PROPHECY is not my vocation, but I admit to an amateur fascination in the influence of possible future events on our moral thinking. Newly discovered catastrophes, such as an errant asteroid crashing into the earth, are not particularly interesting because they cast no shadow before them. They do not impinge upon our imagination before they happen.

Global warming is much more significant. The effects (the serious ones) may be for the later decades of this century, but the consideration of those effects is with us already. Its implications may not have changed our lives as much as they should (that of course is the debate) but none of us are unaware of them. We have already changed because of what may happen.

My own ‘prophecy’ would be that population decline will have the biggest effect on our moral understanding of any of the foreseeable ‘events’. The known and present fact is that the birth rate in the developed world is below the replacement rate. The possible and future event is that the birth rate in the developing world is falling (and will fall) faster and more consistently than had ever been predicted in all the studies up to now.

It is possible, perhaps probable, that from ad 2050 the world population will fall. If this is so, it will have a dramatic effect on what are known as the ‘life issues’. Contraception, abortion, euthanasia will all look different if population control is no longer a concern. And while the fear of an ever-expanding population caused us all to become more and more obsessed with ourselves as individuals, fending off the encroaching crowds, it seems likely that a diminishing population will reawaken our awareness of our common life (as well as having an effect on global warming).

The last half century has seen great pressure on Christian moral norms. We cannot predict the future, but it would be a pity if we finally succumbed to that pressure, just as it was about to disappear. My entire education, from five to twenty-five, was based on the idea of an expanding world population. Those whom I presume to teach may see something quite different. I do not know what I do about this, but it fascinates me nonetheless.