Are we outgrowing our planet?

December 12, 2011 • Family Planning, Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Bob Murphy for this article.

Are we outgrowing our planet?

By The Rev. Robert F. Murphy

October 29, 2011

In the Book of Genesis, God says repeatedly, “Be fruitful and multiply.” The same instructions are delivered to humans and to others. The Bible tells us that God is concerned about the whole of nature. Many years later, after God had rescued Noah and his animal companions, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a sign of the Deity’s covenant with all living creatures. Men and women were reminded that they’re never alone in the world. And we’ve been reminded, from time to time, since then, that the world doesn’t exist for the sole benefit of one race, one nation, one gender, or even one species.

Should human beings question the covenant? Are there too many people in the world?

On Sunday, the human population of the world will reach seven billion, according to United Nations estimates. It’s a day when religious reflection on population issues will be appropriate. Please encourage individuals who are concerned about social responsibility to address the issue. Religious leaders have discussed family planning and sex education programs, marriage and adoption rights, the prevention of teenage pregnancies, and a long list of other concerns. And all of these matters are relevant, important and need immediate attention. However, the fact that the human population is still growing – well, for some reason, that fact is seldom mentioned. So ask for a new conversation. Think about the moral guidelines that are appropriate for today’s multicultural world.

Try to understand the significance of what demographers are calling, “The Day of Seven Billion.” In 1930, the size of the world’s human population was close to two billion. It was four billion as recently as 1974. And now there are seven billion people to feed. The worldwide rate of population growth has declined during recent years, but growth continues. Perhaps there will be 10 billion people in the year 2050.

Bring economists into the conversation. Rapid population growth coupled with high levels of consumption will lead much of the world to economic ruin. Although, yes, there will be some people who will make money even in the worst of times and places. The recent recession has taught us that lesson. It should be noted, also, that the gap between rich and poor is widening in some nations. The difference between what a migrant farmworker consumes and what a hedge-fund trader consumes is appalling. When you discuss population growth, note the inequities that exist in the world and acknowledge the influence of technology and human consumption on environmental quality. Then, at some point, ask the question, “Are there too many people in the world?”

I don’t have an answer to that question. It’s possible the world can support a human population of 10 or 15 billion, or even more. Still, it’s apparent the supply of many natural resources is limited. Listen to economists and others as they discuss concepts like “carrying capacity.” If the worldwide supply of oil continues to decline, while the human population is expanding and the developing nations are industrializing, the results may be catastrophic. As arable lands and fresh water become scarce, nations will compete with each other, and, in some places, the competition may become violent.

Each year, an estimated 38 percent of pregnancies in the world are unwanted, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute. Unwanted pregnancies often produce unwanted children, and, in the poorest regions of the world, children are often abandoned and easily exploited and abused. There are tens of millions of these children on the planet. Without adequate protection and care, many will become criminals, many will be exploited in sweatshops and on plantations, and many will become child prostitutes and child soldiers. Many will hate and curse the world. What will religious leaders and social workers say and do in response? Will they discuss family planning and the need for social services? For a variety of reasons, the population conversation has already been suppressed in some parts of the world.

There’s something else that needs to be said. The increase in the human population is caused, in part, by the increase in life expectancy in many nations. Which leads to more questions about the future of families, the economy and the environment. When he was well past the age of 80, my father’s father asked if he was “old and useless.” It was a poignant moment in my young life. Yet my father responded with acts of love, and my grandparents received careful attention in our family’s home. We didn’t live in social isolation. Government services were helpful, and I’m grateful.

That was the old way of doing things, and it may seem quaint to some readers. If it does, pause for a bit of reflection. Some Americans who are now past the age of 60 will retire to a life of comfort. Others will be pushed out of the workforce and into a life of poverty and neglect. Ask, “What, if anything, does our society owe to its senior citizens?” Raise that question in the population growth discussion.

Last,  something needs to be said about our companions on planet Earth. Discussions about human population growth often focus on humanity’s future. Yet the great religions remind us that the world does not exist for our species alone. Cormorants and turtles have their place in the community of life. As human beings demand more and more, more species will become endangered. Ask the religious question, “What moral responsibility, if any, do human beings have to protect biodiversity?”

I don’t preach about events that are far into the future. I ask religious questions for the here and now.

This month, the world’s human population reaches seven billion. And the human population continues to grow. At some point, religious leaders, in all of the faith traditions, need to put their differences aside in order to think and to think again about population growth. The quick and simple answers that have been suggested in the past are inadequate. Something new is needed.

Pray that we get it right.

The Rev. Murphy is the Unitarian Universalist minister in Falmouth, Massachusetts.   He works with environmentalists and human rights advocates, and in September, he received a Special Service Award from the  national  Sierra Club in recognition of his ministry. Last year, he represented the Sierra Club in Ethiopia, studying family planning and environmental justice  issues.

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