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Population question deserves greater attention

Letter to the Editor | Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The three critical responses printed September 18 to Liz Coffey’s properly concerned column on population growth are all short on facts and long on wishful thinking. They show how urgently we at Notre Dame need to educate ourselves on this issue, arguably the most important one facing the current generation of college students.

Global population now increases at the rate of a little over 200,000 a day, or about 8,700 each hour. That’s over a million new humans on earth every five days, or, to take a familiar image, think of filling Notre Dame Stadium every nine hours with newcomers.

The first thing to grasp about these trends is that they are unprecedented. Pointing out that Malthus was wrong in predicting imminent food shortages at the end of the 18th century, when the population was less than one billion, is irrelevant to today’s ecological and social condition, when the population is approximately 6.5 billion. Conservative estimates project a population of about 9 billion by 2050. That’s an increase of 2.5 billion over the next four or five decades. To put this number in historical context, it took homo sapiens until 1950 to reach a total population of 2.5 billion.

The point is that the earth has seen nothing like our recent population growth throughout the history of humankind. Of course, the earth does not “see.” We, who must be its eyes, need to use our best science (and here that means ecology, not economics), our circumspection, our moral imagination, and our humility to understand our place and our responsibilities. Two of the respondents to Coffey acknowledge that resources may be finite while insisting that human resourcefulness is infinite. But nothing human is infinite. Ethical coherence begins in the recognition of limits.

The biologist E. O. Wilson wrote recently that “the time has come for economists and business leaders, who so haughtily pride themselves as masters of the real world, to acknowledge the existence of the real real world.” It seems just as clear that at Notre Dame the time has come for faculty and students to put our minds – and our curriculum – to work on understanding the responsibilities of stewardship. If not here, where?

John Sitter


Department of English

Sept. 19