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East London Humanists Chair Paul Kaufman on population growth

PUBLISHED: 14:54 20 March 2013 | UPDATED: 14:54 20 March 2013

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The election of a new Pope is a good time to reflect on how old religious values can be squared with urgent 21st century issues such as population growth.

The scriptures were written at a time when the problems of a finite world and an unsustainable population were simply not considered. Now the earth is running out of raw materials. The last remaining forests are being gobbled up and the oceans are being stripped of fish. Meanwhile thousands die in child birth and millions do not have enough food or clean water to live decent lives.

The planet simply cannot sustain the current rate of growth, from three billion in 1959 to over seven billion today. Even in a relatively affluent country such as ours we notice the dramatic rise in the price of food and fuel.

Of course there are strong moral and political arguments around sharing resources more fairly and reducing excessive consumption. But redistribution, GM foods or vegetarianism will not ultimately solve the problem of too many people on a ‘shrinking’ planet.

Also in ancient times there was no understanding of the scientific causes of disease and plagues were considered to be acts of divine retribution. Now in many parts of the world the refusal to promote the use of condoms on religious grounds has contributed hugely to the misery caused by hiv/aids. Piously advising restraint is of no help to partners or children who are infected through no fault of their own.

Humanists look for ethical solutions by applying human values, human knowledge and rational argument. Our proposals include education and the promotion of family planning.

We question whether it should continue to be considered a ‘blessing’ to have a large family if the price is the destruction of our natural environment; or how it can be morally justified to ‘go forth and multiply’ to such an extent that it leads to the extinction of other species with which we share the planet; or the ethics of opposing family planning if this condemns future generations to live in a barren world.

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