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.’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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  1. buddyglass

    June 16, 2017 at 10:56 am

    Not a myth, depending on what you mean by overpopulation. Projections of future population have leveled out so the threat of reaching an unsupportable population in the near future (50-100 years) has diminished. In the long-term it could still be an issue though. There is some amount of resources the planet can support in a sustainable fashion, obviously impacted by our technology level. Food, fresh water, etc. That implies some maximum level of population.

    Standard of living is also a huge factor. The higher his standard of living the more resources an individual consumes. We can support 7 billion presently, but what if I waved a magic wand and caused India and China to have the same standard of living (and resource consumption) as the United States? Maybe that’s still possible. What about 9 billion people? 20 billion? 50 billion?

    • Reformed Perspective

      June 16, 2017 at 4:08 pm

      Let’s look at this another way.

      Christians know there is a spiritual war going on – that there is an antithesis between the world’s ways and God’s ways. And this difference comes up starkly on this issue in how the two sides view Man, and how they view God.

      How overpopulation alarmists see Man

      Overpopulation alarmists see Man as a consumer of resources, and then do the math: “Okay, maybe we said the planet couldn’t sustain 2.5 billion, and it is, but surely it can’t sustain 5 billion, or if it can do that, well, I bet you it can’t sustain 10 billion.” And it just seems obvious that, even as wrong as their predictions have been, if Man is a net drain on the planet then at some point the number will be just too big.

      Their error-filled prognostications would be harmless, but for the actions that these overpopulation alarmists have convinced governments (and individuals) to take. They haven’t slowed on their doom and gloom predictions – they just mention bigger numbers, certain that if they are big enough, eventually disaster will overtake us – 20 billion? 50 billion? 100 billion? Despite repeated prophetic failures they remain just as sure we have to take action to stop the increase. So in the name of saving humanity from some horrible future they justify killing millions and tens of millions of unborn babies in the present.

      How they see God

      The antithesis also comes out in how these overpopulation alarmists understand God’s character. They reject God’s view on children – that they are a blessing to be received, not a curse to be avoided – because they are worried that listening to God on this point will doom the planet. This presumes:

      1) They are smarter than God
      2) God will punish us, as a society, for obeying Him

      They are wrong.

      Even if we go with their assumptions that every new baby is a net drain on the planet, that’s no justification for population controls. Christians know this world is not going to endure forever – Christ will return – but the alarmists (even the Christians among them) are planning as if that is never going to happen. So they abort children today to help future generations. But we have no idea whether those future generations will even be!

      It simply isn’t our God-given job to reject children (even abort them) in the name of preserving the planet.

      How Christians should understand Man

      In contrast we know that while Man consumes resources, we are also called to be a producer. We can even “create” resources – not ex nihilo, but out of next to nothing. This article is an example. And in this ability, we reflect some of our Creator God. So we view each new child not as simply a drain on the planet, but a potential contributor – maybe even the next Norman Borlaug, or someone else who can help us continue to reduce poverty even as the population increases. Under this understanding, there can be no justification for murdering unborn children.

      How we understand God

      Christians understand God is faithful, so we know that our destruction will not be caused by our obedience. That’s not the God we serve. His faithfulness comes out in many ways, and one notable one this past century was the Green Revolution. It did seem, for a time, that we might not be able to feed the Earth’s growing population. But God said that children were a blessing. So at that time it might have seemed like our doom would be caused by obeying God and continuing to have children. But at that very same time, God had something in the works – a new way of feeding billions more. We can trust God – we can presume that He will be faithful. So no matter how things might seem in the short term, we will understand we are not smarter than God. If He says children are a blessing, then they are, no matter what some alarmists – overpopulation, or now climate change folks – might say.


      One last thought. This is no minor matter. This has been, and continues to be a life and death issue for millions. The overpopulation alarmists say that if we don’t act now, millions will die in the future. They justify what they are doing in the name of future generations. But in the meantime, they have the blood of millions on their hands. They want to save hypothetical children – children who have yet to be born – and have killed and are killing actual children now.

      It should be clear which side Christians need to be on.

      • buddyglass

        June 17, 2017 at 6:12 pm

        Your response to overpopulation alarmism, though, seems to be to discard it as a threat entirely. To me, that seems like an overreaction. Also, the “God will always make a way” argument seems flawed. Not that God can’t make a way, but the idea that we have no responsibility to act responsibly and prudently because God has our back. The *recent* perceived threat of overpopulation hasn’t abated because of green tech, but because the rate of population increase was less than expected. Because people stopped having as many babies, mainly in the developing world.

  2. Ben Zornes

    June 16, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    Great points. This is something I’ve written about before: and

    The problem with the overpopulation alarmists is that they have a darwinian view of man and the planet. They see the earth as a place to be survived rather than a kingdom for us to subdue and take dominion. Really helpful article…

  3. Dylan

    June 17, 2017 at 12:35 am

    Some problems that I see in this article’s argument:

    First, if we are going to appeal to Scripture to support a position, we need to make certain we have sought to carefully and patiently interpret Scripture using the best hermeneutical tools available. If we take the “be fruitful and multiply” passage for instance, we need to carefully consider context. It’s very important to note that this command is given to the first human couple, identified as being made in the image of God. They are to multiple and fill the Earth…So that the Earth would be filled with God’s image. God wants the whole world to be subdued and ruled over, and He’s going to do this through His image bearers. The question this passage answers is: “what is humanity’s vocation?” not “How many people can the world sustain?”

    Moving on to the “children are a blessing” passage, we must again carefully consider the original context, particularly as it pertains to historical/cultural issues of the original audience. We simply must take seriously the realities of ancient civilizations…societies that dealt with much higher mortality rates (particularly infant/child mortality) than what most of the world deals with in modern times. Many cultures in the ancient near East worshipped fertility God’s, because being able to successfully conceive children and have them survive into adulthood was critical to being able to raise/gather crops as well as form armies to fight off neighboring tribes/nations. Children are indeed a blessing from God, but they are blessings now for somewhat different reasons than they were when the passage was written, and we need to bear that in mind when considering questions about global population levels/densities.

    It is appropriate to have the conviction that obedience to God will yield the best good for humanity and all Creation, but to truly be obedient, we have to comprehend what God intended by a given instruction… Otherwise we risk making God in our own image.

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