The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Seven Billion and Rising
Sometime on Monday, October 31, 2011, Earth's human population will reach seven billion people. That is a scary reality for Halloween day.
What makes it especially worrisome is the rate at which our numbers are growing. The human population has doubled since about 1968. It crossed the six billion line just 12 years ago, in 1999. (Listings of some of the populations figures and dates can be fascinating to explore.)
No matter how creative and resourceful we are, no matter what new technologies and agricultural tricks are employed, this planet cannot handle a perpetually growing population -- of any species. There are limits, and humanity must live within them. The question is, will we do it by choice and gracefully, or will we encounter those limits through famine and epidemics?
The same United Nations demographers who have made the astoundingly precise prediction that person number 7,000,000,000 will be born on Monday have several scenarios that look farther into the future. The most plausible ones have the growth rate slowing -- and perhaps even starting to decline -- by the middle of this century. But lots more people will be added in the next 40 years, and the decisions that are made now will define the shape of the population curve for many generations to come.
British population activist Roger Martin recently said, "the U.N. projects the population in 2050 will be somewhere in the range of 8.1 to 10.6 billion. If you ask yourself which is easier to feed, 8.1 billion or 10.6 billion, which is easier to supply with water, which will emit less carbon, which will have less impact, which will deplete oil reserves and other mineral reserves faster, the answer doesn't require any research at all, it's straight from the university of the bleeding obvious. For everyone's sake, the sooner we can stabilize to as near as possible to 8.1, our kids will have a vastly greater chance of a halfway decent life."
There is a perpetual and lively debate about the surging population. Is this an issue primarily for the affluent world (which has a much higher per-person impact) or for the poorer areas of the world (which tend to have the fastest population growth)? It seems to me that this blame-the-other-guys approach is misguided on several levels. First, whichever way the accusations are flowing, trying to foist all the responsibility onto some other group is rarely a productive strategy for change. And either/or doesn't work because there are important issues on all sides. Absolute numbers do make a difference, whether in Boston or Bangladesh, and the ecological impact of the rich needs to be reduced even with a stable or declining population.
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So what are some moral perspectives that might guide us in our personal and public choices?
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Seven billion is an astonishing number of people. It takes us far beyond the often quoted blessing/commandment from the first chapter of Genesis: "Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the Earth and subdue it." We've done that, and more, and in the process we have cancelled the parallel charge to other species, who were also called to be fruitful.
Seven billion and rising is not a viable condition. We humans must moderate our numbers and reduce our impact. Thankfully, we can take essential steps in that direction without great conflict, without miraculous new technologies, and without coercing people into unwanted choices.
May the crossing of the seven billion mark lead us to heightened awareness and toward more committed action.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * 303.715.3873
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