Overpopulation – March 2003

Question: What does Christian theology say about population growth, immigration, and zero or negative population growth? Put another way, what would Christ (and the Father-Holy Spirit) say about the commandment to the creation both human and non-human to “be fruitful and multiply” from Genesis One?

Publication Month: March 2003

Dr. Cobb’s Response

The church has found these topics extremely difficult. Even theologians who are sensitive to ecological problems, rarely discuss the relation of those problems to population. I include myself, although I have not avoided the issue altogether. There are several reasons for this hesitation. One of them is suggested in the question. Our scriptures come from a time when large families and numerous descendants were appreciated as God’s gifts and marks of God’s favor. This is much less true of the New Testament than of the Old, but the reason for this difference has to do with the early Christian expectation that the time was short before the end.  When the church settled down to live in the world, large families were once again prized.

Although some continue to affirm the binding character of this text, many recognize that the situation has now changed. We can say that being fruitful and multiplying and filling the earth is the one commandment that we have now fulfilled. It is time to go on to others in ways that will make us responsible to one another and to the other creatures with whom the Genesis account expected us to share the planet. This far many Christians are now prepared to go.

But we then face another obstacle. Most of the increase in population is in the poorer nations, what we now often call “the south”.  People in the south point out that it is not their consumption, numerous as they are, that threatens the health of the planet. It is our consumption in the parts of the world where birthrates are roughly at replacement level.  For us in “the north” to emphasize population issues while we continue to increase our rates of consumption is morally indefensible. We often feel that we should postpone our concerns about population until we have dealt with our consumerism.

Even if we decide that we cannot wait to address the population issue, there remains the difficulty as to what to say. We can be fairly comfortable in encouraging more autonomy on the part of women so that they have alternatives to motherhood and will be free to choose to have fewer children. We can encourage systems of social security that can replace dependence on children in old age.  We can urge the extension of education about reproductive matters and making available the means of family planning.

But this is not enough. Abortion has been part of most successful programs in lowering birthrates. Few Christians like to promote abortions. What is being killed is of real value. Nevertheless, many of us believe that in a good many instances abortion is the least bad of alternatives. Although globally Christian resistance continues to be a major obstacle, many theologians have swallowed hard and moved to liberalize laws against abortion and to support its availability.

This still does not take us far enough. The sad fact is that in many cultures the family size desired by women as well as by men will, if implemented, continue to overpopulate the world. So what are we to propose? Do we believe that society through government should exercise pressure on would-be parents not to have desired children? Can we as Christians support the Chinese system?

Most Christians draw back from this. My own answer, however, is that we should support the Chinese government program and encourage similar programs elsewhere as a last resort.

I say “as a last resort.” There are still possibilities in some cultures of changing the desires of parents through effective
propaganda/education. Soap operas have been developed, for example, that raise the issues in effective ways and encourage serious consideration of limiting births. These have been remarkably effective in some places. Such intervention in the values of other cultures is problematic, but less so than governmental compulsion.

My account indicates how very seriously I take the problem of overpopulation. As Christians, I believe that we must try to act now in as large a context as possible. The extension of context is especially into the future. Increasing population in a world of limits means worsening poverty. This accelerates as each generation seeks to survive at the expense of the remaining resources of the earth.  Our call to stewardship of the earth requires that we avoid these unsustainable practices. We cannot do so with an ever growing population.

If we do not voluntarily limit our population, in one way or another, population will be cut back anyway. We see one of these ways today in Africa as population is beginning to decline in some regions because of AIDS. War over the remaining resources is another way of reducing population. Sheer lack of food is another. Much as a Christian feels distaste for governmental compulsion, this is far preferable to these alternatives.

Difficult as is the question of population in general, that of immigration is even more difficult for Christians to address.  Immigration is primarily from places where population pressures on resources are already stressful to places where they have not yet become so serious. This is, of course, an oversimplification. If we think of immigration from Mexico into the United States, we cannot view the problem in Mexico from which people flee as simply lack of resources. It is, more directly, poverty; and much of this poverty is caused by an economic system that is unjust. There would be ways of reordering the Mexican economy that would improve the lot of the poor, reducing the incentive to emigrate.

Nevertheless, the resources are not available to those who try to enter the United States. Here they have access to resources they cannot access at home. They are willing to work hard in order to participate in a small measure in our wealth. Many of us benefit from their willingness to work hard for wages that, from our point of view, are low. Is it not cruel and unjust to restrict their entrance into our country? Should not our doors be open to all who want to come?

Despite the Christian attractiveness of this attitude of welcome, I do not myself judge that it is ultimately the Christian position. To let down all barriers to entry would probably lead to vastly increasing the rate of immigration from East Asia. China could ease, though not solve, its population problems if two or three hundred million Chinese moved to North America. Overall, population pressure on resources would tend to equalize over the planet. The temporary relief of such pressure in some places would probably lead to faster growth there. Needed policies to stop growth would be delayed. Meanwhile there would be extensive social disruption in the receiving countries, as the standard of living there plummeted, especially for the poor.

There are no happy solutions. We certainly should not close the door to immigrants, but I believe that we should keep the flow at a level that can be assimilated with minimum sacrifice of the well being of the poor who are already here. We should also accompany this acceptance of population increase with a systematic effort to reduce per capita consumption. We are already consuming our resources at an unsustainable rate. Those who immigrate want to share in our “way of life.” Unless that way of life becomes less consumptive, the resulting population increase will intensify the unsustainability of our society, and indeed of the world as a whole.

These are extremely complex and difficult questions. I believe that theologians have the responsibility to engage them. There is no way of getting from here to a just and sustainable society that does not involve suffering. Our task is to propose ways that are as mindful as possible to the needs of people and other creatures both today and tomorrow. We must not flinch from policies that cause pain, when the alternatives are much worse. But we should be sure that we share the pain at least equally.

One may ask in what way the views here expressed are distinctive of process theology. Are they not just expressions of a secular rationality? In one sense they are. Secular refers to the world and can refer to it in its totality.  To think rationally about the world as a whole is quite close to the way a process theologian intends to think. But there is another use of “secular” that has quite different results. Much of the world is run by secular-minded people who see rationality as the calculation of what is good for them and theirs. The secularity of the university means that explicit value judgments are largely excluded. Process theology is far removed from that kind of secularity.

On the other hand, at some of the points made above process theology differs from many other forms of Christian thought largely by what it rejects. Christians generally agree that our concern for others should be inclusive. But in dealing with concrete issues, they often appeal to particular rules or principles. For example, some use biblical commands as eternal principles.  Process thought treats the command to be fruitful and multiply as time bound and no longer relevant.

Many Catholics have employed natural law theory to gain guidance on many matters. They employ this theory to oppose most forms of birth control and, emphatically, abortion. Some even argue, either from the Bible or from natural law, that the husband has the right to make choices for the whole family regardless of the wife’s preferences. Process theology rejects the authority of such natural law doctrines, in part because Paul taught that we are free from not only the Jewish law, but law in general, and partly because there is really no place for immutable laws in the world of process.

Many Christians think of ethics in quite individualist ways. They do not see how concerns for the community as a whole can override the rights of individuals. Hence public intervention to discourage or prevent the births of wanted children is abhorrent.  Process theology understands individuals as constituted largely by relations with others in community. The true well being of the individual is achieved only as the community flourishes. For the sake of its members the community may have to restrict the behavior of its members. We may also have to sacrifice some real goods now for the sake of future members of the community.

For process theology, ultimately, the question is how to contribute most to God. The well being of creatures overall contributes to God. The human creatures can contribute most, but the contrast of the experience of other animals to human experience enriches this contribution. The aim should be at a human population that is as large as can have an enjoyable life on a sustainable basis without unduly restricting the flourishing of other creatures. No one knows just what that is because we have not experimented with developing societies where life is less destructive but more enjoyable. Given our present means of attaining the good life, our population is already too large.