Past concerns revolved around worries that food and natural resources would soon be in scare supply. In its reincarnated version campaigners are now justifying population limits in the name of saving the environment.
British member of the European Parliament, Chris Davies, warned that mankind is "swamping the planet" like a "virus," reported the BBC on Nov. 13. Davies, a member of the Liberal Democrat Party, argued that families should be encouraged to have no more than one child in an effort to combat climate change.
Davies isn't the only person to compare humans to a virus. Paul Watson, founder and president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, authored a revealing commentary, published May 4. According to its Web page, the Oregon-based society is active in protecting the world's oceans.
Humans are acting upon the Earth, wrote Watson, "in the same manner as an invasive virus with the result that we are eroding the ecological immune system." He also defended his previous characterization of human beings as being the "AIDS of the Earth."
"We need to radically and intelligently reduce human populations to fewer than one billion," he recommended. Watson also argued that humans are no different from the other species that live on the planet.
While Watson's views may be more extreme than most he is far from alone. The Economist reminded its readers in the Sept. 10 article "Population and Its Discontents" that Al Gore, the recent joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, had written in his book "Earth in Balance" that "an overcrowded world is inevitably a polluted one."
Meanwhile, the British press has published numerous opinion articles in past weeks urging efforts to control population in order to save the environment.
"As the environment finally gets the prominence it deserves, some environmentalists are prepared to assert that population management has to be on the agenda," wrote Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian newspaper Sept. 10.
The single biggest challenge facing the Earth is excessive population growth, according to Boris Johnson, a member of Parliament for the Conservative Party, in an article published Oct. 25 in the Telegraph newspaper.
Melanie Reid, opinion writer for the Times newspaper, urged in her Oct. 29 column that feminists need to acknowledge that population control is not as terrible as they think. Global warming is a secondary issue compared to the need to control population, she said.
The calls for population control have not gone unanswered. Sociologist Frank Furedi argued in a commentary published on the Spiked Web page Oct. 30, "Today, simplistic demographic determinism is more popular than at any other time since the 19th century."
"Our cultural and political elites seem to have lost sight of the fact that, throughout history, the overall impact of humanity on the environment has been a beneficial one," he argued.
The Sept. 10 article by the Economist had also pointed out that it is not the countries with growing populations that are the problem when it comes to carbon emissions, but the richer nations that have already achieved population stability.
The Catholic Church has also been active in the debate, basing its position on the moral and ethical principles related to the environment. Often, however, the media reports have selectively quoted Benedict XVI's comments on ecological matters.
A case in point was the Pontiff's homily during his visit to the Marian shrine of Loreto, Italy, widely reported by the press as being some kind of clarion call to protect the environment. The Sept. 2 text did indeed speak of the importance of caring for our planet.
Nevertheless, the ecological part of the homily was only the last in a series of points raised by the Pope. After speaking about the example of Mary, the Pope went on to reflect on the call made by Jesus to young people, the importance of humility, and the vocation to holiness.
When it comes to the question of the human presence on the planet, Benedict XVI has often stressed the importance of not losing sight of the dignity of the human person and safeguarding life when dealing with the environment. One recent example of this was his Sept. 15 address to Noel Fahey, the new Irish ambassador to the Holy See.
"The promotion of sustainable development and particular attention to climate change are indeed matters of grave importance for the entire human family, and no nation or business sector should ignore them," the Pope urged.
The text immediately goes on to speak of the importance of a clear view of the relationship between the ecology of the human person and the ecology of nature. The Pontiff noted the contrast between those who are willing to acknowledge the majesty of God in creation, but do not perceive as clearly the dignity of the human person.
"A kind of split morality ensues," he added. "How disturbing it is that not infrequently the very social and political groups that, admirably, are most attuned to the awe of God's creation pay scant attention to the marvel of life in the womb," Benedict XVI observed.
"Let us hope that, especially among young people, emerging interest in the environment will deepen their understanding of the proper order and magnificence of God's creation of which man and woman stand at the center and summit," the Pope concluded.
In linking human life to ecology, Benedict XVI is following in the footsteps of John Paul II. In his 1991 encyclical "Centesimus Annus" John Paul II expressed his disquiet for environmental damage, noting that it is a mistake to think we can use it without restraint, or that we can consume resources in an excessive or disordered way.
But, John Paul II immediately added that in addition to concern over the environment, "we must also mention the more serious destruction of the human environment, something which is by no means receiving the attention it deserves" (No. 38).
We should be concerned over this human ecology, as John Paul II termed it, and the first and fundamental structure of this ecology is the family, he added. The family, founded on marriage, is a sanctuary of life and needs to be protected against the attacks from the culture of death.
Archbishop Celestino Migliore, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, summed up the need to maintain a correct relationship between environmental concerns and the human person in a speech delivered Oct. 29 to the U.N. General Assembly.
"Protecting the environment implies a more positive vision of the human being, in the sense that the person is not considered a nuisance or a threat to the environment, but one who holds oneself responsible for the care and management of the environment," the Vatican representative commented.
There is, therefore, no opposition between the human being and the environment, but rather an alliance, "in which the environment essentially conditions man's life and development, while the human being perfects and ennobles the environment by his or her creative activity," Archbishop Migliore added. The most vital ecological question, therefore, is related to the human person, who must not be sacrificed in a misguided zeal to protect the natural environment.