Overpopulation Overstated

I’ve noticed that some pro-choice people are all about personal choice as long as you don’t choose to have “too many” children. Sadly, “too many” is defined as more than two! Families of four or more children, take a lot of heat from the public at large. We’re talking online comments, grocery store remarks, and rude whispers. I was horrified to hear a fellow mom tell me that a man told her “Your family is a burden on society” in front of her children! I remember reading a Yahoo Style story about a cute birth announcement where they were announcing #7 (it really was cute I wish I could find it). The comments were pure vitriol. I browsed the first dozen or more comments and they were all negative! A common theme in some of these anti-family comments was “save the planet!” or “<derogatory name> don’t you know the world is already overpopulated!” There are some people who think we can’t end abortion because logistically what will happen to the world if we have any more people.

Is this idea of overpopulation fact or fiction? The fact is the population did triple between 1950 and 2000 and those that promote “population control” would have us believe that it will continue tripling every 50 years. The UN Population Database has Low, Medium, and High Variant projections for population. It was universally pointed out in the articles I researched that historically when they’ve made these projections in the past the Low Variant has always been the projection to come to pass. I used four primary sources: Dr. Janet E. Smith’s essay Contraception Why Not?, Fr. Frank Pavone’s articles via Priests for Life, Overpopulationisamyth.com and Human Life International’s recent article How the Church Must Respond to the Overpopulation Myth by Fr. Shenan Boquet, which mostly reference their own sources in their articles and sites. What the low variant projection shows is that in about 30-40 years the population will hit the 8 billion mark and then actually start declining.

So why did the population boom from 1950 to 2000 and why won’t that trend continue? The population increase first occurred because of all the medical advances prolonging life. In places like Pakistan the life expectancy actually doubled! If life expectancy doubles, the population doubles. But it makes sense that if life expectancy went from 35 to 70, it would be impossible for it to double again. The second major contributor to the population boom between 1950 and 2000 was a dramatic reduction in infant and child mortality rates. Better healthcare and nutrition leads to higher infant survival rates. I don’t know the exact numbers but you can imagine how implementing widespread use of vaccines and antibiotics alone would lead to a small boom in population that would not be expected to be repeated. So the population trend has nothing to do with people having more babies. In fact it is happening in spite of people having fewer babies.

I don’t think anyone would be surprised to hear that family sizes have dramatically decreased over the last 50 years. We are almost on the brink of a population crisis … an underpopulation crisis. Can this be true? As Dr. Janet Smith points out about 15 years ago the UN started simultaneously holding conferences on what to do about overpopulation AND what to do about declining populations. Fr. Pavone mentions that over 70 countries, representing half of the world’s population, people live in an area that is below replacement rate. What is the replacement rate? The replacement rate is the average number of children a woman must have in order to maintain the population. In developed nations it is 2.1, in underdeveloped nations it is 3.1. Most of Europe is under 1.4, Japan is at 1.2.

Why is there this prevalent notion that the world is overpopulated? In a word, poverty. Poverty exists so it must be because there are too many people! In Jason Evert’s book Saint John Paul the Great His Five Loves, he tells how

“John Paul believed that the solution to poverty is not to reduce the number of innocent poor children, but to reduce the number of corrupt rich politicians.”

He goes on to say “the cause of poverty is not the poor. It is war, inhumane political systems, lack of education, and an unjust distribution of resources.” Now some critics of the Catholic position on birth control will claim that it exacerbates the poverty in overpopulated third world countries. To this Jason notes, “Distributing birth control pills in the barrios might reduce the number of children, but it won’t improve the living conditions of the living. Although Western nations often try to impose “family planning services” on developing nations, the poor rarely clamor for access to it. They possess enough wisdom to view children as their greatest treasure.”

I thought it was funny the way Dr. Janet Smith puts it as she apologizes to a group from Zimbabwe about Western solutions.

“Your people are hungry? You need more condoms. Your people are dying from diseases? You need more condoms.” ~Dr. Janet Smith

What she is getting at is before 1993 the UN had programs to help develop infrastructure in third world countries. Industrialized nations have more stable population growth and less poverty largely due to more education and better access to food and healthcare. The more education men and women receive the smaller the family size as people wait until completing their education to have families. Also a more educated populace produces better candidates to support better healthcare and other infrastructure. What changed in 1993? The UN put in place population control programs (pushing contraception and abortion) and if third world countries did not participate they would not receive any kind of aid such as health care, education, or financial incentives for industrialization.

Overpopulationisamyth.com has a series of 1-2min videos that cover a lot of these sorts of topics. I recommend watching them. The UNFPA (United Nations Fund for Population Activities) was founded in 1969, the year after Paul Ehrlich of Stanford published The Population Bomb a book, in which he “expertly” gives doomsday predictions such as this one,

 “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines–hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” ~Paul Ehrlich

The UNFPA has been involved in government programs throughout the world that deny women the right to choose the number and spacing of their children, such as the infamous “One-Child Policy” in China, uncovered by the US State Department in 2001, afterwhich the United States pulled its funding of UNFPA. But sadly, it still gets plenty of support from what Overpopulationisamyth.com terms the “Wealthy West.” Even without government support wealthy private donors set up programs for “Free Abortions” like the program highlighted on the front page of the Idaho Statesmen a few weeks ago. Couldn’t that money be better spent? According to  writing for Human Life International (HLI) “Since 1996 the United States and other developed nations have spent over $65 billion on anti-life programs in Africa – $150 billion in countries around the world – with little to show for it except paternalism, exploitation, and violation of peoples and cultures.” HLI Regional Director, Emil Hagamu, in Anglophone, Africa puts it like this:

“Africans need assistance with infrastructure. We need to have good roads. We need to have good hospitals and medicines. We need to have good schools. We don’t need condoms. We don’t need contraception. We don’t need abortion.”

In addition to poverty and propaganda, I think urban overcrowding also affects the perception of overpopulation. Poverty and urban overcrowding tend to go hand in hand. In 2003 I participated in a GATE program (Global Awareness Through Experience) sponsored by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration at Viterbo University and travelled to Chiapas Mexico the poorest state in that nation. What stuck with me from that trip is how our economy in the USA affects other economies, which may be more fragile. Everyone feels like their economy is the most fragile, kind of like everyone feels like the place they live has the most unpredictable weather. I’ve heard many times, “That’s Idaho weather for you!” Wait what? Boise, Idaho has nothing on pretty much everywhere else I’ve lived- the Wisconsin winters, the Houston humidity, icy Iowa, Memphis rains! I don’t know much about NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), but through GATE’s presentation I saw a side of capitalism I never saw before. I saw how unfair competition in the market really devastated a lot of Mexican farming communities. The US apparently subsidized corn giving our farmers a huge price advantage over the farmers of Mexico. Corn being a major market with corn tortillas a staple of their diet, etc this affected a lot of people. So those farmers that couldn’t make it anymore were forced to move into the city to find new opportunities. Huge urban cities like Mexico City result and that contributes to the overpopulation perception. It makes me wonder what would happen if we invested more in stabilizing their economy through infrastructure and less in building walls and beefing up borders?

I’ve often heard it said that it is not a population problem, but a distribution problem. Do we have the resources necessary to feed the world? We do! Father Pavone points out that enough grain is produced for every person on the planet to consume 3500 calories a day; if you add meat, fruits and vegetables and other foods there is an average of 4.3 pounds of food produced per person every day. Here is the YouTube link to a 2 min video from overpopulationisamyth.com pointing out how we produce more food farming on less land than ever before and some other good points!

I’m not pointing any fingers but someone is a greedy glutton. Was it St. Ambrose that said if you own two shirts, one is yours, but the other belongs to the poor? We are in the season of giving, and so we must continue to live out our pro-life passions by doing our part to care for the poor. As Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker movement said, “If everyone tried to be poor no one would be.” He also encouraged us to be go-givers instead of go-getters. Although ‘trying to be poor’ isn’t practical for most, prioritizing giving over accumulating wealth is something even Ebeneezer Scrooge reminds us at Christmastime.

In your charity don’t forget to be charitable in your attitudes towards those with big families. There is no place for comments such as “baby factory” or anything but congratulations when someone announces they are expecting again. I don’t recall God saying in Genesis “Be fruitful and multiply until the planet hits 10 billion then there will be too much CO2 and you will all perish.” There have been studies trying to determine what the carrying capacity of the planet is, and they are inconclusive. Humans are innovators; in God’s likeness we have a creative genius. So as in the past we’ve always been able to outpace energy and food demands for our population.  “He’s got the whole world in His hands” may sound like a naïve children’s song, but He’s got my trust. Don’t get me wrong, we try to do our part and then some for the planet, my husband drives an electric car, we have way more recycling and compost than we do garbage, etc. (Though I will confess as a working mom those crockpot liners had me at hello). My real concern is less for the planet and more for the souls of the corrupt who exploit the poor, and the souls of those who are consumed by selfishness. God gave me children to teach me to be less selfish and although I’m a slow learner I know lessons in love are things that all of humanity needs for salvation. Jesus Christ our Savior showed us how to give until it hurts, how to love so hard it draws blood. The poor make us uncomfortable, but as Pope Francis has said they are our passport to heaven.

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1 thought on “Overpopulation Overstated

  1. One thing I expected you to mention was that pushing contraceptives has been shown to actually increase the unwanted pregnancy rate. It makes sense that it would increase the practice of sex without responsibility. If sexual activity increases more than effective use of the contraceptives, more pregnancies result.

    The burden on society comment hit me. Thinking of the large families I know of, like my own, I think the children tend to be the greatest assets of society because they grew up in a loving, caring, environment where responsibility was taught.

    The burdens on society are those who don’t raise their children to be loving and responsible, no matter how few they have.

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