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

Seven Billion and Rising
distributed 10/28/11 - ©2011

Sometime on Monday, October 31, 2011, Earth's human population will reach seven billion people. That is a scary reality for Halloween day.

What makes it especially worrisome is the rate at which our numbers are growing. The human population has doubled since about 1968. It crossed the six billion line just 12 years ago, in 1999. (Listings of some of the populations figures and dates can be fascinating to explore.)

No matter how creative and resourceful we are, no matter what new technologies and agricultural tricks are employed, this planet cannot handle a perpetually growing population -- of any species. There are limits, and humanity must live within them. The question is, will we do it by choice and gracefully, or will we encounter those limits through famine and epidemics?

The same United Nations demographers who have made the astoundingly precise prediction that person number 7,000,000,000 will be born on Monday have several scenarios that look farther into the future. The most plausible ones have the growth rate slowing -- and perhaps even starting to decline -- by the middle of this century. But lots more people will be added in the next 40 years, and the decisions that are made now will define the shape of the population curve for many generations to come.

British population activist Roger Martin recently said, "the U.N. projects the population in 2050 will be somewhere in the range of 8.1 to 10.6 billion. If you ask yourself which is easier to feed, 8.1 billion or 10.6 billion, which is easier to supply with water, which will emit less carbon, which will have less impact, which will deplete oil reserves and other mineral reserves faster, the answer doesn't require any research at all, it's straight from the university of the bleeding obvious. For everyone's sake, the sooner we can stabilize to as near as possible to 8.1, our kids will have a vastly greater chance of a halfway decent life."

There is a perpetual and lively debate about the surging population. Is this an issue primarily for the affluent world (which has a much higher per-person impact) or for the poorer areas of the world (which tend to have the fastest population growth)? It seems to me that this blame-the-other-guys approach is misguided on several levels. First, whichever way the accusations are flowing, trying to foist all the responsibility onto some other group is rarely a productive strategy for change. And either/or doesn't work because there are important issues on all sides. Absolute numbers do make a difference, whether in Boston or Bangladesh, and the ecological impact of the rich needs to be reduced even with a stable or declining population.

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So what are some moral perspectives that might guide us in our personal and public choices?

  1. I find it important to remember that the human population is growing, not because people have become more fertile, but because we have shifted long-standing patterns of mortality and longevity. It is not that more kids are being born, it is that many more of them are living to have children of their own. ("The Population Problem", an Eco-Justice Notes in 2005, discussed this factor in detail.)

    I see an clear implication here for the moral theologians who argue against any form of contraception as a meddling in God's will. (It should be noted that this ethical teaching of the Catholic church is broadly disregarded by Catholic families around the world.) If we are willing to intervene to remove "natural" causes of death -- with vaccinations, clean water supplies, famine relief, etc. -- then it is equally appropriate to intervene in preventing conception. This is a non-controversial matter in progressive Christian churches, but it is a difficult point in many ecumenical and interfaith discussions. To push the point even farther, if our compassionate and humanitarian policies result in unsustainable population growth, then we have an obligation to work for action on the fertility side in order to balance the scales.

  2. Those actions to reduce birthrates take many forms. All of them are necessary, and most of them are non-controversial. Move people from stark poverty to basic levels of sufficiency. Educate women and ensure them some level of self-determination about their life choices. Provide basic health care for all people, including family planning services. Around the world, in a wide variety of cultural and religious settings, these changes have been accompanied by rapidly falling birthrates as people are informed and empowered to make choices, and as they feel enough security that they don't need to depend on lots of children to sustain the family.

  3. Matters of reproduction and family size must always be voluntary -- especially for the women who bear those children, but also for families, communities and countries. Ethically, no one should be forced to have children, or prevented from having wanted offspring. Likewise, no population group, no nation, should be compelled by another to limit or reduce their numbers.

    Those voluntary choices, though, can and must be informed and encouraged. Social norms help define whether a big family is considered normal or obscene. Tax policies and social services influence the choices made by families. Education campaigns can influence family planning decisions. In many countries, intentional policies have used voluntary strategies to effectively slow population growth.

  4. In this over-crowded and overwhelmed world, the most affluent people are the ones who place the largest burdens on our local and global ecology. Those of us who are relatively wealthy, who use the most resources and who cause the most pollution, must make the personal and collective choices that will dramatically reduce our impact. For us, the questions are not only about how many children to have, but about finding sustainable and sufficient ways of living.

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Seven billion is an astonishing number of people. It takes us far beyond the often quoted blessing/commandment from the first chapter of Genesis: "Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the Earth and subdue it." We've done that, and more, and in the process we have cancelled the parallel charge to other species, who were also called to be fruitful.

Seven billion and rising is not a viable condition. We humans must moderate our numbers and reduce our impact. Thankfully, we can take essential steps in that direction without great conflict, without miraculous new technologies, and without coercing people into unwanted choices.

May the crossing of the seven billion mark lead us to heightened awareness and toward more committed action.

My ethical reflections were shaped by two documents that are not on-line: the population chapter in Roger Shinn's 1985 book "Forced Options: Social Decisions for the 21st Century", and the 1996 Presbyterian Church (USA) statement "Hope for a Global Future: Toward Just and Sustainable Human Development".

I have also found some interesting and provocative materials in the Grist series "Seven Billion: What to expect when you're expanding."


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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