Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Overpopulation Myth

This morning while reading, and based on a lecture I heard the other day, my thoughts drifted to the idea of overpopulation. It is an oft ready argument leveled against the Catholic belief that contraception is contradictory to the dignity of the human person. In conversations stemming from the recently published article detailing the regrets of of one of the creators of the Pill, overpopulation was nearly always raised as an objection during those conversations.

While not a Luddite, I am someone who does not view technology as necessarily salvific. I think we often do because we can without thinking through the implications of having done so. So rather than developing and applying technology with guarded foresight, we tend to enthusiastically yield to technology's short term improvements before we understand the long term detrimental effects of technology.

However, in the case of the perception of the eventual total destruction of the planet through overpopulation, it seems that discussions of technological advancement are curiously absent. Taking the example of China where fears of overpopulation have yielded to aggressive population control measures, very rarely in my experience, do these conversations include a discussion of population concentration or a discussion of the effect of disastrous effects of Communism on the available food supply. During the Great Leap Forward, as populations were relocated, nearly 30 million people in China perished in a famine brought about largely from poor government planning. Looking at a map of population concentrations, one can see that most of China is very sparsely populated. I understand that rugged terrain, harsh conditions, water availability and arable land all play a part in population distribution; however, human beings have demonstrated the ability to live in wide and varied conditions and topographies. As technology improves further, one can only assume that human beings will be further equipped to live and even thrive in places which were only before sparsely populated.

Advances continue in agricultural cultivation and production at an astounding rate. Though it is not yet sustainable on a scale large enough to be economically viable, hydroponics (growing things without soil) continues to advance in technology. Though we need to tread lightly , cautiously, and with much forethought, the area of cloning provides exciting possibilities when it comes to food production. And no discussion about food supply would be complete without discussing the lamentable food surplus. At this point, it is not a question of having enough food to feed the world, but rather one of getting the available food to those who most need it. It is my belief, that in a global economy such as ours, that famine and starvation is almost always the result of governmental corruption, greed, and malice.

Another important consideration most often left out of the discussion by population-as-the-cause-of-our-destruction proponents, is that as economic conditions improve the rate of population expansion in a country nearly always declines. If more children are likely to survive, if children are not directly contributing to the economic well-being of the family, if parents see some material comfort and wealth as a possibility they tend towards having fewer children. This in itself can wield to detrimental effects, which one need only look to many European countries and see first hand.

There is middle ground there. There is what John Paul II referred to as responsible parenthood. Child spacing can allow a woman's body to heal and recover from pregnancy and birth. Extended breastfeeding as the norm (WHO recommends that breastfeeding be continued at least until age two), can help limit a family's reproductive rate. Bl. Mother Teresa had immense success teaching the poorest of the poor in India to successfully use natural family planning, in concordance with the teaching of the Church. Which then brings the discussion to one of prudence, which is where I think things tend to go a little awry-even amidst Catholics.

Is our child-bearing rooted in prudent generosity? Just as we would be remiss to give away all of our family's grocery money, we also can be remiss in failing to prudently use the gift of our fertility. However, we would also be remiss if we failed to give to others in need, if our grocery money went beyond the reasonable necessities. Two less packages of soda, is $10 in the hands of someone who is in need. Prudence is the great governor of all other virtues, and it is interesting to me that it is so little talked about. Yes, we are open to life, but that openness includes more than merely being open to the creation of new babies. We are open to the fullness of life.

It seems that any conversation involving overpopulation would be only half a conversation if it lacks an honest discussion of prudence and generosity, both in regards to fertility and in reference to food distribution. It seems to me that any conversation involving overpopulation would be only half a conversation if it lacks an honest discussion of technology, population distribution, and the merits and detriments of particular governments and their trade policies.


  1. A lot of this is seductive as moral poetry, but one of the concrete arguments you make strikes me as specious: that there are still vast areas of the world that are under- or unpopulated areas and therefore uncontrolled growth in population is not the problem it is made out to be. That is just shifting the question to several generations from now. The earth is a finite place and humankind's capacity to reproduce itself is infinite. Doesn't this indicate either a flaw in 'God's' thinking or his indifference to our eventual collective suicide?

    Jerry (alyosha)

  2. My problem with that, though, is that while it does, absolutely, put an impetus on future generations to solve problems and create technology--that it also negates the true facts of history over the past 200 years. Much of the world has moved into and through idustrialisation and away from an agrarian-based life--and yet food abundance, improvements in health, etc. have made people able to live better, healthier lives away from their food and water sources-not worse lives.

    I find it interesting that in discussions of over-population it's always people having babies who are to blame and never the old who just don't die at the ages and rates that they used to. To me, the demographic which has changed most radiacally is not how many people are born- but rather that people who used to be dead are dead no longer. The old are who tax our resources, far more than the young. Yet, any discussions of an age-driven suicide are suspiciously absent (not that I advocate that in any way). Rather the discussions focus always and anon on women ingesting something or having surgery to alter their natural biology. Surely there is some other choice besides intentionally altering women's bodies en masse in order to self the world from self-destruction.

    It's a curiosity to me, also, that evolutionary biology is absent from these discussions as well. In nature, over population means the weak die and the strong survive and undesirable characteristics are weeded out of the gene pool. What is it about humankind, which makes that option seem cruel and harsh?