World Population – Challenge or Crisis?
by Pete Moore
In the eighteenth century the Rev Thomas Malthus wrote his Essay on Population, in which he predicted that the population would grow faster than food supply until femine acted as a brake. Since then, advances in agriculture have led to a situation where, with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa, there is more food available per capita now than in Malthus’ time.15 In 1950 the average hectare yielded 1 metric tonne of grain, whereas the yield now stands at around 3 metric tons and is still rising.
However this is achieved through technically complex and energy-hungry farming systems that deplete the environment and are increasingly vulnerable through water shortage. Add to this increasing atmospheric carbon-dioxide and climate change (caused in part by the increasing number of climate changers), and the future becomes less certain. A reassuring theory, that higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels will stimulate increased plant growth,16 has been challenged by plant researchers. When you combine increased CO2 with the other environmental changes that accompany it, it appears that the net result will be decreased production.17
There is at best uncertainty about when we can no longer fulfill demand, but most experts believe this will be well before we reach a population of 9 billion.
The majority scientific opinion is therefore that the world’s population is on track to rise to the point that our planet and political systems are under extreme stress. Many policy makers have therefore sought to limit this, to minimise catastrophic events induced or exacerbated by over-population.
It is easy to spot a wide range of bad solutions. One way of dealing with increasing numbers in some areas is to encourage them to move to either wealthier or less populated parts of the world. As receiving countries tend to welcome those who are young and/or educated, this migration creates a damaging ‘brain drain’. Introducing new people to a community may make it less insular, which can be good, but this economic migration is highly disruptive as families and societies are torn apart. It would be better to help ‘donor’ countries to develop in a sustainable manner, and then encourage cultural exchange.
‘We have not inherited the world from our grandparents, we have borrowed it from our grandchildren.’ – Kashmiri proverb
A second approach has been coercive population control. The most-quoted example is China where couples who have more than one child may be fined, lose their jobs or be forcibly sterilized.18 While there has been growing international pressure, China’s five year plan from 2006-2010 maintains this policy. All this is clearly in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Article 12 asserts people’s right to be free of arbitrary influence in family life, and Article 16 sets out a person’s right to marry and found a family.
Information and Education
Many people in developing countries are stick in a vicious circle. Children are an asset, helping to produce food and goods that keep the family economically sound. They provide personal security in old age. But large numbers of children may also consume more than is available, depleting resources that could otherwise be used to built community facilities such as hospitals and schools. The vicious circle is exacerbated by high infant mortality that accompanies deprivation and the perceived need for more births to compensate.
The recent history of many countries shows that the way out is not by coercion, which is unnecessary as well as unethical, but through education and provision of resources. This can set up a virtuous circle in which people are more secure and then seek to have fewer children which then further improves their economic security. In the Western would people voluntarily chose to have smaller families after the industrial revolution.
For this to happen, however, people, especially women, need to have genuine choice, which includes education about natural methods of family planning and access to contraception. At present this is frequently lacking. One consequence is that woman must either accept the chance of bearing up to ten children, or seek to control family size by abortion – there an estimated 50 million abortions each year worldwide, of which half are ‘backstreet’ abortions.
Given that much population growth occurs in countries with an Islamic majority, understanding the Islamic view on family planning is important, but opinions are divided. Some commentators, like Dr Majid Katme of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child’s Muslim Division, believes that Islam encourages Muslims to produce many children. He says that in Al Qur’an God has guaranteed the sustenance of every new child born.
Other disagree. For example the Prime Minister of Pakistan, also a Muslim, has urged religious scholars to educate people about the importance of small families. ‘We may fail to deliver our promises of improving quality of life of the people without achieving our objective to control rapidly growing population.’19 He is keen to see Islamic countries share best practices in various fields including population planning.
One example for Islamic countries may be Iran.20 Here the population growth rate dropped from 3.2 percent in 1986 to 1.2 percent in 2001. Importantly, the politically initiated drive to give people education and choice was supported by religious leaders who issued religious edicts (fatwas) permitting and encouraging all types of contraception, including permanent male and female sterilization. Along with the fall in birth rate, the country experienced a soaring level of education. Even so Iran’s population will continue to increase in the short term, because almost 40 percent of its population is under the age of 15 and therefore yet to bear children.
Part of the extreme growth is also occurring in countries where Christians have a strong presence. Christians need to recognise their responsibilities and God-given decision-making. Although official Catholic doctrine remains against active birth control, the protestant church recognises its rightful place within a married relationship. Used here it can become a blessing, enabling a husband and wife to express their love for each other, physically, without the fear of having more children than they have resources to care for properly.
Some ways ahead
While world population may start to decline in fifty years time, this is not certain. We do not want our grandchildren to be handed a massively depleted planet. Doing nothing is not an option. It is also important not to see a ‘quantitative concern for population as intrinsically coercive’.21
Christians unite in supporting all endeavours to provide more education and basic facilities to people living in the world’s shantytowns and slums. Where this has been done, the transforming effect to their immediate lives and the way they plan for their futures is vast.
A characteristic of good education is empowering people to make choices: and part of being able to exercise choices in family building must be access to the methods of birth planning. Yet Christians should be at the forefront of stressing that though contraception can play a positive role within permanent relationships, it is negative and destructive to individuals and society when used outside such relationships for recreational sex.
Christians affirm that human beings were created with purpose and intended to populate the Earth. So Christians should surely be more prominent in endeavours to devise technologies that make better use of and conserve resources, in building recycling and reuse into our strategies, and in accepting less personal affluence.
‘Live simply, that others may simply live’ – Gandhi
We need to act responsibly in the way we let the rest of creation live. Aggressive acts and systems that oppress the weak and needy have come about because human beings have become self-centred and refuse to follow God’s lead. Part of this self-centred mentality can be seen when some couples pursue permanently child-free lifestyles, while others have children without responsibly ensuring that they have the means to provide for them.
Any route ahead with long-term hope, will involve redistributing the resources that are so concentrated in a few fat nations, and working to correct poverty and consequent childhood mortality. Are we really prepared to make the lifestyle changes that could let all people live well?
At the same time we need to find ways of helping the human population stay within the numerical bounds that can be provided for by the Earth, so as to allow all of creation to thrive.
While Christian look forward to a time when these issues will be resolved, Jesus told us to love God and love our neighbour. It is, surely, showing love for our Creator to love and preserve what he has made, his Creation. And how can we claim to love our neighbours if we fail to love not only our neighbours overseas, but also our future neighbours?
15. Dyson T. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 1999:96:5929-5936.
17. Shaw MR. Zavaleta ES, Chiariello NR, Cleland EE, Mooney HA, Field CB. Grassland Responses to Global Environmental Changes Suppressed by Elevated CO2 Science. 6 December 2002 298:1987-1990.
18. Eg. Ang Audra. 2 Chinese Activists Detained in Shanghai. Guardian Online. 27 May 2006.
19. Islamic Republic News Agency. 30 May 2006. www.irna.ir/en/news/view/menu-234/06053025521001752.htm
20. Larsen J. Iran’s Birth Rate Plummeting at Record Pace: Success Provides a Model for Other Developing Countries. 28 December 2001. www.earth-policy.org/Updates/Update4ss.htm
21. Potts M. The population policy pendulum. BMJ 1999;319:933-4.
Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) Files No. 33, 2006