With yet another report on environmental degradation, we must once again ask how people of faith should respond. Here we tackle the very controversial issue of overpopulation.

Overpopulation

Perhaps you’ve seen the various reports that the Earth is threatened by overpopulation. The fear is that humanity will continue to expand, exceeding the Earth’s carrying capacity, which will cause mass starvation due to the inability to produce enough food and clean water for everyone. If that were to happen, global conflicts would be likely, as each nation competes for the limited resources.

And the data does appear to be rather damning:

In 2012, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and Global Environmental Alert Service (GEAS) surveyed all the research regarding how many people the Earth can support. While the proposals were wide-ranging, the majority suggested that the Earth can sustain no more than 8 billion people, a number we are projected to surpassed by 2030.

Of course, the population is not going to remain at 8 billion:

Population Hysteria

The threat of overpopulation has been at the fore since at least the 1960s. In 1968, for example, Paul Ehrlich published his bestselling book, The Population Bomb, which he begins by penning, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” He later prognosticated that by the year 2000 England would cease to exist due to starvation.

Ehrlich stoked the fires of fear, causing other reputable scholars to pile on his general thesis. Garrett Hardin accepted Ehrlich’s premise and took it to what he believed to be its logical conclusion in his article, “Living on a Lifeboat”:

“Under the guidance of this ratchet (model), wealth can be steadily moved in one direction only, from the slowly-breeding rich to the rapidly-breeding poor, the process finally coming to a halt only when all countries are equally and miserably poor…Every life saved in a poor country diminishes the quality of life for subsequent generations.”

The problem is that there are only so many lifeboats, and the poor are going to capsize the boats of the wealthy, meaning we need to stop trying to save impoverished populations. Religion comes into Hardin’s argument, where he cites the religious “guilt-addicts” for exacerbating the problem by caring for the poor.

These overpopulation alarmists have inspired many scholars toward extreme solutions. For those like Ehrlich and Hardin, wealthy “Western” nations should stop providing aid to poorer regions, killing millions along the way. Others have suggested different tax incentives and reproduction restrictions.

In 2012, two medical ethicists argued for the merit of post-birth abortion in their article titled, “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?,” and in 2015 Oxford University Press published a book that advocates for governments to enforce a one-child policy.

Besides the obvious ethical issues, a more subversive injustice is lurking:

These “Western” scholars are saying that they have the insight and knowhow to properly correct the issues brought on by the “ignorant” people in Africa and Asia through their restrictions models. This position is wrought with overt racism, sexism, nationalism, and classism. The wealthy “Westerners” are going to ensure/insure their own future by once again condemning Africans and Asians.

The Real Problem

The fact of the matter is, the population rate has drastically declined over the past 50 years, and it’s projected to continue in that direction:

In fact, most projections show that global population will level off if not decline this century:

But here’s the thing: even if population does decline, it is unlikely that it will help the ecological problem because population growth in poorer countries was never the real culprit.

Meat consumption is one of the greatest threats to environmental health due to the ecological footprint required to raise animals, particularly cattle. Moreover, energy consumption not only pollutes the air (emission) but also destroys the planet by irreversibly extracting precious resources necessary for a healthy environment.

The Solution

The solution is not to restrict “those people” who are threatening “our” future. Indeed, the solution does not include restrictions at all but instead greater resourcing. Notice, for instance, how these charts coincide with population projections:

 

The actual solution to overpopulation, as these charts demonstrate, is not forcing restrictions onto vulnerable populations but rather resourcing underprivileged communities with better education, technology, and healthcare.

This is an important point because it completely changes the conversation. “Westerners” are no longer the victims of “overpopulators,” which must be restricted. Instead, “Westerners” can reorient in two important ways: we can recognize (1) that resourcing poorer populations removes the threat of overpopulation, and (2) that we are actually to blame because of our consumption habits.

Changing the Discourse

This is where Christianity in general and Pentecostalism in particular can help. The countries doing the greatest ecological damage––while simultaneously producing scholarship that seeks to blame poorer countries for the problem––have a long history with Christianity.

The informed Christian’s duty, therefore, is to reject the false narrative about overpopulation that points at “others” as the problem. Our job is to recognize our own culpability while also advocating for increasing support to impoverished communities, both local and abroad.

The tragedy is that many Spirit-filled believers adopt the ideology that poor people are lazy and deserving of their lot in life. Furthermore, our church missions are often only concerned with providing aid to people in exchange for conversion. This way of thinking is in line with the Ehrlich’s and Hardin’s of the world, where we are willing to watch people die so long as our goals are accomplished.

We need to return to Christianity’s basic tenets within our churches, such as everyone is imbued with value because we are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), freedom (2 Cor. 3:17), stewardship (Ps. 24:1), caring for the vulnerable (Matt. 25: 34-40), and justice (Isaiah 58:5-7).

The truth is, overpopulation has been largely exaggerated; nevertheless, the Earth does appear to have a resource limit, particularly with our current consumption habits. To ensure everyone has enough, the solution is to resource those most in need rather than create further restrictions and to curb our constant need for MORE.

If we are animated by God’s Spirit then our mission is the same as Jesus’:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
John 10:10

We thieve by forcing restrictions onto others, whether financial or social. It is time we become carriers of life––not simply existence but abundant life. The time is now!


Note from the Editorial Team:
Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.


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Joel Daniels

Author: Joel Daniels

Joel is currently a Chaplain-in-Residence and Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University. He studies religion from a global perspective through world Christianity, particularly Pentecostalism, Chinese religious philosophy, interreligious dialogue, spiritual formation, and comparative theology, philosophy, and ethics. More importantly, he is the husband of a superstar and father of three world-changers. He's ordained through the American Baptist Churches, USA, closely affiliating with the charismatic branch of the denomination.

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