A Call to Action.
Andrew Szebenyi S.J.
Le Moyne College, Syracuse, NY
In this brief essay, my aim is not to defend or reject anything. I simply want to present the situation based on a set of data which I understand to be reliable and well established, and consider whatever may be the practical best in formulating a rational response to them. In this endeavor, I refuse to walk a tight rope and perform a spectacular balancing act between the traditional dictates and present needs, and between the dogmatic and the pastoral aspects of proceeding. I leave all that to the eminent Catholic theologians and philosophers of our times, and to the watchful eyes of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
These are my observations. There is balance In nature. This balance is achieved between opposing factors, and is maintained at a survival value that is relative and practical. The result is a most impressive and essential richness of life on earth. This balance is dynamic. Changes ripple through the system and shift values constantly, but the overall result is that of adaptive maintenance. We find this balanced dynamism in every ecological relationship on earth, including the sometimes extreme forms of parasite and host, and predator and prey situations. We find it under the most difficult environmental conditions, and in all forms of competition for limited resources. This adaptive balance is realized in the complexities of population dynamics in terms of growth rate, population size, and environmental carrying capacity. In each of these relationships the opposing factors balance out at a best practical value for all concerned based upon mutual needs.
We are very much part of this system of ecological balance on earth, and we are in no way exempt from the rules of survival. But our situation is unique. We can consciously study and manipulate our ecological conditions. This unique ability can be a great blessing, but it also can result in disaster. The questions are, how well we understand our situation, and what motivates our actions.
I believe that the best motivating factor for all times should be a practical love and respect for human life in the framework the earth can provide at any time. As to understanding, we are confronted with the consequences of former attitudes, which at the time did not seem to be that important, and yet by today, they resulted in dangerously off balance situations on a global scale. The difference between the past and the present is that of numbers. A small number of ecologically destructive people makes little difference to a large earth, but a large number of such people on a small earth can destroy it all. The situation becomes critical if we consider the characteristics of growth. A short doubling time of a few is momentarily not that important, but the same doubling time of many becomes highly significant.
This is the way it is. For most of human history the rate of death and birth were in balance with a positive edge on survival. But we had to reproduce at our full biological potential to maintain this balance in a relatively small base population. This need required the maximization of reproductive success by leading all sexual toward procreation. Because of the recent advances in the medical sciences, death rate has been greatly reduced, while birthrate remained high as it has been in the past. This difference resulted in an off balance situation as our numbers increased exponentially from one billion in the middle of the nineteenth century to over six billion at the close of the twentieth century. If nothing is done, the doubling time of this now large base population is under forty years. Consequently, the understanding that we are to reproduce at our full biological capacity in order to survive has become destructive, and the moral structure that supported this need is now dysfunctional. In a prophetic society, it should be the most urgent and important task of experts to provide a moral structure that is respectful to human life in our present demographic and ecological needs.
And this is the way it is. We live off the resources of the earth. Some of these resources are renewable some are not. Renewal is a process that takes time. If the rate of use is faster than the rate of renewal, we are no more supported. The rate of use depends on the number of people involved and on the way we use the resources. In practical terms, rule number one is that because of ecological reasons we cannot aim at unlimited growth in a limited world, be that growth economic or demographic; rule number two is that we need to consider the consequences of our actions and need to develop attitudes of good stewardship, respectful to the earth and its resources. I again call upon the experts to provide a moral structure of ecologically viable distribution and use of all resources. *
It is not worthy of Christian scholars to remain blind to the above realities, to reiterate parts of the past which are today dysfunctional, and to provide no practical answers to the needs of the present. Reproductive restraint is essential today to achieve the precarious balance of a large base population on a limited earth. Ecological consciousness is essential for survival.