The root of our problems is one we dare not name

CLIMATE change, pollution, depletion of irreplaceable resources, environmental catastrophe, shortage of water, deforestation, loss of species, the threat of war…

They are the really big issues hanging over humanity in the 21st century. And they are all symptoms of one underlying problem.

An enormous problem that is growing not just rapidly, but at a rapidly increasing rate.

It’s a problem that was openly on the agenda of the scientific and chattering classes back in the 1960s.

It was written about as long ago as 1729 by Jonathan Swift, the clergyman and satirist now best known for penning Gulliver’s Travels.

It was the central theme in the writings of the great thinker Thomas Malthus towards the end of that century.

It entered the political arena rather brutally in India and China in the 1970s – possibly to long-term detrimental effect. Detrimental in that it may have brought into disrepute the whole idea of trying to deal with our biggest problem.

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Lately, however – even though it’s a root cause of nearly everything we fear – it seems to have become a taboo subject. The thing we all know but never say.

So let me say it now.

There are too many people in the world.

When Malthus wrote his doom-laden Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, fewer than a billion humans were living.

His argument, that population growth would exceed food supply, leading to starvation, disease and war, quite quickly came to seem overly pessimistic.

It failed to take account of the improved farming techniques that would add up to massively increased food production in the two centuries then to come.

But it wasn’t essentially wrong.

Those 200 years have seen many millions die of starvation, many millions more in wars over territory.

And there has to be a limit to even the most optimistic view of how many people the world can feed. We simply can’t go on breeding forever without dire consequences.

The world is catastrophically over-run with human beings now. And there’s no immediate sign of the infestation coming to an end.

In the past 50 years the number of people in the world has more than doubled, from just over 3bn to almost 7bn.

Projections are inevitably flawed, but that suggests 14bn of us could be scrapping for food, space and resources by 2060.

That’s almost certainly beyond my lifetime, but not, I hope, that of our children.

All experts seem to agree that the biggest growth will continue to be in places such as Africa and the Indian sub-continent, where resources are already most stretched.

But don’t think I’m blaming the developing world for this developing crisis.

Because here is a key point.

Those who have next to nothing play next to no part in the problem.

Those who claim more than their share – of power, of food, of travel, of every luxury available – bear more than their share of responsibility.

In the case of the average American citizen, far, far more.

And we in western Europe are not so far behind.

Which, I’m afraid, is the big reason the big problem has become a big taboo.

None of us really wants to admit that we ourselves are the problem.


THERE is a villain in the story of the world’s over-population. As befits the scale of the story, he’s a pretty big villain.

I’m afraid that by naming him, I will upset some of my friends, even perhaps some of my family.

But it’s another ugly truth that has to be faced seriously if we’re to have any hope of avoiding those real-life horsemen of the apocalypse listed in the first paragraph of the main piece on this page.

The late Pope John Paul II called the notion of overpopulation “a myth” and contraception “evil”.

He carried both messages with him on 102 pastoral visits outside Italy, especially to Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa.

He could hardly have spread a more virulent virus. A more dangerous untruth.

Sadly, his pernicious and decidedly unsaintly views did not die with him.

Go to, the foremost purveyor of Catholic views on the net, and you’ll find the front page dominated by anti-abortion propaganda.

Just through that one website, the message that Catholics must go on breeding without restraint is being pumped out to a claimed 100,000 worldwide users every day.

This is presumably what it means by “participating in the mission of the whole Catholic Church to infuse the culture with the values informed by Catholic faith”.

Within a minute or two on the site, I’d also been bombarded with advertising for the kind of usurers whose tables Christ would have overturned.

So much, you might think, for mission and values.