Religious Responses to the Population Sustainability Problematic: Implications for Law
Coward, Harold, Environmental Law
In an Atlantic Monthly article, Charles Mann asked the question, "How Many is Too Many?" for the earth to sustain.(1) Mann argues that since the 1700s, the answers to this question have varied between those who believe that continued population growth will eventually lead to an environmental catastrophe (e.g., the economist Robert Malthus in 1798 and the biologist Paul Ehrlich in his 1968 book The Population Bomb) and those who argue that increasing technological efficiency and changing social and economic patterns will solve the problem (e.g., the Marquis de Condorcet in 1794 and Amory and Hunter Lovins in their 1991 essay Least-Cost Climatic Stabilization(2)).(3)
At the Rio Earth Summit, the developing countries of the South responded to the developed countries of the North on this issue. The developing countries argued that the problem is not one of overpopulation in the South, but of excessive consumption of the earth's resources by the well-off few in the North.(4) It is said that a baby born in Europe or North America, for example, will likely consume thirty times the earth's resources (and produce thirty times as much pollution) as a baby born in a developing country.(5) But even this generalization is too simple. It ignores the fact that there is an increasing number of well-off people in developing countries who consume at the same unsustainable level as their counterparts in developed countries.
The debate over how many is too many has ranged across the disciplines of biology, economics, ecology, anthropology, philosophy, and demography. Mann's brilliant summary of this long, complex, and crucial debate is particularly significant in that the role of religion is never mentioned. Yet, it is clear that religions can and do shape people's attitudes about the environment, practices surrounding fertility and reproductive health, and the just sharing of the earth's resources. This was evident at the 1994 Cairo United Nations Conference on Population and Development (Cairo Conference) where the human rights issues raised evoked a strong religious response. The views of the world's religions, especially Islam and Christianity via the Vatican, had a strong influence on the drafting of preliminary documents, the Conference discussions, and the resulting "Programme of Action."(6)
Unlike earlier UN summit conferences, the Cairo Conference opened the doors to input from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including religious groups. This was evident at the three preparatory meetings at which the agenda, themes, and drafts for the Cairo Conference were prepared. It was also true at Cairo itself, and at the subsequent UN meetings in Copenhagen and Beijing The views of the religions, along with those of scientists, social scientists, and secular thinkers, are now very much front and center as the world attempts to solve its most pressing problems. While the Cairo Conference was originally focused on the population problem and the developments (especially in the education, social status, and employment of women) needed to deal with it, the analysis quickly made clear that the issue of environmental degradation could not be left out.
Thus, the three-pronged problematic of population pressure, excessive consumption, and environmental degradation has emerged as perhaps the major challenge facing us today. Current trends in reproduction and consumption appear to threaten the well-being of both future generations and the ecology of the earth. The Cairo Conference taught us that target-driven population policies guided by demographers must be replaced by approaches which recognize that women's education, empowerment, and improvement of status are important ends in themselves. To respond to this challenge, the knowledge of the natural and human sciences are being called upon together with the wisdom and teachings of the religions. The Cairo Conference demonstrated that religions still exert a major influence in our struggle toward world solutions. …