Back when television was black and white, an advertisement for dog food in the United States provided a phrase that took on a life beyond the commercial.
In the ad, a paddling of talking ducklings approaches a Great Dane that is eating its dinner. The ducklings invade the dog's bowl and start feeding. One duckling asks if anyone thinks the dog will mind. The answer, even as they are climbing over the huge canine, is, "What dog? I don't see a dog. Do you see a dog?"
Soon after the ad began to air, that line popped up in conversations that had nothing to do with dogs or ducks. It is not just hungry ducklings that avoid big issues by ignoring their existence.
Our species, homo sapiens, appeared some 200,000 years ago in East Africa. For reasons unknown and probably unknowable, our branch of the family eventually supplanted all the other human species on the planet. But, even after becoming the sole surviving species of homo, our numbers grew slowly as we moved from Africa into Asia, Europe, the Americas and the Pacific.
By 10,000 BC, the entire human population of the world is estimated to have been only about 1 million, the equivalent of a middle-sized city today, but spread over most of the planet. Ten millennia later, in the time of Jesus, there were about 200 million of us. About 200 years ago, we finally broke the one billion mark.
Then things speeded up. It only took about a century, until the 1930s, for that number to double. Then, with more people giving birth and improved public health, the rate of increase sped up further. It only took 30 years to add a third billion, another 15 to reach 4 billion in 1975 and there are now more than 7 billion of us. While it appears that the rate of increase is slowing somewhat, it seems likely that in 10 years, there will be 8 billion people on the planet, with the possibility of reaching 9 billion 20 years after that.
Yuval Noah Harari in his recent book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, points out that the total mass of humans in the world is some 300 million tons; domestic animals are another 700 million tons; large wild animals less than 100 million tons. "There are about 80,000 giraffes in the world, compared to 1.5 billion cattle; only 200,000 wolves compared to 400 million domesticated dogs; only 250,000 chimpanzees — in contrast to billions of humans. Humankind really has taken over the world."
In his encyclical, Laudato si', Pope Francis provides a cogent, challenging and inspiring call to recognize our place in God's creation. He points out the ignorance, unconcern and selfishness that are doing so much damage to the only environment we have. "A certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us," he says.
However, even if wisdom, care and generosity were to suddenly break out all over the world, our huge population would still require that a major portion of the world's surface be devoted to food production and the oceans would still have to be heavily harvested to feed us all.
It would not be impossible. In fact, some ecologically sound practices combined with a more just distribution of food could feed us all with less damage to the environment than we currently inflict upon it.
But the fact remains that even reasonable use of our environment by so many billions would continue to have a huge impact upon the whole Earth, including crowding out other creatures and environments with whom we should share it. Our educational, social and economic resources are not capable of providing a decent human life for all of us. We must reduce our numbers as well as our use and abuse of resources.
The pope mentions that some commentators point to overpopulation as a major source of the ecological crisis. But, he dismisses those concerns. "What dog? I don't see a dog. Do you see a dog?"
Dealing with the population dog would be easier if the Church's leadership were to admit that our explosive growth has been a key factor in the harm we have inflicted upon God's world. And the Church must play a role in reducing population because the Church can present a vision of a decent human life that should then be part of any goals. In short, if we can say, "This is what the lives of God's children should be," then we can figure out how many people can live those lives on this small planet.
There are many ways that we could start reducing our numbers. Some of them, such as forced sterilization or abortion, are immoral. Some are unjust, such as mandatory birth control measures inflicted by the wealthy against the poor of the Earth. But, there are methods that would achieve a reduction of human numbers and provide a better environment for all while respecting human dignity.
Educating women and liberating the most dismally poor from their plight are two of the most effective methods of population control, and had Francis admitted the presence of the overpopulation dog in the room, he would presumably have pointed that out.
Failure to recognize and respond to the problem posed by overpopulation will ultimately mean that Laudato si' and other such declarations will wind up being no more than nice background music for a march to planetary disaster.