Ehrlich aren't in the mainstream of people who study population issues and his conclusions for the most part go against the broad consensus of population experts.

I don't know about you, but the first time I heard of Ehrlich was when I bought a copy of the 1990s update of "Population Bomb" and I assumed he was an expert in that topic or at least collected the expertise and wisdom of experts and distilled it in his book. In fact in the process of putting together my FAQ I have dredged through arcane population and demographics journals, examined hundreds of books, and have yet to find a serious researcher willing to make the sort of claims Ehrlich does.

This is not to say that there aren't serious academic doomsayers -- there are. But none of the ones I have read make the sort of bold certain predictions that Ehrlich does. Ehrlich seems to think that predicting the future population and its effect is like waking up in the morning and predicting whether the sun will shine or not. All of the professionals in demographics and population studies readily and often admit the huge amount of imprecision and uncertainty in everything they do.

Have you read Joel Cohen's "How Many People Can The Earth Support?" I recommend Cohen to everyone I talk to about overpopulation because he would probably disagree with my optimism but agree with my figures (many of which I take from Cohen's book). Cohen does an excellent job of showing just how much demographers and population experts *don't* know. After reading Ehrlich's books I can't imagine him ever hearing a question and simply answering "I don't know" or "there isn't enough data to make a reasoned reply." Cohen does so with regularity, conceding that population experts do significant amounts of their work in the dark so to speak.

A good example of this is the abortion/family planning issue. Ehrlich of course favors heavy investment in family planning/abortion programs throughout the world. Cohen ends up saying the issue is so complex that no one can be sure whether access to abortion/family planning leads to the highest rate of population decline.

"Of the six principal approaches [promote contraception; develop economies; lower childhood mortality; empower women; educate men; all of the above] to lowering the fertility of a country, which achieves the greatest reduction per dollar spent? ... No one seems to know for sure. Enthusiasts are disinclined to compare approaches that they don't favor in expensive field trials. Localities vary in so many important respects that it is extremely difficult to do a clean controlled experiment in the field."

What that means is if you have $200 million to spend, and you say spend it on saving children from dying of malaria and Ehrlich comes along and says no, spend it on family planning services because that will help keep the population level down, in fact there's no real scientific basis at the moment for preferring one over the other from a strictly population perspective (obviously both you and Ehrlich are likely to have moral considerations over both approaches, but that is separate from the efficacy of the programs).

Brian Carnell
ICQ # 2000890


You might find this web site interesting if you haven't already seen it. It's a summary of an article on Joel Cohen, which says much better than I did the truth about the relationship between Catholicism and overpopulation. Specifically, "(8) Many observers of population policies lay blame on the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, but Cohen maintains that "religion isn't the critical factor for fertility levels among Catholics, not to mention Muslims, Jews or members of most other religions." In fact, he notes, the Catholic Church has done a great deal to promote health and education and "has helped bring about social conditions that favor a decline in fertility."


Brian Carnel




*See letter from Gary: re the math of fitting world population into Jacksonville

What is Overpopulation?

Is Catholic Position on Birth Control Irresponsible?

Have We Already Filled the Earth? (cf. Gen 1:28)

Are We Destroying the Environment?

Unlimited Carrying Capacity?

The "Baby Bust" and the Future of Social Security

The amazing example of Hong Kong

Population Research Institute offers an in-depth study of these questions.

Population Reference Bureau "providing timely and objective information on population"