(Some population experts predict apocalyptic scenarios. Others argue that human ingenuity can meet the challenge. Deciding who is right has as much to do with faith as with facts.
The debate over world population growth once again is making headlines. Last month, delegates from around the world flocked to Cairo for the United Nations -sponsored International conference on Population and Development. The U.S. State Department has been actively promoting the event's agenda of "stabilizing" world population.
Christians have a vital stake in this debate since "population concerns" cover so many areas we care deeply about: the meaning of families and persons, the use of abortion, the role of women, and so on. Thanks to the generous funding of the Global Stewardship Initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, CT convened a gathering this past spring of scholars, church leaders, and international development specialists to address the issues. In addition, the Pew Charitable Trusts helped fund this special report by CT senior writer Tim Stafford, which allowed him not only to spend months researching the topic but to travel to some of the most densely populated areas of the world to see the problems close up. His report will allow Christians to develop informed opinions on a key issue of our times.)
In 1980, two prophets—secular, not biblical— made a $1,000 bet about the future of the world. For years they had been fulminating against each other, arguing through charts and statistics (and insults) that the other's views were sheer nonsense. With the bet, they put their ideas to the test. Julian Simon, an iconoclastic economist with the University of Maryland, was the optimist: he bet that the world would get better and better. Paul Ehrlich, a biologist at Stanford University and author of the 1968 best-selling "The Population Bomb," was more like the biblical prophet Jeremiah, predicting woe upon woe.
Ehrlich's view is that the world is on a disaster course as a result of rising population. Simon's vision is just the opposite. Since people produced most of the good things on this planet, he says, more people can be expected to produce more good things. Not only is our world in the best shape ever, Simon contends, it is getting steadily better.
In 1980, Simon's views were so far from conventional thinking that he found it hard to get a hearing. That year, however, he experienced a publicity breakthrough. The prestigious journal "Science" published an article he wrote criticizing doomsaying predictions. Ehrlich was incensed that "Science" would publish such a thing. He wondered publicly, "Could the editors have found someone to review Simon's manuscript who had to take off his shoes to count to 20?"
A published exchange did not grow more polite. Simon pointed out Ehrlich's history of "wild statements." (Most famously, Ehrlich had begun "The Population Bomb", "In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.") Simon wondered why Ehrlich wouldn't "put his money where his mouth is," and offered to bet him (or anyone) on the future price of raw materials—any raw materials, including grain and oil. The bet was designed to test Ehrlich's claim that we are running out of things, for price is an indicator of scarcity. (When there is an abundance of anything, its price goes down; a shortage of the same item, and its price goes up).
"We jointly accept Simon's astonishing offer before other greedy people jump in," Ehrlich replied. With two other colleagues, he bet on the price of chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. If the price of those metals in real, uninflated dollars went up over the next ten years, Simon would owe them money. If the price went down, Ehrlich and his friends would pay. The bet was that rarest of events, when two scholars agree precisely on their disagreement, and when their prophecies can actually be checked.
IS DISASTER SURE?
As it happens, I began college at Stanford the same year Ehrlich published "The Population Bomb." I have lived ever since immersed in its world-view: The globe is getting increasingly crowded. We are running out of food and resources, impoverishing ourselves and polluting our fragile planet. We must act quickly to quell population growth, or disaster is sure. It is a message that, economist Robert Nelson has pointed out, bears many parallels to "an old and familiar one in the Judeo-Christian tradition": Our sinfulness is destroying the world God loves, and only turning away from our wicked ways can save us.
Ehrlich's call to limit population applied to everyone, including Americans. My brother came home from school informing my parents that they had sinned by having four children. Some young men of the time sported lapel buttons, proudly announcing to the world that they had vasectomies.
In more recent years, however, with American and European women averaging fewer children than the replacement level of 2.1 each, concern about overpopulation has shifted mainly to poor countries in Africa, Asia, and South America. If you read the newspaper, you probably know that underlying the problems of Bangladesh, Zaire, or Brazil is overpopulation—thus poverty, hunger, crowded slums, ecological degradation. So it is in the newspapers. In academic journals, however, hidden from the public view, such contentions are sharply debated. Ehrlich and Simon represent the two poles, but there are many points on the spectrum in-between. Often, the arguments are not over data. The two sides stare at the same set of numbers and see two different realities. At times, their argument is virtually theological in nature. Oddly, however—or not so oddly, considering the way in which our world has been secularized-this theological dispute involves no theologians. Those arguing are economists, biologists, and demographers.
I went jogging with Julian Simon. He only reluctantly agreed to an interview, after I convinced him that I had actually read some of his material. Simon gets weary of what he considers reporters' bias, and he does not see much point in repeating the arguments that fill his books. He agreed to meet me, but he was set on jogging. So, tape recorder in hand, I loped along with him through the shaded streets of a Maryland suburb just outside Washington, D.C.
Simon is a wiry, balding, bespectacled man whose darting motions vaguely reminded me of the birds he loves to watch from his back-yard deck. I mentioned to him that it seemed that his prophecies had proven more accurate than his opponents.
He stopped me. "Its not that my track record is good," he said. "My track record is perfect. I've literally never written a sentence that I feel any need to take back or that's been falsified by events . … Every single one of my forecasts has been explicitly or implicitly validated. Everyone else is wrong."
"It does attract the eye of the layman," I said cautiously.
"I don't know about that," Simon said. "It doesn't attract the eye of journalists, who continue to go back to the same totally flawed sources. Just like you. You're going back to those people. The question is, why would anybody go back to somebody who's been wrong at every single turn for 25 or 30 years? But one does, because they're still in the public eye."
To explain his argument, Simon pointed to the gracious older homes we were jogging past. Most of them, he said, had been improved over the years, each one in a different and unpredictable way that suited its occupant. To Simon, that is the story of civilization: people improve their environment, if given a chance. Of course, "there will always be problems. Just like one of the lawns on this block is going to seed. But on the average, the lawns are getting better. If you come back in 20 years, that lawn will have been fixed up. That's just the way it is. We had a water problem here a while back. The reservoir did a lousy job, and we had to buy bottled water for some time. They'll fix it. It'll be better than ever before."
"Julian Simon is like the guy who jumps off the Empire State Building and says how great things are going so far, as he passes the tenth floor." That's the other side of the argument, as Paul Ehrlich gave it to John Tierney, a reporter writing about the bet for the New York Times Magazine So far Simon's predictions of plenty have been mostly right. But for how long? Is the world just part way down in a disastrous fall?
The numbers Ehrlich points to are truly scary. It took thousands of years for the global population to creep up to a billion, sometime around 1800. Only 130 years were required to add a second billion. Just 30 years later, in 1960, the third billion had been added. Between then and now, 34 years, we have added nearly three billion more. We grow by 90 million people per year. A population about the size of the United States is added to the world every three year.
Most demographers expect we will double world population again. Even if by some miracle women were immediately to reduce their fertility rate to two children each, population momentum would add another three billion people to the globe before the numbers stabilized. (Since the population has been growing fast, we have more young people than old people, and young people tend to produce children. Thus the population keeps growing for some time even for people.) Compassion for the poor of the world—malnourished, unemployed, poorly housed, plagued by sickness—must breed concern about population. A growing population will lead to even more topic who need clothing, shelter. Every one of them will pollute an already strained ecosphere. How on cash can we feed them all, let alone provide for a decent life?
"Stop," says Simon. "Those topic have mouths to feed, yes; but they also have hands to work and brains to create." In the short run, they are a drain; but in the long run, they produce more than they consume. The argument, as he sees it, has to do with your image of human beings. Are we intently parasitic, consuming the bounty of the world? Or do we produce the bounty of the world?
It is no accident, Simon says, that some of the wealthiest places in world—Japan, Holland, Hong Kong—are also some of the most densely populated. People create, and more people create more unless stopped by some external factor like a bad government.
Thus the bet, while necessary focused on something almost trivia—the price of metals—represents two theologies of humanity and creation. Those in Simon's group are sometimes referred to as cornucopians, because they see the world as a veritable Thanksgiving cornucopia spilling over with good things. The key to this bounty is human creativity—our ability to face problems and solve them. Cornucopians value technology and science. Dominated by economists and neoconservatives, they stress the importance of leaving people alone to make their own decisions about how many children they want—which means limiting the role of government. Almost (though not quite) inevitably, they foresee an improving future.
Those on Ehrlich's side are sometimes called Malthusians, after the nineteenth-century clergyman and economist who foresaw misery for the human race because population must outpace food production. Malthusians agree that humans are creative, but they stress the inadvertent damage sometimes done by our creative solutions. Technology is as likely to destroy us as to save us, they believe, if it is not carefully controlled. Malthusians emphasize that humans must work within the limits of our planet. Dominated by biologists and political liberals, Malthusians favor effective governmental intervention. If Simon is utopian, Malthtusians are apocalyptic: the future they foresee is stained with war, plague, and starvation.
This polarization—Ehrlich versus Simon—does not give an accurate picture of the debate any more than pitting snake handlers against goddess worshipers represents Christian theological debate today. The vast majority of people who deal with population issues—those who run development programs for the State Department, or research birth-control options for university public-health programs, for example—dislike the polarization intensely.
The mere mention of Simon's name is enough to chill a room. Some of this may be due to his fractious personality. One of his earliest frays involved throwing a drink in the face of a fellow professor at the University of Illinois, whom he felt had vilified him, and then knocking him down.
Similarly, Ehrlich's readiness to insult the intelligence of those who disagree with him does not endear him to many. One population activist, whom I asked for a recommended reading list, wrote, "Don't bother with Paul Ehrlich. He does not speak for the population community."
Personalities aside, professionals like to place themselves as centrists, midway between the extremes of Simon and Ehrlich. Yet this is only partly accurate. If you were to ask, "Is rapidly growing population a serious problem?" the vast majority of demographers and others with a professional interest in the question would say yes, though a lot of them would want to add footnotes. While distancing themselves from Ehrlich's extremism, they would follow a lot of his fundamental analysis—much as a sophisticated modern evangelical might find hellfire-and-damnation sermons distasteful, but not altogether misguided. Alarmists like Ehrlich may be extreme, but they help draw attention (and funding) to important issues.
The population movement has never done better than today. World Bank loans for population programs have steadily increased since 1970, reaching $181 million in 1993. The United States government, historically the strongest supporter of population policies, has a renewed commitment to it through the Clinton administration. The 1994 budget approved by Congress designates $392 million-a new high—for population policies, with $40 million more designated to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which received no monies during the Reagan-Bush years because of its support for programs that used abortion. Tim Wirth, the new undersecretary of state for global affairs, says that of all the world's problems, population is number one. He aims to make population concerns one of four pillars of foreign policy.
At the first UN-sponsored population conference in Bucharest in 1974, Western delegates were shocked to hear population programs denounced by Third World leaders as racist and genocidal. By now, however, virtually every country in the world has an official population policy. (The U.S. is one of the few that does not.) Birth control has spread remarkably. Twenty years ago, only 9 percent of women of child-bearing age in developing countries used birth-control methods; 50 percent do so now. They used to bear an average of 6.1 children; they now bear 3.9. Clearly a family-planning mindset is spreading rapidly through the world.
Actually, family planning is something all parties to the bet favor, even Julian Simon. Nor is there any controversy about the proposition that the world's population must stabilize. After all, to take it to the extreme, if we were to continue multiplying at our current rate, the planet would ultimately become a ball of human flesh expanding outward at the speed of light. Sometime before that happens—and presumably considerably before—couples will begin having fewer children.
The controversy is largely over who should decide when that time will come, and who decides what to do about it. Julian Simon does not believe there is any population crisis, but even if there were, he thinks individual families would be better able to judge it than government experts. Why, he asks, should anybody place any faith in the informed analysis of scientists and governments? They have been wrong in virtually everything they have said about population. What makes you think they will suddenly start getting it right?
Paul Ehrlich, on the other hand, believes we are in a crisis, and in such situations—as in fires, earthquakes, riots—complete personal freedom may not be good for society. He believes that governments, following the informed analysis of scientists, should persuade and motivate citizens to accept the correct decisions about family size.
Whom should we believe? Or does the answer not lie with either extreme?
Copyright © 1994 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.