Despite a margin of error such that it might not happen until well into next year, many population predictors are claiming that Monday, October 31, 2011 marks the day the earth became home to seven billion human beings.
The UN has used this milestone to discuss reproductive health, women’s rights and inequality. The children’s rights group Plan International has instead focused on a female infant in India in order to raise awareness of the hundreds of thousands of female fetuses and infants killed there every year. Still others have invoked climate change, rising sea levels, expanding deserts and the fact that growth has been largely funded by rapidly depleting natural capital in ways which disproportionately hurt the poor.
The diversity of agendas being put forward is clear evidence of how ‘population politics’ spins this kind of data in our national and international discourse. And because many religious groups have special concern for the poor and protecting creation, it is likely that these political agendas will obscure the lessons we should learn from this milestone.
Manipulation of population predictions for political ends is nothing new. As Peter Singer points out in his important book The Life You Can Save , everyone from 18th century English economist Thomas Malthus to 1960s entomologist Paul Ehrlich have warned that the human race was headed for a catastrophe because population growth was soon to outstrip the Earth’s resources. Ehrlich, for instance, dramatically claimed that by 1985 hundreds of millions of people will have starved to death. Such predictions could not have been more wrong: Food production grew strongly in the final three decades of the 20th century, and the proportion of people living in developing countries who were not getting 2200 calories per day declined from more than one in two to one in 10.
Simply put, we are not producing too little food for our growing population. Part of the reason why many millions remain hungry is lack of distribution, but it also turns out we are not eating much of the food we grow. One hundred million tons of corn is turned into biofuel each year for American gas tanks. Furthermore, we continue to create food via the notoriously inefficient method of feeding other animals and then eating them. The world now uses more than 756 million tons of grain annually to feed livestock. Singer notes that if it was equally divided among the 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty, it would provide each of them more than half a ton of grain (about 3 pounds per day)—more than twice as many calories as one needs.
Perhaps we should focus instead on our consumerist use of resources and a growing inability to provide environmentally-safe energy. Indeed we should, but these practices are largely unique to the oil-soaked lifestyles of the middle- and upper-classes in the developed world. And in such cultures the problem is that there are not enough people. Virtually no European country is able to replace its population, and some are beginning to panic. The BBC recently reported that a German government minister suggested that it would be time to “turn the lights out” if something isn’t done to raise its population. Russia, in a desperate attempt to repopulate itself, has instituted Give Birth to a Patriot day where workers in various areas are given time off of work to go home, have sex and (hopefully) procreate. Given UN predictions that the world population will top out at 9 billion and then begin to decline, the next population crisis might ask the human race to repopulate ourselves.
No, the lesson to learn from this milestone, especially for those who have a religious motivation to aid the poor and care for the earth, is not that we should impose a secular, Western understanding of reproductive control on poor people of color in the global south. This is a new kind of colonialism. Instead, we should take a hard look at the everyday choices we make and how they affect the earth. This benchmark offers us a chance to honestly examine our lifestyles and see if they can be offered to a God who demands good stewardship of the Earth and its resources.