Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Global Birthing Fuels Global Warming

The most recent syndicated column by William F. Buckley Jr. is headlined, “Business of Global Warming Feels a Lot like Inquisition.”

He says the campaign to take global warming seriously and to provoke steps to reduce it often overdoses on self-righteousness and self-congratulation—because unknowns include exactly how much damage is done by specific acts and exactly how much relief is gained by specific counter-measures.

Point taken: individuals sometimes pride themselves on and content themselves with specific responses which may not do any good and can, as Buckley points out, have devastating financial consequences.

However, the point cannot be used—as Buckley’s fellow conservatives have for many years—to deny the existence of the problem, to continue behaviors that are known to contribute to it, or to excuse ourselves from giving top priority to finding solutions. It is not at all clear from Buckley’s column that he or they have been persuaded to abandon that failed approach.

One behavior known to contribute to global change is obvious. And it has an obvious solution with few financial downsides, if any.

I refer to over-population. It has been argued since Malthus in 1798 that the world is producing more people than the earth’s resources can support. The counter from the right (political and religious) has been that the divine mandate to populate the planet trumps all other concerns, and that God will see to it that technology will find ways to support population increase without end.

Well, history has shown otherwise. It is painfully clear that technology has not been adequate to produce and deliver a long list of basic necessities to every human on earth: food, water, transportation, waste disposal—or to control the pollutants which accompany their provision.

Given that history, it is rather amazing that the most obvious way of reducing global warming is the one least talked about: reduce the pace of adding bodies to the planet until we learn how sustain the lives of the ones we already have.

At this juncture, the Catholic Church could make an important contribution by reconsidering its opposition to birth control. Bloggers working for the John Edwards’ presidential campaign got into trouble for some prior sarcastic remarks that the church opposes birth control because it would reduce the number of its contributors. The official Catholic position is not quite that cynical, but it is deeply flawed—especially in facing the harmful global impacts of over-population.

The official Catholic position, enunciated by Pope Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae and reaffirmed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, is that “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.”

The position has never been accepted by the vast majority of Catholic theologians or Catholics in the U.S. and Europe, because it elevates the mandate to procreate and the physical structure of conception over other valid concerns—including the happiness of married couples, sex as an expression of their mutual affection, their individual parenting skills, their financial situation, and their responsibility to decide what family size they can best sustain.

The church did not open the door to these non-procreative concerns until 1853, when it endorsed the only birth control tactic which it still allows. That is the so-called ‘rhythm method’—planning sexual intercourse only during periods when the wife cannot conceive. Prior to that, the church repeated St. Augustine’s position that sex during sterile periods was an unacceptable concession to lust. The reversal of Augustine was important because it was the church’s first acknowledgment that marital sex has valid purposes beyond “birthing babies.”

What the church was unwilling to say officially in 1968 or since was that people should take advantage of birth control pills and other modern means of limiting conception. As a result, the church has become the primary global proponent of over-population—playing music to the ears of financially struggling populations in Latin America, Africa and Asia, who see more offspring as the key to greater dominance in the world. Global warming is an important symptom of the pathology of that tune.

If the church is convinced that climate change is a reality and truly wants to do something about it, Rome needs to re-think its birth control policy by factoring in concern for the planet much more than it has done previously. It is morally bankrupt—and suicidal, and stupid—to give population increase priority over planetary survival.

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