Population Pressures (Part 1)

Apologies for the lack of posting recently – I was locked out by some technical glitch which now appears to have resolved itself!

Radio National’s Encounter program (30 October 2011) recently covered a very interesting yet little discussed topic. In the Bible, God commands Adam and Eve, and later Noah and his family, to go forth and multiply and to fill the earth. With our planet’s population having ticked over seven billion this year, and expected to reach nine billion by 2050, is it time to stop multiplying? Haven’t we now filled the earth?

Interestingly, there are arguments on both sides. On the one side is the fear that the earth cannot sustain too many more people. Its resources are limited after all. We have already experienced water shortages that were undreamed of when I was a child, and it is no longer unusual to hear that there is a famine somewhere in the world on any given day. Surely it is a straightforward matter of mathematics: limited resources cannot sustain an unlimited population. If we want to preserve our quality of life, we must take steps to limit the quantity of people alive.

Some have advocated a solution to overpopulation that sees wealthy countries helping developing countries to speed up their economic development. The poor, it is argued, have many children because they know some of them will die in childhood, and they want enough children to survive into adulthood to help on the farm and to look after them in their old age. But if they become financially secure and enjoy a raised standard of living, then they will have fewer children.

But does this solve the problem of the effects of overpopulation? A peasant family in India with 10 children may actually consume fewer resources than a high tech urban family in the USA with only two children! The amount of food the American family throws away each year might well feed the whole Indian family for a year! Perhaps sheer numbers are not the only problem: lifestyle may be an equally important factor.

A capitalistic society relies on growth for its prosperity. Today, a country’s success is unquestioningly measured by the annual growth of its GDP – Gross Domestic Product (although some have challenged this and produced measures of “national happiness” as alternatives). GDP growth means that you need a growing population to provide more consumers to buy more goods to create more jobs to put more money into people’s pockets. But I have often wondered, isn’t this something very like what a cancer does? Healthy body cells and organs grow to a certain limit and then just replace damaged or dead cells, maintaining a healthy, sustainable equilibrium of cell numbers. The whole problem with cancer cells is that they just don’t know when to stop multiplying. Eventually, they consume so much of the body’s resources that the rest of the body starves, and inevitably, dies. Our economic system is built upon exactly this unlimited growth principle!

Here it is important to point out something that the Christian living in the West needs to think about. As a member of Western society, the Christian is committed to upholding and participating in its various systems, including the capitalist economic model. But capitalism is most certainly not a Christian model. To be sure, it draws on some Christian ideals, such as free will in the marketplace and the liberty of the individual. But it also relies heavily on some other ideals that are most emphatically not Christian: personal profit; selfishness; materialism and greed, to name a few. Remember that Christ commanded anyone who wishes to follow Him that they must sell all they have, and the first Christians came and laid their possessions at the feet of the Apostles who distributed them according to need among the whole community.

What would happen if we changed our system? Would we be willing to accept a freezing of our standard of living in exchange for a more sustainable future? Could our economic system survive, or would we see massive unemployment and inflation result? Or perhaps we need to rethink economics from the ground up, and come up with a completely new system that is not based on individual profit, but rather on cooperation and sharing – something much closer to the model of the ancient Christian community? Could such a system ever be made to work, in view of the disastrous experiments with communism of the twentieth century? After all, human selfishness and greed are not so easily snuffed out.

And there are other aspects to this religious dimension of this debate. The Roman Catholic Church has always opposed contraception of any kind (other than natural methods) and encouraged Catholics to have large families. The Coptic Church, being located in overpopulated Egypt, has had a much more sensible approach to the question, banning only those forms of contraception that result in the death of a fertilised zygote (e.g. IUD’s and the morning after pill) but encouraging population control with forms of contraception that prevent fertilisation of the egg in the first place (e.g. oral contraceptive pill and barrier methods). It will be interesting to see whether the Roman Catholic Church will review its position over the coming decades as the population pressures build.

In the next post I will explore some statistics about the growth of religious communities in Australia and across the world. There are some trends that might surprise you…

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