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Overpopulation is a myth, and we should have known

While overpopulation fears aren’t causing the same panic they once did, this bogeyman hasn’t disappeared entirely. The United Nations still has their Population Fund, advising nations on how to handle, as their mandate puts it, “population problems.” While China has moved away from a One-Child-Policy – couples were fined, or even forced to have abortion if they had a second child – the government still has a Two-Child Policy. And while India’s Supreme Court shut down that country’s mass sterilization camps just this past year, the country is still committed to population control.

So why does the myth persist? Two reasons:

  1. Most aren’t familiar with the current state of the world. We don’t hear about how things are improving, and how poverty is decreasing even as population is growing.
  2. Many still trust these doom and gloom prophets because they aren’t familiar with the predictions that were made back in the 60’s and 70s. The younger generation, especially, doesn’t understand just how outrageously and how disastrously wrong these experts were.

The world today

Last year Japan’s birthrate fell below 1 million for the first time, while 1.3 million deaths were recorded. Since 2010 Japan’s population has shrunk by approximately 1.2 million (or roughly 1%). And they aren’t the only country shrinking; Russia has roughly 4 million less citizens than it had in 1995.

We can see in Europe that population has leveled off, with deaths exceeding births for the first time in 2015, so growth is due only to immigration, not procreation. In Canada, too, we are not having children at replacement levels – whereas we would need 2.1 children born per woman to maintain a stable population (this number is slightly over 2, to account for children who don’t survive childhood), our birthrate is only 1.6. The United States, Australia, and the Western world in general are all under 2. There are problems that come with this, as an aging population doesn’t have enough young people to care for it.

The overall world population does continue to grow, with the growth focussed primarily in the developing world. For example, Africa’s population has just passed 1.2 billion, up from roughly half that in 1990.

But even as world’s population increases, we’ve seen not a shortage of food, but an increase in our ability to feed the planet. And poverty continues to decline worldwide – by one measure, extreme poverty has been more than halved over the last 30 years, even as the population has grown from 5 billion to more than 7 billion. Starvation does still occur, but that is due more to government corruption and war than to an inability to produce enough.

The predictions of the past

But how can things be getting better even as the world population increases? As one of the best known population alarmists, Dr. Paul Ehrlich, noted, a finite planet cannot sustain infinite growth – at some point the Earth is going to run out of food, room, and resources. That seems to be a matter of basic math.

And it’s this basic math that had Ehrlich make this prediction in his 1968 book, The Population Bomb:

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…”

People under 40 may not understand the scope of the disaster population alarmists were predicting. Ehrlich said England wouldn’t exist by the year 2,000 – this was end-of-the-world-type rhetoric, and people were taking it seriously. This New York Times video does a good job of capturing just how scared people were.

Clearly Ehrlrich was wrong. But to many it is less than clear as to why.

One reason is a revolution in agriculture that was deemed “the Green Revolution.” Even as Ehrlich was making his doom and gloom predictions, an American innovator, Dr. Norman Borlaug, was developing new strains of wheat and new farming techniques that dramatically increased crop yield. As Henry Miller wrote in Forbes:

“How successful were Borlaug’s efforts? From 1950 to 1992, the world’s grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland.”

Ehrlich was about as wrong as wrong can be. The world has not ended; things have dramatically improved. And lest we attribute it simply to luck – Norman Borlaug just happening to come around just when we needed him to save us from disaster – we need to view this from a Christian perspective.

Ehrlich, and population alarmists viewed each new baby as being a drain on the planet. They didn’t see them as human beings given a task to develop the planet. They didn’t recognize that while each human being does come with a mouth that needs to be fed, we are also gifted by our Creator with a brain, and with two hands, with which we can produce. We not only consume, we create (and in doing so reflect our Creator God). That’s how more people can mean more, not less, resources – that’s why food production has gone up, and poverty down, even as population continues to rise.

Not just wrong but dangerous

Overpopulation alarmism isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous. This end-of-the-world rhetoric had a role in the Roe vs. Wade decision which legalized abortion in America. It has been used to justify government-funded abortion, forced sterilizations, and actions like China’s One-Child Policy, and now Two-Child Policy, under which tens of millions of Chinese babies have been aborted, many against their parents’ wishes.

Meanwhile, in Africa, where the population is growing, the first annual Africa-China Conference on Population and Development was just held in Kenya and hosted by the Chinese government and the United Nations Population Fund. Mercatornet.com’s Shannon Roberts shared how some of the speakers pointed to China’s coercive population controls as worthy of imitation. And at least one Kenyan media outlet thought that wasn’t such a bad idea. The Daily Nation commented:

“With a controlled population, the Chinese economy boomed, benefiting from cheap labour from its many people and rising to be the second largest after the United States. Should Kenyans do the same?”

Population controls are not just a problem of the past – they exist and are still being advocated for today. That’s why we need to bury the overpopulation bogeyman once and for all, before it kills millions more.

Christians falling short

The Bible doesn’t speak to all issues with the same degree of clarity. But when it comes to the population alarmism, God couldn’t be clearer: children are not a curse to be avoided but a blessing to be received (Gen. 1:28; 9:1, 9:7Prov. 17:6, Ps. 127:3-5, Ps. 113:9, etc.).

Back already in the 1960s Christians could have spoken out against overpopulation alarmism, based on the clarity of these texts. And some did. But the Church is so often impacted by what we hear from the world around us. We let ourselves be muted, we let ourselves become uncertain. We start to ask, “Did God really say?” And then, like the watchman on the wall who failed to give warning (Ez. 33:6) we become responsible for the deaths we might have been able to prevent, if we’d only spoken out.

It’s back?

While the overpopulation hysteria has died down in recent years, this bogeyman is primed for a resurrection. Global warming and concerns about CO2 emissions have some questioning “Should we be having kids in the age of climate change?” The argument, so it goes, is that people can’t help but have some sort of carbon footprint, so the only sure way of reducing carbon emissions is to have less people on the planet.

Once again we are being urged to have “one and be done.” Once again children are being portrayed as a problem rather than as a blessing.

The Bible doesn’t address climate change as clearly as it does overpopulation alarmism, but what we can be certain of is this: obedience to God is not going to destroy our planet.

While obeying God doesn’t always lead to a smooth life for Christians here on Earth – following God can lead to a loss of friends, or business opportunities, or result in persecution – when we as a society turn to God then prosperity follows. Then we end slavery, open hospitals, develop Science, create industry. This obedience doesn’t even need to be of the heart-felt sort to still reap benefits – even unbelievers, when they follow God’s commands for marriage, sex, and parenting will have better results (for a book-length treatment of this thought, see Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World).

Our disobedience can be destructive – our self-centeredness, greed, jealousy, and hatred can cause real harm. But not our obedience.

That’s why the begetting of many children is not something we need feel guilty about, or refrain from, out of concern for the climate. We can be certain that the world’s doom will not be caused by us, in obedience, listening to God and having children.

God has spoken out against overpopulation alarmism, so we need to. The next time you hear someone talking about overpopulation, point them to the Bible and share how spectacularly incorrect all the doom and gloom predictions have been. We need to bury this bogeyman.


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