Acton Commentary

Mothers, Earth


“Mother Earth.” The popular moniker for our home planet is appealing because we perceive that air, soil, and water exhibit many of the characteristics we associate with motherhood: fertile, nurturing, life-giving.

The semantic link notwithstanding, there seems to be some tension these days between much of the environmental movement and actual human mothers. More precisely, it’s the offspring that are the problem, but the denunciation necessarily envelopes motherhood as well.

At issue is the basic understanding of environmental stewardship and humans’ role in it. The overlap between large segments of radical environmentalism and the population control lobby is longstanding and well known. What is increasingly striking, however, is the consistency of this overlap in the face of a dramatically new situation in world demography. Even as a rapidly increasing number of nations are added to the list of those facing populations crises—of the under- rather than the over- variety—some environmentalists continue to insist that the victories of population control have not been adequate.

A new report from a British organization, Optimum Population Trust (OPT), emphasizes the environmental consequences of fecundity and urges parents to procreate responsibly. “The effect on the planet of having one child less is an order of magnitude greater than all these other things we might do, such as switching off lights,” says the OPT’s John Guillebaud, emeritus professor of family planning at University College London.

Paul Watson, president and founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, calls for a massive drop in world population to 1 billion, with no city to surpass 20,000 residents. “We need vast areas of the planet where humans do not live at all and where other species are free to evolve without human interference,” he asserts.

For such people, it is clear, mothers are the enemy.

These may be extreme examples, but similar ideas are widespread. The facile reasoning manifested in such claims utterly ignores the positive environmental impact that human beings can and do exert. It is assumed that additional children will devour a certain amount of resources, but the possibility that their ingenuity may contribute to developing technologies that decrease everyone’s “carbon footprint” is never considered. Those who simplistically equate increasing population with worsening environmental conditions cannot possibly account for the widely acknowledged improvement in air quality, forestation, and other environmental measures observable in most developed nations over the past century.

In truth, the relationship between human beings and the planet they inhabit is more complex—and more promising—than the doomsayers imply. Yes, people can contribute to environmental problems, but people can also solve environmental problems. The Cornwall Declaration issued by the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship (ICES) promotes a contrasting understanding of the place of human persons on earth: “Many people mistakenly view humans as principally consumers and polluters rather than producers and stewards. Consequently, they ignore our potential, as bearers of God's image, to add to the earth's abundance.”

For those who share the ICES’s positive appraisal, mothers do not propagate “viruses” that will feed relentlessly off of the earth, hastening its destruction. They instead bear children, who will—given proper care, education, and moral training—produce more than they consume, generate prosperity, and leave the natural environment better than they found it.

For those who see the prospects of humanity as dim, meanwhile, the celebration of Mother’s Day can be only limited and provisional: The multiplication of humanity is not a cause for hope but is instead a sign of impending catastrophe. The perspective that views motherhood with unabashed admiration is rather more enjoyable—and possesses the additional advantage of being better founded in reality.

Kevin Schmiesing is the son of Mary Schmiesing.

Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for Center for Academic Research at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004).