I spent last night as part of a transient multinational and multilingual community that seemed to be a metaphor for the modern world.

Fearful of missing a flight because of worrying weather forecasts, I got to Stansted Airport in the evening and waited there for ten hours. There were a lot of us there and people got on with sleeping, chatting, avoiding, drinking and reading along with a group of people they will probably never encounter again. We glanced off each other for several hours and then dispersed around the globe, engaging in different relationships and networks in every place imaginable. There were some nice people – and some worth avoiding. Which is probably what some were thinking of me…

In the event, everything went smoothly and I eventually arrived in the south of Germany (Bodensee) around lunchtime. Having settled in to the apartment (being generously loaned to me by friends), I switched on the telly to get listening to some German and up popped Helmut Schmidt.

Schmidt was 91 years old in December and was being interviewed by two Swiss journalists. He was in a wheelchair and chain-smoked throughout the interview, coughing as if about to expire at any moment – as he has done for the last 80-odd years. What caught my attention in this interesting interview was his observations on two matters:

a. Asked what were the most threatening issues facing humanity today, he mentioned ‘global warming’, but then went on at length about the ‘over-population of the earth’. He bemoaned the decline in European populations and commented that the world’s population has grown by over 400% in the last century whereas the surface of the earth has not increased to contain them. (And we have to remember that the last century saw ‘Progress’ lead to the deaths in war and genocide of 100 million (?) people.) Asked whether migration should be encouraged to help make Europe work and pay for the care of its increasingly elderly people, he unhesitatingly declined, claiming this was to fiddle with symptoms without tackling the main and findamental problem of over-population.

I might have read too much into his considered responses, but it occurred to me that ‘climate change’ is becoming the easier debate in which to engage. The changing weather systems make it easy to talk about climate change (whatever we attribute it to in the end) and comment/debate is to be found everywhere: in the pub, in every newspaper and magazine, at scientific conferences and in religious/theological pronouncements.

However, and by comparison, there is an almost deafening silence about population control. Why?

Maybe it is because it is simply too difficult. As soon as anyone begins to think aloud about population issues, we are plunged into dangerous territory in which monsters such as eugenics, racism, cultural imperialism and other horrors raise their terrifying heads. How do we go about even thinking about encouraging some people to have fewer children and others to have more – in order to keep a balance across the world?

If you think this is just a simple matter of persuasion, then let me know what response you get from the Pope when you suggest to him that condoms might not only cut down the incidence of AIDS in Africa and elsewhere, but also encourage responsible birth control. The issues are immensely complicated and even a mature discussion about such matters is almost impossible in the public arena (let alone the Church) because of the real fear of what ‘ism’-accusations will come your way.

One conundrum is this: if we encourage restricted population growth in Europe, the number of Europeans will drop in relation to the ever-expanding numbers of Africans and Asians. So, the desire to keep an ‘ethnic’ balance (by encouraging white Europeans – in particular – to breed) will contribute to the further over-population of the earth and generate even more problems of human sustainability. And that’s just a starter for ten…

The complexity of this one leads me to Schmidt’s second observation:

(b) Age might bring wisdom to some people, but it is bringing senility to many more. This is one more of the weird contradictions of modern life: we can abort babies older than others we keep alive (using technological medical advances) and we keep people alive for longer than perhaps their body/mind can sustain meaningful life. Technology drives and morality follows behind, trying desperately to make sense of it all.

Schmidt was making the point that over-population of the world as a whole accompanies under-population in Europe (particularly) – where the existing population is ageing and declining without a following generation capable of sustaining their lifestyle, material comfort and mental health.

To use President Obama’s phrase when he spoke of the recent failure of the US intelligence community to contain a potential plane bomber, we are just not joining the dots between these unprecedented human challenges: population, migration, technology and ethics.

Age has not withered Helmut Schmidt. He still has that uncanny knack of clever old people to speak clearly and without sentiment, knowing his days are numbered, but unafraid to name the issues.