For the better part of a week now, there has been a great deal of chatter connecting what would normally be two unrelated news events. The first is the “revelation” that Planned Parenthood has been selling parts of aborted children. The second is the slaying of a beloved Lion named Cecil in Africa by a hunter from Minnesota. There seems to be a great deal more moral outrage over the latter than the former. Rather than add more fuel to that particular fire, I would like to ask a simple question, namely, why?
First off, I am willing to concede that the hunter violated some ethical code of conduct when he paid $50,000 to have a lion lured from its protected habitat merely for the sake of the kill. If nothing else he is at least guilty of bad taste. This ought to leave all of us at least shaking our heads even if our outrage never reaches Peta-like proportions. But the question at issue is how we have become so focused on what ought to be a relatively minor issue while ignoring a major one like abortion. Chesterton too puzzled over this in his essay “On Lying in Bed” saying, “[I]f there is one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals. Thus it is considered more withering to accuse a man of bad taste than of bad ethics.” Specifically, what is the mindset that is willing to overlook the death and dismemberment of innocent children while becoming absolutely indignant at the death of a lion?
There are three reasons why minor morals prevail in this case. The first has to do with our conscience. The Catechism speaks of our conscience as having the role of accuser in judging acts that we have already done (CCC1778). While we can dull our conscience by lying and rationalizing, ultimately it cannot be entirely deadened and will actually “avenge” itself through seemingly unexplained guilt. We see this when someone who has keeps hidden something they have done finds self-destructive ways to punish themselves. Built into our conscience in its role as an avenger is the need for remorse. I think that is precisely what is at play here.
We constantly want throw our consciences moral bones in hopes that it will still our otherwise restless hearts. That is why we strive to make abortions safe, legal and rare. Why do we need to make them rare if there is nothing wrong with them? The only explanation is that we know they are wrong and that we hope by striving to make them rare we will quiet our consciences. In this case, by reminding everyone just how gruesome abortion is, these Planned Parenthood videos are awakening our collective consciences. And this is precisely why we were all so outraged when we found out what this dentist has done with the lion. If we are outraged and speak out against this “atrocity”, it might still our hearts so that we can ignore the other moral atrocities that we condone as a society. In essence it is an attempt to throw our conscience a bone to chew on.
The second has to do with our cultural attitude towards children. Children are essentially a luxury. Whereas previously children may have been treated as a commodity, needed to help with the division of labor in the household and as a safety net for old age, this is no longer the case. The economic center for the family has moved outside the household and there is Social Security and 401Ks to provide security in old age. Now they are seen as only an un-recoupable cost and parenthood becomes an act of consumption so that people have babies because they want one. A child becomes something for the man who has everything and women “choose” whether they really want to purchase a baby right now or not.
To be clear I am not saying treating children as either a luxury or a commodity is a good thing, but this is the prevailing mindset that dominates the culture. But the fact of the matter is that we tend to view everything through economic lenses and it motivates our decisions more than most would like to admit.
Closely related to this is the third reason, overpopulation. Quite frankly there are far fewer lions than there are people. In fact the African Lion could be extinct by 2050 according to Scientific American. Because there are less lions than people we should value them more than we do people, or so goes the lie.
That being said, do we really have an overpopulation problem? Let’s be clear what the real driving force behind this is first of all. In his book called What Americans Really Want…Really, Dr. Frank Luntz reports on how politicians were losing ground in the “green revolution”. What he found was that it was mostly a matter of language. They were preaching conservation. If however, they preach making things more energy efficient then people were overwhelmingly in support. Why? Because when you ask me to conserve I might have to make some personal sacrifices, but if you promote efficiency then I won’t have to change my habits at all and might actually pay less for using the same amount. Quite frankly saving the African lion requires far less of a change in my habits (no more $50,000 hunting trips for me!) than the necessary sacrifice of parenting.
In the end the overpopulation agenda has very little to do with the environment itself, but truly comes down to the other green—money. It is all about economics. If you don’t believe me then all you need to do is look at how the whole thing started. Benjamin Franklin gave a talk in England in which he mentioned in passing that the population of the US was growing by 3% per year. In the audience was a preacher named Thomas Malthus, who is the Father of the Overpopulation myth. Based on Franklin’s comment, Malthus realized that the population was doubling every 23 years. When he contrasted with the fact that he saw the food supply growing arithmetically and population exponentially he realized people soon would outgrow the food supply. Not only did Malthus’ prediction never come true, but the opposite thing happened. Today we actually have a food surplus despite the fact the earth’s population is now six times what it was in 1850. The fact that there are starving people is not caused by there being too many of them but by corruption and bad economic policies. Despite evidence to the contrary, anti-population forces still hold fast to Malthusian predictions and continue to see people solely as consumers inhibiting economic growth. People are more than consumers however, they are also producers that innovate and create wealth.
The bad economics is often based on what is called the “zero-sum-game fallacy”. This is the idea that the economy is a pie with only so much to go around. But the economy is not a pie — economies can grow, and population growth can actually help development. A growing population means more labor, which along with land and capital are the main factors of production.
Benedict XVI says pretty much the same thing in Caritas in Veritate.
“The notion of rights and duties in development must also take account of the problems associated with population growth. This is a very important aspect of authentic development, since it concerns the inalienable values of life and the family. To consider population increase as the primary cause of underdevelopment is mistaken, even from an economic point of view…Suffice it to consider, on the one hand, the significant reduction in infant mortality and the rise in average life expectancy found in economically developed countries, and on the other hand, the signs of crisis observable in societies that are registering an alarming decline in their birth rate” (CV, 44)
The Holy Father’s point is that the rise in the population is not the result of a rising birth rate, but a reduction in infant mortality and death rates overall. From 1960 to 2000 the population doubled—from 3 billion to 6 billion. This is not because we were breeding like rabbits, but stopped dropping like flies. In fact fertility was dropping throughout the period from 6 children per woman in 1960 to 2.6 by 2002. The UN Population projection (low variant) predicts that population will increase to 7.6 billion 2040 and then back to the current 6.5 billion by 2082. From there it drops off steadily.
The total fertility rate in Europe is 1.4 children per woman (keep in mind that replacement level is 2.1 children per woman). The current population of 728 million will drop to 557 million by 2050. This is a drop of similar magnitude to the Black Death in the fourteenth century. By the end of the 21st Century with a population of 207 million plus the average age of 60 means that the decline is pretty much irreversible.
In the US it is not as dire (yet) because we still have a favorable tax and immigration system. Families with more than two children are given generous tax breaks so they pay virtually no income tax. These breaks will be removed by necessity in short order however. Still we are below replacement level (1.88 in 2012). Middle-class American women are reproducing far below replacement rate (1.6), which is very close to the fertility rate for China (1.54). In other words, we are essentially moving towards a self-inflicted one child policy. Any way you look at the numbers the trend is clearly dropping below replacement levels.
I close with a great quote from the master of one-liners, GK Chesterton. “The answer to anyone who talks about the surplus population is to ask him, whether he is part of the surplus population; or if not, how he knows he is not.”