Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Population Problem
distributed 5/27/05 - ©2005

Eventually, the topic comes up in any serious conversation about the desperate state of the earth. What about population?

It is, indeed, one of the two big "environmental" questions. The explosive growth in the number of human beings on this planet -- in tandem with the average person's ecological impact -- is why the earth is now stressed in ways that have never been seen before.

Dramatic population growth began with the birth of agriculture and more stable food supplies some 10,000 years ago. At the time of Jesus, there were about 250 million people spread across the earth. 1,500 years later, at the dawning of the modern era, that number had doubled to 500 million. In less than 300 years, it reached 1 billion. Then it doubled again in less than 200 years -- in 1945 the global human population stood at 2 billion. In just the last 50 years, it has tripled to 6 billion.

Increasing consumption of the earth's resources would be a problem even with a stable population. When it is combined with such a rapidly growing numbers, the problems are multiplied. Population is an issue for ecological sustainability that must be addressed.

The population problem is generally discussed in terms of fertility and birthrates. (On a national level, the population question also gets into the politically difficult topic of immigration.) If there are too many people, the thinking goes, the problem must come from bringing too many new people into the world.

But that's not really why human populations have exploded. The most dramatic changes in the last hundred years are not in birth rates, but in death rates. In today's world, the average person is living far longer.

What are some of the factors that have allowed longer lives and growing populations?

  • Food production has gone up, food distribution has improved, and not as much food spoils, so people -- on the whole -- aren't starving.
  • Safe water supplies have been developed in communities around the world, so people are not dying of water-borne diseases.
  • Insecticides have reduced the death toll of diseases like malaria.
  • Viral inoculations have essentially eliminated devastating diseases like smallpox, and antibiotics have reduced the death toll from bacterial infections.
  • And, in what I have heard is the single most significant factor, the spread of knowledge about basic sanitation procedures -- wash your hands, and don't put raw sewage into the water supply -- have dramatically improved lifespans.
Why has the world's population quadrupled in about a century? Not so much because fertility has increased, but because many technological and social factors have helped people -- on the average -- live much longer. (It is also interesting to note that two of the hot-button political issues in the US -- Social Security and funding for health care -- are directly related to the same matters of longevity. Ecology and justice are inseperable.)

We have an exploding human population because we, as a global community, have done some very good things. We have spread better nutrition, better health care, and better health education. We have lifted up those factors as basic human rights that must be preserved and enhanced. But those caring and compassionate programs by governments, churches and other agencies have been major factors in creating the population explosion.

Dramatic changes in public health and nutrition really have created a global "culture of life" where people are living much longer. But the unintended consequence is that the rapidly expanding human population is now crowding out other forms of life, and is stressing the life-giving systems of the earth.

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When it comes to the challenge of global population, there is a real, and often unexamined, difficulty for those of us in progressive faith communities. The life-affirming, life-promoting values and ethics that have been at the core of our belief and that have driven so much of our mission and ministry turn out to be some of the very values and programs that have created an over-populated earth.

I am often frustrated by the powerful religious constituencies that refuse to allow even serious discussions about birth control and population issues. My personal moral grounding finds those stances unrealistic and unacceptable.

But in all honesty, I have to ask: are we in the progressive church willing to wrestle as deeply with our own faith and ethics as we ask of those who reject birth control? Are we willing to look at the long-term implications of our promotion of health as a factor in population growth?

That's a hard challenge. In my moral framework, I cannot find it acceptable when AIDS runs rampant, or when disease and pollution cut short lives, or when famine kills millions. Those tragedies violates my morality about the value of life, and yet working to preserve life reinforces the population growth that I know is a global problem.

Perhaps my own moral reactions in that sphere can help me to be more understanding of those who are morally repulsed by condoms. Being understanding of those moral principles, however, does not let us off the hook. The fact that these are difficult moral questions does not take away the urgent problem of human over-population.

Eventually, the topic comes up in any serious conversation about the desperate state of the earth. What about population?

The ecological fact is clear: there are too many of us. The very hard questions have to do with how we can stabilize or even reduce the human population. Those are difficult questions that deal with both conception and birth, and with what is done to promote health and longevity. There are no easy answers -- and there is no avoiding the problem.

Let us push our religious and political leaders to wrestle deeply and honestly with the full scope of the population problem. For life -- human and otherkind -- will not be served if we fail to act, and our exploding population overwhelms this fragile earth.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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