Doomsday-mongering is a staple feature of the faux-intellectual life, occasionally influential and sometimes quite lucrative. The Club of Rome’s dire certainties about the “limits to growth” shaped Carter Administration thinking and policy. Paul Ehrlich’s tediously repetitious predictions that “over-population” would cause mass starvation and other global catastrophes were rewarded by a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, irrespective of the fact that none of Ehrlich’s alarums ever panned out. The nuclear freeze movement was whipped up by eminently-forgettable potboilers like the 1983 TV movie, “The Day After;” the Great Satan of that moment was Ronald Reagan (whom many of his erstwhile critics now praise in preference to the archfiend Bush). Green doomsday-mongering is currently the fashion and just won Al Gore (with whom I once worked on alternatives to the nuclear freeze!) the Nobel Peace Prize — the Norwegian Nobel Committee thus reducing that once-distinguished award to the equivalent of an Oscar.
Catholic social thought has not always been immune to certain kinds of doomsday-mongering. The 1968 encyclical, Populorum Progressio (The Development of Peoples), was influenced by some of the convictions that led the Club of Rome to criticize what we now call “globalization.” Rumors of a new social encyclical to mark the fortieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio have been circulating in the past few months. Should such an encyclical be in the works, its drafters would do well to cast a critical eye on the economic, anti-natalist, and environmental doomsday-mongering of recent decades.
For, according to a recent U.N. “State of the Future” Report, the happy news is that the human condition is improving, rapidly and exponentially: “People around the world are becoming healthier, wealthier, better educated, more peaceful, more connected, and…are living longer.” Global illiteracy is now down to 18 percent, having been cut in half over the past two generations. The boy or girl born today will likely live 50 percent longer than a child born in the mid-1950s. More people are living in political freedom than ever before.
And poverty has been dramatically reduced. In 1981, 40 percent of the world’s population scraped out a life on less than $1/day; today, that percentage is down to 25 percent. That is completely unacceptable; it is also a major improvement, most of which can be attributed to free trade (about which Populorum Progressio was skeptical). As John Paul II taught in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, poverty today is caused by exclusion, and the cure is inclusion: exclusion from the networks of productivity and exchange that generate wealth must be remedied by empowerment strategies that give ever more people the skills to get into the game.
The real problem in the 21st century, according to Oxford economist Paul Collier, is the “bottom billion.” There are six billion people in the world, of whom one billion are rich and four billion are on track to get rich, if at different rates. The top five billion are linked to, and work within, those networks of productivity and exchange discussed by John Paul II; the “bottom billion” aren’t. Rather, according to Collier, they’re caught in various “traps,” including the trap of corrupt government, the trap of ethnic/tribal/religious conflict, the resources trap, and the trap of bad neighbors. Thus a rebel leader in Zaire boasted that you could do a successful coup d’etat with a cell phone and ten thousand dollars: the money to raise an army from impoverished tribesmen, and the cell phone to make deals to sell natural resources to the likes of China. (For more on Collier and his call for international action to police those aforementioned networks of productivity and exchange, see Father Richard Neuhaus’s essay on The Bottom Billion in the October issue of First Things.)
For the first time in human history, no one has to be poor. No one has to go to bed hungry or, worse, starve. The social teaching of the Church, which rightly gives priority to the poor, best serves the global dispossessed when it accurately identifies how billions of people have gotten un-poor. If the U.N. can figure that out, the Catholic Church certainly can.