The moral imperative of depopulation

Anthropocentrism is preventing humanity from dealing with the world’s cascading environmental crises. Stephen Williams reviews the work of Catholic historian Paul Collins who argues depopulation is an urgent moral imperative.

By Stephen Williams

A new discussion paper on population ethics written by Catholic historian Paul Collins is as radical as it is worthy. The paper is the fourth published in Sustainable Population Australia’s discussion papers series.

Collins is the author of 15 books and is a former editor of religion and ethics at the ABC. The discussion paper is based on his 2021 book, The Depopulation Imperative, where he puts forward the case for an earth-first philosophy, rather than the failed human-first outlook.

A former Catholic priest, Collins writes in the tradition of St Francis of Assisi, earlier Irish clerics who found transcendence in nature, and now Pope Francis who published a revolutionary encyclical, Laudato si’, in 2015 that called for a new respect for the natural world and the rejection of anthropocentrism. Collins also is in good company with earlier progressive religious scholars (see here).

Paul Collins, Catholic historian and author of The Depopulation Imperative.

While welcoming the new attitude compared with former popes, Collins parts company with Francis when it comes to contraception, abortion and human population numbers. That’s because Collins accepts that the planet might support about 3 billion people in modest comfort, whereas the current 8 billion – still rising at about 80 million a year despite a reduced global fertility rate – has resulted in an escalating war on nature almost everywhere, even with very uneven production-consumption around the globe.

(Note, for instance, in the past few days the UN Secretary General’s increasingly familiar warning that humanity is “committing suicide by proxy” and, at COP27, is on a “highway to hell”.)

Collins’ figure of 3 billion is similar to Cambridge (UK) economist Partha Dasgupta’s 3.2 billion if living on an average of $US20,000 a year. Other ecological footprint experts, such as Canada’s William Rees (who co-founded the footprint concept) put a sustainable human population at between 1 and 2 billion. Australian science writer Julian Cribb opts for a figure of 2 to 2.5 billion “living at advanced living standards”. Leading Australian ecological economist Philip Lawn puts the maximum figure at 4 billion.

As Collins describes it, humanity went off the rails centuries ago, made worse by its embrace of neoliberalism in the 1980s and, at least in some intellectual circles, postmodernism. Anthropocentrism is the major evil, where humans see the natural world simply as a resource for selfish exploitation. If plants and animals become extinct, that’s unfortunate, but ‘the economy’ and boundless human need (greed) come first.

Scientists Tim Flannery, James Lovelock and E.O. Wilson are all referenced in Collins’ book, as is the cornucopian Julian Simon, whose influential book The Ultimate Resource (1981) told readers that there was no such thing as resource scarcity, so population growth was a good thing. Simon’s mad thesis still seems to hold sway today in economic and political circles, raising the question: who is more ‘radical’, Collins or those leading us over the cliff?

Collins gives a good defence of the well-known proposition that human numbers, multiplied by their consumption, create ecological harm. This is true in Niger as it is in New York, although high-income nations have a way of exploiting the resources of low-income nations while massively over-polluting their share of the commons, particularly with greenhouse gases. But high populations anywhere will do significant harm if those populations cannot water, feed, clothe, house, and energise themselves on a sustainable basis.

If he had known, Collins could have brought even more scientific evidence to bear on the common-sense notion that population increase is a cause of environmental destruction, as explicitly stated in the recent Australian State of the Environment Report 2021; the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (Working Group III Mitigation Report 2022); and the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2019).

But Collins’ main interest is finding a new morality given the obvious existential crisis, where we can try to reduce our numbers voluntarily or let nature do it for us, brutally, and without much warning. The choice becomes one of finding the least-worst alternative given the foolish predicament we have allowed to develop since the warnings of the 1960s (and even earlier).

On that note Collins is well aware of the work of scholars like Matthew Connelly, whose book Fatal Misconceptions (2008) shone a light on coercive population control. But Connelly is a pronatalist who “fails to acknowledge the good work that has been done [elsewhere] and how difficult it is to confront an issue like overpopulation”. Given the crises we face, for Collins, “human freedom is not an absolute value without limitation”.

Successful fertility-reduction strategies in Costa Rica, Thailand, Iran or Bangladesh are better guides than coercive strategies that pronatalists focus on.

It is certainly refreshing to have a former Catholic priest and scholar castigating former popes and bishops for their stupidity, while espousing a very progressive attitude to women’s rights, education, and family planning. That’s because he has done the open-minded research to see the looming catastrophe that is now, to a certain extent, unavoidable. The only question remaining is to what extent we can ameliorate the coming damage by acting swiftly and ethically.

Collins, like everyone, has no simple solution to reducing global human numbers to a sustainable level given that those numbers are still rising and we ran out of time long ago to make a soft landing. Even a universal and voluntary one-child policy would have little immediate effect and there seems little to no chance of that policy being adopted. However, strong family planning programs, if started soon in Africa, could potentially lead to 1.1 billion fewer people in 2100 according to the demographers John Bongaarts and Dennis Hodgson. But that would still imply our already battered Earth must find sustenance, and therefore the energy, water, phosphorous etc. to produce the food, for around 2 billion more than today. That seems vanishingly unlikely given the current scale of overshoot, with widespread collapse a more likely outcome. The imperative, therefore, is to attack pronatalism in all its forms and work towards all births being wanted (nearly half aren’t) with universal and free contraception, sex education, and abortion when wanted. We must argue for small families everywhere to be the ethical norm.

Collins is no doubt on solid ground when he says that current generations of humans will be the most despised in history as the decades roll by – if there are any survivors left to have such opinions.


Stephen Williams is the co-editor of Sustainability and the New Economics (Springer, 2022). He is currently writing a book on population issues in Australia and has done paid work for Sustainable Population Australia.

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34 thoughts on “The moral imperative of depopulation

  1. What? This is a plain case of deliberate misinformation. Or perhaps more exactly, diversionary writing. How many times can you cram the word “Catholic” into an article? The Church uses people like Collins to polish its image. Mr. Collins is playing the “See, we allow dissent.” card. The reality is, the Catholic Church has been one of the major human components that’s been opposing the effort to lower the human population. The more correct Church position is: “More people to praise the glory of god.” “Don’t worry that your life’s so crummy right now. You have heaven to look forward to.”

    If Paul Collins is serious about helping, he should be more completely condemning the terrible Church stance, or be working internally to ask the Church leaders to be more mindful of this global catastrophe.. (And good luck with that!)

    1. Well, Collins is challenging his church on its misguided population policies. Furthermore, he is challenging all of us to create less anthropocentric societies. I say “good on ‘im!”

    2. There are many religious people who dissent from their church’s teaching A historian, John Dominic Crossen is one such ‘former’ priest. Crossen demanded 3 provable pieces of evidence before something could be claimed as true. To me to condemn a person because of his religious beliefs (especially in light of the fact said person questions religious doctrine) is simply focusing more on the messenger than the message.

    3. Stephen, Dr Collins is a trenchant critic of the Catholic leadership, just as you seem to be. He sees a significant pro-ecology shift in philosophy with Pope Francis, but says Francis is still wrong on family planning-population. Dr Collins is not “used” by the church, as you falsely claim.

    4. Stephen, I don’t think you know how the Catholic Church works. They don’t do things like using people with dissenting views to polish their image.
      They are a hierarchical institutions with what in Italian we’d call “correnti”, different currents of thought, competing for power. Dissidents are either tolerated or denounced, depending on the situation.

  2. For one to speak about depopulation in ‘moral’ terms is a ‘big ask’, especially for someone nominally Catholic?

    In fact Collins must be blissfully unaware that Sustainable Population Australia, like this blog, is part of ‘Tanton Network’ sharing donors in US with fossil fueled Koch Network, informing Tufton St.’s Migration Watch, nearby Population Matters, Fox News, (K)GB News and Bannon et al in the US.

    White nationalist John ‘passive eugenics’ Tanton, was of fossil fueled ZPG, who like many supported both actual and proxy ‘white Australia’ policy, anti-semitism, Islamophobia and antipathy towards Catholics; did Collins miss the memo?

    PS Can anyone name a nation which has long term trends of increasing fertility, while everywhere is on decline, meaning population is stagnating and will peak.

    1. Most developed countries have a declining fertility rate and are actually losing population BUT these same countries (including the U.S.) feel an increasing need for a desperate and pliable work force and are pushing for higher immigration rates (note, it’s not about people but a policy under which all must live). ZPG is not rocket science and was one of the very first organizations strictly devoted to educating the public on this serious issue (I was a local board member for one of the more active chapters). Unfortunately, the need for funding became imperative so some corporations stepped in to provide said funding. As with any deal for money trade offs are demanded and the trade off was to not talk about immigration. ZPG went under and was replaced by the Population Connection group. This group is strictly about family planning awareness.

  3. Unfortunately, when people talk of morals they do so using anthropocentricism as their guide. We think because we are the top predator and the most ‘intelligent’ species it is all about us. Guess what in the end we will and are losing. I was brought up Catholic and many of the things I was taught were valid but have now taken a back seat to power, money and greed by that same organization that I grew up in. I left it some time ago because of the disconnect with the church’s disconnect with our life support system.

    A philosophy, ‘The Trolly Car Problem’ shows how this works and that we often are impelled to do things that are uncomfortable to gain the greatest good for the greatest number. In this case it is not just about one species, ours. It has been estimated that 99% of species that have existed are now extinct. As the most toxic and invasive species that has ever existed, the one species most deserving of extinction. I wonder how anyone can even think of ‘morality’ in as far as it allows us to go on as we are?

  4. The purpose of natural enemies is to remove the unfit, the monstrous,
    the defective. We should stop suppressing some communicable diseases,
    to restore the natural eugenics and bring the death rate more in line
    with the birth rate, to help reduce the ecofootprint problem.

    1. Would you like to go first, the next time you have an infection?
      (That’s a painful death by the way)

      1. That’s what all the ordinary people say when I bring up
        population control; they want to change the subject from
        All of us to One of us, to avoid the issue. They still think
        that anything goes, we can do whatever we want, there’s no limits,
        because they don’t read! You’re supposed to be an Extra-ordinary
        person, who knows about quantity AND quality, because you read!

      2. I don’t think there are no limits. I think that the least painful solution should be favoured over the most painful one you’re proposing.

  5. At this time we don’t get to decide which is the least or most painful solution. We lost that choice a long time ago. Nature is in charge and she has no sense of pity. We can’t even help stop people from suffering. How many countries/states have a death with dignity program? How many countries/states have a eugenics plan? Talk about morals and then keep people, who are alive and suffering, to remain so against their will. Keep those same people alive, and continue to add to our carbon footprint. Despite the dogmas of many religions THAT is immoral.

      1. Absolutely, it should be a choice and I welcome you comment. However, a study showed that when people are suffering and no longer want to live they are talked out of letting themselves die by their so-called loved ones. One person may be ready to die but others want that person to remain. People don’t understand that when you love someone you wants what’s best for them. To continue to suffer is not good for anyone. My late partner was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Other than losing her ability to speak there were no physical or other mental issues, she was not suffering. Still, it was her choice. Here we have the DwD program and she immediately signed on. She was able to let go but to many others were not. The only suffering she did was having to put up with those that told her to hang on (for their own selfish sake). Since then I have become very active in the Death with Dignity program and often speak out.

      2. It is a strange act of selfishness in the name of love, to force people to live against their will. I think it’s either because we think our love erases their suffering (which in these cases it doesn’t and cannot), or, even worse, because we want to postpone our own pain, the bereavement, for as long as possible. But, as they say, true love means being able to let go.
        Here in Italy a few years ago, a man whose daughter had been in a vegetative state for twenty years fought publicly and very controversially to make it possible for her to find peace and die (it was illegal), which he claimed was what she would have wanted. It was definitely an act of love. Her father made sure only pictures of her when she was young and beautiful circulated in the media, but I heard that a doctor who had seen her as she had become said: if that was my daughter, I would have done the same as him.

    1. China is easing up on suppression of Covid, so their death rate is rising.
      Does anyone have a problem with that?

      1. I have a problem with not having good healthcare so that you’re forced to choose between locking people up and releasing them only to die of Covid. I also have a problem with getting to the point a mid-sized city in China has ten million people in it.

      2. I have a problem with millions getting as fat as they please, and when a new
        bug makes it hard to breathe, the whole world has to stop to care for them!
        I have a problem with people who have one foot in the grave
        hanging around for no good reason!

  6. No doubt the world is overpopulated and it is good moral to tell the world. But the major problem is that the world is not listening when it comes to tools to reduce the population burden by claiming there are better and more human methods or avoid the issue. E.g. the concept overpopulation is not tolerated by the Swedish school authority, it is too alarmistic. Only population change is mentioned in the study plans (and not much about that either).

    1. One problem is that most of the main messengers in the world – traditional media (TV news, etc.) – are not yet on board. The reason is probably big-advertising. If a big-media source is airing population/sustainability pieces, big-business and big-advertising will say, “We want more customers and more consumption. We’ll take our advertising money elsewhere.” If you have plutocracy, politicians obey with silence on the critical global issue. Big-advertising for unsustainable consumption + plutocracy + time = loss of the planet. It will require extraordinary grassroots work to change the formula to one that equals a truly flourishing planet, and time is running out.

      1. True, but:
        1. government-funded media are exactly the same
        2. people don’t expect to pay for their media consumption, they want it for free, but nothing is ever free and if corporations finance it then they want to have a say on what’s written and said

      2. The dependence of media on commercials contributes to the lack of the overpopulation concept in commercial media. But it does not explain the absence in other sectors like the lack of mentioning in relevant governmental authorities or low interest among the parliamentarians. There is an European network on overpopulation but evidently little resources and support and few members. The same for the Swedish network

  7. But of a twisted focus…
    “Moral Imperative” of de-population ?
    One could say DeGrowth is a moral imperative – but even more so it is a pragmatic approach to the existential predicament.

    If one chooses, as a couple/ family to not have kids, that may be a moral imperative
    If one is purporting to tell/prevent others from having kids, there is nothing moral about that.

    In the context of the Cherch of Imperial Rome and it’s (W)Holy Roman Emperor, it is an inherently anti-moral performance art theatre of deception and duplicity which has been pro-population – a kind of populist approach to breeding fans and cheerleaders for its GodHead.
    Ceasing that noxious and obnoxious program is not in any way “de-population” – merely the mitigation of hyper-population.

    Population is not the issue in any case.
    The aggregation of per-capita consumption and emissions and collateral ecological harms across the populations is the essence of our ecological crisis.

    Simply talking about population, is code for the evasive stance by western reactionaries who feel entitled to their hyper-consumptive hyper-emissive psychosociopathic eco-cidal cronyCorpiratist capitalist trickle-up infinite-growth dominator cult-ure priviledges – that there are too many brown people in the Global South.

    Determined dedicated engagement with
    De-industrialized petrochemical Mono Crop Agriculture
    Doughnut Economics
    Decolonization and
    may mitigate the gnarliest edges of the MadMaxxian Dystopia hovering on the horizon.

    If people stopped having ANY kids and using ANY fossil fuels tomorrow, the baked in effects of the already accumulated emissions – evident in the destabilization of atmospheric and oceanic thermodynamics – will continue to wreak havoc

    1. “Population is not the issue in any case”
      Interesting thing to read in the comments to a blog dedicated to show all the ways in which population IS an issue.
      Shows that no matter how well and repeatedly you make your case, there will always be people who refuse to listen.

  8. The big problem is that people need information which comes from the media to understand what is going on in the world. When media demands payment many people can’t afford it and drop out. That makes them viable to the lies of such media as Faux Noise. Overpopulation issues are mostly followed by the middle class who have the money and the concern for the future. The upper class mostly think money will save them from any disaster and the poor class are just trying to make ends meet and don’t have the resources to get involved in non-essential projects. A. Maslow understood this and formulated his hierarchy of needs, which is applicable today.

    1. It’s true that not everyone can afford the same, but we used to have working-class newspapers when there was still a politically-active working class. People would buy them or find places to read them. Most media subscription aren’t that expensive.

      1. A lot of local papers are being bought up by hedge funds and going out of business. Some media is publicly owned but subsidies are shrinking. Ethics in what gets published and not is not being enforced. More and more, linking certain articles on the screen require a subscription or willingness to allow ads. I live on an island with 3 other large islands. We are more liberal than most other places even in my liberal state. Each of our islands has its own paper, so we are lucky. To get the most comprehensive and honest news I either have to go online or buy each paper (The Seattle Times is delivered to the islands). I spend too much time online already and want a print copy. I think it’s not a B & W or one sided issue. Many people don’t want to get objective news but opt for something more subjective. In some developed countries, like the US, there are an overabundance of people who don’t speak the language and get a skewed version of issues. What once was simple has now gotten extremely complicated.

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