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Johannes Müller SJ {*}

Seven Billion People


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 9/2011, P. 577 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


According to the United Nations, the world population will reach in autumn 2011 the limit of seven billion people. It is thus grown within 13 years by one billion. In 1960 only three billion people lived on earth. For the year 2050 a number of about 9.3 billion is expected.

These figures point to a dramatic fact which is often perceived far too little - especially when you consider that they would be much higher if in recent decades there had been no population policy. Many global problems will thus worsen: ranging from poverty, hunger and urbanization up to resource consumption and climate change. However, these global figures are only of limited significance, because very different, indeed sometimes even opposing facts are hidden behind them. Only a differentiated and region-specific perspective therefore allows a responsible action.

This begins with the growth rates. In developing countries (without China) they are at 1.7, in the industrialized countries, however, at 0.2, in Europe at 0.0 percent. They are highest in the poorest countries, as e.g. in Africa south of Sahara at 2.5 percent. This would lead to a doubling of the population in 28 years if the rate does not drop. In Latin America it is at 1.3 and in East Asia at 0.5 percent. But there are stark differences even within individual countries. For example, from 1961 to 2010 the population of Indonesia has grown from 97 to 240 million. Thanks to successful family planning, the population growth has declined from 2.4 in the 70s to 1.3 percent today. But the biggest problem is the population distribution. Nearly 60 percent of Indonesians live on Java Island with just under 7 percent of the country's area. The population density is 120 inhabitants per square kilometer, in Java however nearly 1000 (in Germany: 230). Conversely, in Papua (West New Guinea) less than ten inhabitants live per square kilometer.

In industrial countries (especially in Europe), but increasingly in emerging countries like China, the main problem, however, is a stagnant or declining population with increasing life expectancy. This entails considerable problems, in the economic sector especially for the labor market, pension systems and health care. Immigration on a larger scale could bring a relief, but this meets with great resistance, not least because it may increase the problems of integration and cultural and religious diversity.



The population development is not only a quantitative but also a qualitative problem. According to economy, lifestyle and technology development, the earth provides more or less people an adequate habitat. The main risk factor is the model of wealth of the rich countries, because if all people would equally consume resources and pollute the environment, the earth would already today be "overcrowded". Since this model has great attraction and other countries rightly seek a similar wealth, a dangerous dynamism originates from it. Ultimately it is about the problem of distribution between rich and poor. The only ethically acceptable way out is a resource-saving and low-emission economic model for all people. This requires technological innovations for a far greater resource efficiency. Equally important are new guiding principles as regards wealth and lifestyle.

Quite different problems can arise due to population policy. In China and South Asia, for instance, there are about 100 million women missing than "naturally" would be expected. This is a consequence of gender-based abortions and infanticide. At least in parts of China this resulted in a huge surplus of men and creates thus a significant conflict potential for the future.

Many people and the religions, too, are quite helpless and often speechless as regards these developments. Also the collective memory of mankind is a reason for it - in poor countries far more than in rich. Until the recent history of humanity, the main problem namely was to secure the survival of populations, which was repeatedly endangered by natural disasters, diseases and wars. Only in the 19th century, thanks to modern medicine and hygiene, a reverse development ensued. Thus previously unknown challenges have emerged. They require different answers and solutions than in the past.

This also applies to the Catholic Church. Already 20 years ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has rightly stated, "As far as I can see, the ecclesial Magisterium has hardly said anything helpful to the world's population problem" (Die Zeit, 11.29.1991). A look at the social doctrine of the church shows that little has changed since them.

The population development and the associated problems are certainly one of the "signs of the times" (Pastoral Constitution "Gaudium et Spes," No. 4). As little as there are easy answers, as already the variety and diversity of problems shows, as little the Church is allowed to leave the people to themselves or retreat to unrealistic positions. A helpful contribution will have to consider two main aspects. On the one hand, one must have in mind that the population problem "from an ethical point of view is initially not a question of sexual ethics but of social ethics" (Bishop Franz Kamphaus). A second matter is closely connected with it: The population issue must be consistently linked with the central themes of social teaching - especially with the option for the poor and the preservation of creation.


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