Her name is Danica. Or Nargis.
Those are two of the babies with a claim to the title of the world’s record-breaking 7 billionth living inhabitant, according to a somewhat artificially calculated milestone Oct. 31 by the United Nations. It coincided with the release of the United Nations Population Fund 125-page “State of World Population 2011” report, titled “People and Possibilities in a World of 7 Billion.”
As The New Yorker joked, that the 7 billionth baby’s birthday also fell on Halloween, a day for scares, was “presumably just a coincidence.”
Instead of asking questions like, “Are we too many?” we should instead be asking, “What can I do to make our world better?
But many around the world seemed unsure whether this was moment to celebrate or shudder. In Asia, where there’s been the greatest population growth in recent years, celebration seemed predominant, with a display almost of national pride as the Philippines (Danica) and India (Nargis) vied for recognition as the birthplace of the record-breaking child. But in many Western countries, there was considerable hand-wringing and worried talk of an overburdened earth and a “demographic explosion.”
Population reduction activists argued predictably for more funding for contraception and abortion in developing countries. In an op-ed piece, billionaire Ted Turner said if America wants to stay on top in the world, “the best way” is to “listen to women and fund international family planning. Our future depends on it.”
It is hard to read that in any other way than as an outrageous suggestion that we Westerners need to stem the population growth of developing countries to eliminate the threat to our own resource consumption levels.
The U.N. report itself was much more positive, despite its plug for “reproductive health services.” It called the arrival at 7 billion people a “success” for humanity, and urged “charting a path now to development that promotes equality, rather than exacerbates or reinforces inequalities.”
“Instead of asking questions like, ‘Are we too many?’ we should instead be asking, ‘What can I do to make our world better?’” wrote the UNFPA executive director.
It makes clear that while some parts of the world are challenged by population growth that is outstripping development and resources, other parts of the world — like the West — will in a very short time be facing challenges of an aged population and shrunken workforce. That is a trend that is here to stay; fertility rates globally are down, and according to one U.N. estimate, the world population will fall to 6.2 billion by 2100.
Westerners ought also take a hard, long look in the mirror. According to this year’s Red Cross World Disasters report, there are more obese/overweight people — 1.5 billion — than undernourished people in the world — 1 billion.
“Excess nutrition kills more people each year — an estimated 2.4 million — than does hunger,” it noted.
For Catholics, especially those blessed with lives of relative abundance and comfort, opposing international contraception campaigns fulfills the bare minimum requirements of conscience.
Pope Benedict XVI has said Catholics too often are “excessively individualistic,” focusing on “religious acts, without seeing that these imply global responsibility, responsibility for the world.” We must support efforts to help the poor become agents of their own development — economic, spiritual, social, cultural and moral. As they work to overcome living conditions that are an insult to their innate dignity, we Catholics, and our fellow citizens in the West, might also examine our own habits of consumption.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.