Recently, viewers were given a new season of “The Crown,” the Netflix series that chronicles the life of Queen Elizabeth. In the wake of her death earlier this year, the season is all the more interesting because of the new monarch who sits on the throne, her son, King Charles III. Charles is being dubbed the “climate king.” His concern for the environment has led to controversial mentions of overpopulation in the past. But, where does this idea come from, and how should Christians think about it?
The myth of overpopulation
In 1968, Stanford entomologist Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, warning that the earth was overpopulated and that millions of people would starve to death. His doomsday warning did not come true. Starvation has occurred on much smaller scales, due largely to government mismanagement and corruption, not overpopulation.
Yet the myth of overpopulation persists. Ecologist Emma Olliff of the U.K.-based group Population Matters recently said, “More of us is only going to make (the environment) worse. This kind of reasoning was famously cited by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who are choosing to have only two children because of global overpopulation.
At the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, famed primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall said that human population growth is responsible for most environmental problems. Goodall stated, “All these (environmental) things we talk about wouldn’t be a problem if there was the size of the population that there was 500 years ago.” Apparently, Goodall pines for the good ol’ days when the average life expectancy was around 40 years of age and infant mortality was around 20%.
Human life is not the problem, and human death is not the solution. Since the publication of The Population Bomb, several books have debunked the myth of overpopulation, including The Myth of Over-Population (1969) R.J. Rushdoony, Fewer (2004) by Ben Wattenberg, and Population Control (2008) by Steven Mosher. Governments in Japan, Finland, Italy, and Australia (to name a few) are now paying people to have babies.
Currently, no European country has a population replacement rate of 2.1 babies per woman. Globally, many countries are below the replacement rate, including China (1.7), Brazil (1.7), Canada (1.5), Puerto Rico (1.1), Thailand (1.5), and Chile (1.7).
In 1968, the fear was global starvation. In 2020, humans wasted an estimated 1.6 billion tons of food at a cost of $1.2 trillion dollars annually. In 1968 the fear was overpopulation. In 2020, under-populated towns and cities paid people to move there.
Dangers of the myth
Overpopulation is an old myth. Catastrophic predictions about human population and food shortage go back (at least) to 19th-century Anglican pastor and economist Thomas Robert Malthus. In his book An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus argued that human population would outpace food production. Malthus advocated preventative measures such as family planning, late marriages, and celibacy.
Global overpopulation is not only a myth; it is a dangerous myth. Bernie Sanders said that abortion is an important way of addressing global overpopulation. National Public Radio (NPR) has even reported on the research of journalist Mei Fong, who in her book One Child (2016), estimated that China’s one-child policy led to 30 million forced abortions.
In popular culture, Thanos (of the Marvel Universe) channels his inner Malthus in 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” saying, “The universe is finite, its resources finite, if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist.” This is the same faulty logic (and bad theology) peddled by Malthus, Ehrlich, Goodall, and Sanders. Unlike in the Marvel Universe, the “bad guys” aren’t always so easy to spot.
A Christian response
God created marriage between a man and a woman, commanded human procreation, and placed the family as the primary building block of human flourishing in a world that he equipped to accommodate human growth (Gen 1:26-28). He did this, in part, by creating humans with a capacity to solve problems using science and technology. As global population has grown, standards of living and life expectancy have increased while infant mortality and extreme poverty have decreased. Human population growth is not the problem.
There are a variety of possible ways that Christians can respond to the myth of overpopulation. First, Christians do best when telling the true biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Christians can place the growth of population into the storyline of Scripture where it is a good thing, not a problem to be corrected. It is part of God’s command to fill the earth and steward it.
Second, local churches can promote and support healthy and normative patterns of human flourishing by offering biblical counseling and parenting services, supporting pregnancy resource centers and adoption and foster care ministries, and by welcoming children and those with special needs into the worship service. In so doing, they evidence that the family is essential to God’s plan for flourishing and the Church has a vested interest in helping strengthen this building block of society.
Third, Christians cannot allow the sin of materialism to go unchecked. That amounts to aiding and abetting the enemy. Human population growth is only a problem if one accepts the lie that joy, identity, and comfort are found in unchecked consumption and material possessions. There is nothing inherently wrong with living in a large home, owning recreational vehicles, retiring early, or sending your kids to the best schools. However, such things are not the biblical picture of success or an indication of God’s favor and blessing. Christians are to be those who steward the created world, not those who intentionally put off God-ordained gifts because they are controlled by the things of this world.
Ideas have consequences. Most tragically, the idea of overpopulation has resulted in global mass murder, including calls for expanding abortion access in developing nations where population growth is higher. It is a myth that continues to be used to justify both abortion and suicide. Christians who believe in the sanctity and goodness of human life should expose the myth of overpopulation for what it often is: A pretext for murder and justification for opposing a biblical view of children,family, and procreation.