Sunday, August 1, 2010

The myth of over-population

Back in May I commented on over-population and referred to this paper, released by the 'Public Affairs Commission' a subcommittee of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia.  Its release was picked up by the AGE newspaper here in Australia and then by the First Things blog and now most recently by the American magazine, Christianity Today.  Unfortunately at each stage, it's been assumed the findings of this subcommittee are somehow officially or unofficially representative of the opinion of the Anglican Church of Australia.  I for one, an Anglican Priest in the Diocese of Tasmania, am strongly opposed to the paper.  Somewhat tangentially this paper reveals that the theological battle for the 'soul' of Anglican Church of Australia, is far from over and also highlights the need to for Evangelical involvement in these sorts of high level sub-committees.

Christians need to be wary of the 'over-population' myth, peddled by those without a theocentric worldview.  As I said in my earlier post, it's not the number of people that's the problem but their sinful behavior.  Sometimes during the climate-change debate there is the insinuation that fewer people would lead to a better environment and that therefore curbing population is a good thing. As Christians we should reject the Neo-Pagan elevation of the environment above humans and reject the logical and moral fallacy that care for the environment somehow equates to fewer people.  There are positive reasons for more people (image of God,  increased evangelism & cultural mandate) and dangerous ways of curbing population (abortion & infanticide).  Over-population is a phrase loaded with moral assumptions we should reject and logical assumptions that are faulty.

Update: Since I seem to be gaining a bit of Internet traction on this topic I want to affirm that there is a clear biblical mandate for Christians to care for our natural environment, just not in the manner the PAC paper recommends.


Allan Smith said...

I like this little parable.

A certain sparrow sat on two eggs.

One chick, a Malthusian pessimist by temperament, decided that nothing existed beyond the shell of its egg. It realized it was fast running out of resources. It decided to stop growing, and it died.

The other chick had a more hopeful disposition. It chose to believe that something good existed beyond its shell. It kept growing, even though it could clearly see that things were running out. It didn't give up. It worked, and it struggled... and it hatched.

ish said...

I like Allan's parable very much.

Luke the theological reasons are compelling. Then there are some observable examples offering support. Tiny Israel (one third the size of Tasmania) has a population of more than 7 million, is mostly desert, feeds itself and is a significant exporter of food.

Alex Smith said...

As Shelley pointed out, at the current rate that people are having children in developed countries we aren't replacing ourselves and therefore it is becoming a wine glass shape. It is predicted that the small minority at the bottom wont be able to provide for all of the old people at the top and this will cause the world economy/society to collapse. Obviously this would cause a lot of suffering!

My main concern is the disproportionate distribution of resources, not a lack of resources. Ultimately this can only be fixed by a change of heart (by God's grace) of the greedy people (which sadly so often includes me!).

Anyway, I believe we have a loving Father God, who will provide what we fundamentally need. Or to put it another way "Necessity is the mother of invention". e.g. it would only require discovering (God revealing) an unlimited/clean source of power and we would be able to convert sea water into drinking water and convert all the deserts of the world into habitable/food producing land :)

Marion said...

Surprisingly God has already revealed to people (the Israelis come to mind) that desalination plants work well. The desert has produced abundant food (as Steve said, Israel exports food) because the Israelis invented drip irrigation.

Funny that word verification is 'dessessa'.

Shelley said...

Those Israelis are clever. They give me some hope that we'll one day be able to grow things in our sandy soil in the backyard!

Jon said...

Thanks for the link and comment Luke. It seems there are three issues that we need to distinguish here.

1. There is a scientific issue - is the projected level of population growth sustainable? What contribution does population growth make to human-caused environmental damage - as distinct from other factors like overconsumption, poor energy technology, etc? I'm hardly competent to judge this issue and the PAC accepts the argument that current population growth is unsustainable, rather than examining that proposition. There seem to be some logical flaws in their paper - like the leap they make from world population to Australian population, and the failure to account for the fact that the environmental damage is coming primarily from nations where population is static or declining. There are also some logical flaws in some of your commentators here - like generalising Israel's experience to other places (what works in the Israeli environment won't necessarily work in Australia) and the issue of the ageing population (which assumes that people over 65 are unable to support themselves).

2. The second question is what responsibility Christians have in general for environmental protection. I'm quite comfortable with the PAC's arguments on this - Christians are responsible for the careful and just stewardship of the natural environment. Tghis includes a fair distrivution of resources now (from rich to poor) and into the future (given sustainability means sharing with future generations not hogging it all for ourselves).

3. The third, then, is how these things come together. If population growth is indeed unsustainable and Christians have a responsibility to practice sustainability, then curbing population growth has to be part of our mandate. However, if population is not part of the problem then we can forget that and concentrate on other issues.

Luke said...

@ Everyone:

Thanks for the responses.

@ Jon:

Always an interesting commenter and a worthy debating foil. I agree the PAC make a grave error in conflating the issues surrounding population with the issues surrounding our care (or lack of) the environment. They affirm sadly and incorrectly: With the burgeoning human population now posing a threat to all life on the planet.

While I'm no expert on Israeli agricultural methods, I believe there are agricultural principles surrounding a low water levels and dry conditions that are comparable. So I'm not sure about the logical flaws there.

I agree with you and the PAC that Christians should care for the environment. However "over-population" is a morally ambiguous phrase, implying there is a problem and creating the potential for unsavory methods of lowering the population. I think 'population sustainability' is an open debate. The beauty of technological progress is hampered by the ugliness of human sinfulness. More people will, until Jesus returns, always produce more problems, but the solution is salvation not reducing the number of people! "Over-population" implies the it's not the condition of people that is the problem but the number of people. The morality of this presupposition is faulty.

Jon said...

Yes, overpopulation is definitely a laden term which presupposes there is a problem. I heard a population expert on Radio National a couple of weeks ago - sorry, can't find the program now - talking about how most population growth is in places like Africa where each individual's carbon footprint is like one 70th of that of a person in Australia. He was suggesting that other issues around resource consumption are much more pressing than population.

"but the solution is salvation not reducing the number of people"

I assume you're not suggesting that if we all became Christians environmental problems would go away - tried that, it didn't work.

Luke said...

I assume you're not suggesting that if we all became Christians environmental problems would go away - tried that, it didn't work. Your terms are unclear, what do you mean by Christians and under what circumstances did it not work?

A number of interesting issues collide here, was there ever or will there ever be a period of a Christian majority? What does environmental sustainability look like? The survival of every species, universally clean water or simply access to clean water? Western culture hasn't figured it out yet but there is a fundamental clash between technological progress and the maintenance of a pristine environment, whatever pristine means. Until Jesus returns what is our ultimate goal as a human species?

Jon or other readers, I'd be really interested in a Christian author who clearly and interestingly explores these questions, any suggestions?

Marion said...

Francis Schaeffer: Pollution and the Death of Man. Just flicked thru our copy this morning, been a while since I read it. Says sensible things. You may borrow our copy or see if Koorong has it.

Jon said...

A majority of people in the USA profess Christian belief and they have the world's largest carbon footprint per person.

Re sustainability, we could go for a less controversial definition - a way of life which enables the continuation of a decent standard of life for all people indefinitely. A more controversial and difficult definition would say "all creation" rather than "all people". Still need to define "decent" - I would say it involves adequate food, shelter, clothing, and reasonable security in relation to these things - given we're talking about the physical environment best not to stray into other aspects of what might be a "decent" life.

I don't have any good books on the subject but if you google "Christian environmentalist" you find lots of stuff, good and bad - however you define those terms!

The Borg said...

With the burgeoning human population now posing a threat to all life on the planet.

Sounds exactly like deep ecology! Which is an indefensible position.

Jon said...

Yesterday's election flyer provides a scary confirmation of your fears about the dangers of seeing population as a sustainability issue! See