Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Taking Action on Over-Population
distributed 7/13/18 - ©2018

A few people in the Eco-Justice Ministries constituency always have been reliable "population" advocates, pushing me to speak up more often and more strongly about the perils of humanity's soaring numbers.

In recent months, I've been hearing about this concern from a wider range of people. As I look at some of the latest demographic projections, I agree that this is a problem which needs to be addressed explicitly and firmly.

World Population Day -- one of those global occasions that you never hear about -- is always July 11. I'm two days late, but it is still appropriate to take a look at population.

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Overpopulation is a relatively new concern. For much of human history, our numbers were relatively small. Thus, for thousands of years Jewish and Christian faith traditions found hope and promise in the blessing of Genesis 1, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it." Now, though, we can say that this is the only biblical commandment that has been fully accomplished.

There are numerous graphs and charts showing the slow, and then explosive increase in people. One set of figures tells us that the global human population in the year 1 CE was about 200 million. It took until 1804 for that to grow to 1 billion. It doubled to 2 billion in 1927, and doubled again -- in less than 50 years -- by 1975. We haven't quite doubled that 4 billion, yet. The Population Institute has a running tally which tells me that, as of this morning, we're a bit over 7 billion, 584 million, 412 thousand. It will be higher if you check now.

It was just six and a half years ago that I wrote a Notes titled, "Seven Billion and Rising." In that short span, we've added over a half billion more to our ranks.

My anxiety over population is increasing because the projections for continued growth have changed. As I was researching the Notes of six years ago, I saw reputable figures that expected the growth rate to slow -- and perhaps even start to decline -- by the middle of this century. Experts thought that, by 2050, we'd top out somewhere in the range of 8.1 billion to 10.6 billion.

But a 2017 report from the United Nations now says that "The world's population is projected to increase by slightly more than one billion people over the next 13 years, reaching 8.6 billion in 2030, and to increase further to 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100." Even in 2100, the UN projections expect even more population growth.

Those projections have changed, I understand, largely because of new situations in sub-Saharan Africa, where life expectancy his climbed, and fertility rates have not dropped as much as expected. Both fertility and life expectancy are important. My 2005 Notes on population explored the reality that "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." (You can look at some fascinating interactive maps about those two factors on a UN website.)

Why is the ongoing growth of humanity's numbers a problem? Even now, the intersection of population and consumption levels means that we're far above sustainable numbers. Globally, we're exhausting resources, crowding out other species, and warping natural systems such as the climate. A well-known analysis says that humans would be sustainable -- ecologically, and with a decent quality of life for all -- at 1.5-2 billion.

The growing number of people, combined with growing levels of consumption, is an ecological disaster, and a driver of social and international conflict. It is not a good thing that there are close to 7.6 billion of us.

Unfortunately, there are only a few ways to get from our current population to a sustainable one in a short time frame, and none of them are paths that a reasonable person or government would choose. A global pandemic could trim billions. So could nuclear war. World-wide famine -- perhaps triggered by climate instability -- would be agonizing. A profound change in social ethics -- or in health care financing -- might stop using the technology that leads to longevity, trimming multitudes of older folk. (In 1984, Colorado Governor Dick Lamm said terminally ill elderly citizens "have a duty to die and get out of the way.")

A dramatic population cut, by whatever means, also would be devastating to those who remain. In a world with a quarter of the population, there'd need to be astounding changes in how we structure and maintain our communities -- food production, housing, transportation, etc.

For me, the estimate that 2 billion is a sustainable population provides a prophetic challenge to our values of growth and prosperity, and it highlights the fact that our current trajectory is unmanageable. I don't look at 2 billion as a goal for the next couple of centuries. I do see it as a dramatic statement that we're currently in overshoot and that big changes are needed.

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So what changes are needed that are also realistic?

Some of the most effective steps are also the least 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.

Social attitudes about family size can be influenced in remarkably effective ways. In India and Mexico, TV programs that show empowered women and smaller families have made a big difference in birth rates.

The problematic role of religions has to be addressed. Doctrines and perspectives formulated centuries ago do not convey ethical truth or wisdom today. The Catholic Church is the most prominent example of a faith community which has fought against contraception and which has diminished the choices given to women. Theologians, ethicists and scientists within faith traditions must grapple with their role in addressing the population crisis.

The policies of the United States -- internally and internationally -- are also very problematic. In current legislation about funding for health care, access to contraception is reduced. There are determined efforts to cut funding from Planned Parenthood, one of the nation's largest provider of all forms of reproductive health services. Early in his administration, President Trump announced that the US will discontinue funding for the UN agency that deals with family planning and reproductive health. A US "gag rule," reinstated in January, 2017, requires foreign non-governmental organizations receiving US global family planning assistance to certify they will not "perform or actively promote abortion as a method of family planning" with non-US funds -- cutting off essential funding from agencies providing essential family planning service of many kinds. These US policies are active steps to increase population growth in the US and around the world -- steps in the wrong direction.

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Overpopulation leads to environmental destruction and reinforces poverty. We're already deep into the danger zone, and projections show surging population through the rest of this century.

There are practical steps that can change that trend. There are government policies that must be changed to allow better family planning choices. Faith traditions must acknowledge our role in creating and maintaining this crisis.

It is time to talk about over-population -- not just on World Population Day, but as an ongoing matter of ethical and political urgency.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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