Plowed fields have replaced forests, domesticated animals have dispersed wild life. Beaches are plowed, mountains smoothed and swamps drained. There are as many cities as, in former years, there were dwellings . … Everywhere there are buildings, everywhere people, everywhere communities, everywhere life … Proof of this crowding is the density of human beings. We weigh upon the world; its resources hardly suffice to support us . … In truth, plague, famine wars, and earthquakes must be regarded as a blessing to civilization, since they prune away the luxuriant growth of the human race. - Tertullian, c. A.D. 200

Tertullian's modern-sounding plaint came in a time when the earth's population was a small fraction of our own. It is an ancient lament: the world is crowded. Our American ancestors complained that the land was filled up even when their largest cities had 30,000 people in them.

This crowded feeling, common to urban life, surely contributes to a broad acceptance of the message of those who argue that population is assuming disastrous proportions. Stan Becker, a demographer at Johns Hopkins University and a Quaker who cares ardently about these issues, told me his global concerns often connect best with Quakers when he relates them to American urban sprawl—to freeways and malls and parking lots spreading across the suburban terrain.

Population activists have never been content to explain their reasons for population control in aesthetic terms, however. They have more practical, scientific reasons. But, as anyone can see who reads back through the last 25 years of literature, the reasons continue to shift:

* Hunger. When population control roared into public consciousness in the sixties, the chief motive was hunger. India, particularly, was the place where uncontrolled fertility had supposedly run into stern Malthusian realities.

Ehrlich wrote that nothing could be done to prevent widespread starvation in India—it was too late. Another biologist, Garrett Hardin, provoked widespread, serious discussion with his proposal of "lifeboat ethics"—which claimed that richer nations must prevent, by force, "drowning" nations—those unwilling to control their populations—from climbing into the rich nations' lifeboat. That this ill-begotten metaphor (nations are hardly like lifeboats) claimed serious attention suggests how fearful the possibilities of world hunger seemed.

I dare say that if you ask the average American whether there is more or less hunger in the world today, he or she will say that there is more. But the dire predictions did not prove true, and there is considerably less hunger. Famines have come—in Africa, not India—but they have been caused primarily by war, secondarily by poverty (people who can't afford food can't eat it), and by poor distribution. In fact, some famine-stricken countries increased their net exports of food, even during famine.

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Meanwhile, farmers managed to grow more food than ever. While global population was growing at an unprecedented rate, hunger was falling at an unprecedented rate. Food production in the developing world more than doubled between 1965 and 1990, according to a recent article by population scholar John Bongaarts in the Scientific American. Caloric intake per person in developing countries increased an extraordinary 21 percent. The number of chronically malnourished people fell 7 percent in the 11 years from 1979 to 1990.

There are tremendous regional problems, to be sure. Africa, in particular, has enough problems to make anyone heartsick. There are also worries about pollution and erosion and other environmental constraints making it impossible to double food production again in the next 50 years—as will be necessary if the world population doubles as expected. Global warming, in its vast uncertainties, raises further concerns. But, concludes Bongaarts in the Scientific American article, "the future of global food production is neither as grim as the pessimists believe nor as rosy as the optimists claim. The most plausible outcome is that dietary intake will creep higher in most regions . … Feeding a growing world population a diet that improves over time in quality and quantity is technologically feasible''

This is not to say that hunger has been vanquished. It is a huge problem that Christians need to care about deeply. But the people who predicted massive famine in the sixties are still predicting famine. I have newspaper clippings in my file of headlines of their most recent predictions. I have no clippings reporting record harvests and declining hunger. This good news never made the papers.

It did, however, change the rhetoric of the population debate. Hunger got fewer mentions as a motive for population policies. The concern became "resource depiction?' We are running out of things, especially those things that cannot be replenished, like minerals.

* Resources. Of all Malthusian arguments, this makes the most obvious sense. There is a finite amount of iron, bauxite, copper, and oil in the earth's crust. More people mean that these resources will be tested up faster and divided up among more people. The price will go inexorably higher as these resources get used up.

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This, however, has so far not proven to be true. More accurate is an apparently nonsensical idea propounded by Julian Simon, among others. He says resources are not limited in any practical or definable way.

This line of thinking seems to stand common sense on its head. Perhaps the best starting point is the truism that 20 percent of the worlds population uses 80 percent of the world's resources. But, says Simon, this implies that the world's resources are things found lying around, which a certain group of people has appropriated for its own use. Whereas, he argues, resources are created: the truth is more nearly that 20 percent of the world's population creates 80 percent of the world's resources.

Energy provides an illustrative history of the way in which resources are created. The first energy resource was wood. Forests were generally a dangerous wasteland until some early genius learned that putting wood together with a terrifying nuisance, fire, could create a source of usable heat. Subsequent inventors learned how to use this heat in increasingly efficient ways. The result was deforestation. The history of civilization is, until recent times, the story of declining forests.

Then came water power. Rochester, New York, for example, became a prime economic power on a falls of the Genesee River, where water power ran huge flour mills. Soon, though, the best sites were occupied.

Fortunately, coal came quickly into use. During most of human history, coal had been a useless, black rock. Soon it was the most precious commodity in the world. In 1864 Stanley Jevons, a prominent British social scientist, published "The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal Mines." "In some ways," comments New York Times journalist John Tierney, "it was quite similar to the books that appeared during the energy crisis of the 70s." Looking carefully at the increasing consumption of coal, and its declining reserves, Jevons concluded that the Industrial Revolution would soon come to a grinding halt. Jevons also found that oil would never be an adequate substitute.

Jevons was wrong. Three things happened that often typify human use of scarce resources: more coal was found, better methods of mining were developed, and oil turned out to be, after all, a substitute. Today the world has enough coal to go on virtually indefinitely.

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And so it has proven with oil. "The experience of the 1970s and the 1980s showed that the main immediate threats to the world did not come from a shortage of resources or even a shortage of energy," writes Clive Ponting in A Green History of the World. "World consumption of oil is seven times higher than in 1970 but known reserves have been growing even faster, by about two per cent a year more than consumption."

By now you can probably guess the results of the Ehrlich-Simon bet. Ehrlich lost. The price of all five metals went down, even in real dollars. Ehrlich wrote a check to Simon, and has declined to join in any subsequent bets. But he still believes that, in the long run, prices of commodities will go up.

No matter what the price of raw materials shows, Malthusians will believe that resources are limited. Nor will any enumeration of problems convince cornucopians that difficulties have become insurmountable. On both sides, faith is involved. Setting the data requires a perspective, a world-view, a larger frame of reference.

* Poverty. The argument for population control moved on from resource depletion to property, particularly in the Third World. Poor people do tend to have large families.

Any simple-minded equation of poverty with population was exploded early on by Nobel prize-winning economist Simon Kuznets, who found no correlation between the two. Extending the point, Julian Simon compares countries with very similar economic and cultural starting points-Taiwan and China, North and South Korea, and East and West Germany. In all three cases, the country with the denser population has become richer.

Andrew Steer, evangelical Britisher and director of the World Bank, the world's largest development agency, sees it somewhat differently. "Every intuition would say that rapid population growth would make it harder for poor countries to raise income, wouldn't it? The plain fact of the matter is empirical evidence is not so clear. Population density doesn't make people poor. Rapid population growth does, however, seem to make it more difficult for countries to bring essential services to their people."

Population activists still maintain that slowing population growth is an essential part of fighting poverty, and many economists would agree. But all now recognize that providing birth control must be only one part of a larger program, which also must include women's education, health care, and political and social reform.

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* Ecology. Poverty's message is muted, but the dominant argument for controlling population growth has shifted again, this time to the ecosphere. When U.S. population budgets come up for congressional review, groups such as the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club are prominent in testifying. They are concerned about deforestation, species extinction, global warming, soil depletion, and pollution. It is in this context that the phrase carrying capacity has become common.

Carrying capacity is another way of expressing the idea of limits. Malthusians say that the earth is finite and can carry only so many human beings. If we go beyond the maximum, we will pollute ourselves to death. They point to signs of ecological stress everywhere—warning signs that we are on the brink of disaster.

Cornucopians, naturally, see a different picture. They point out that we have improved many fundamental environmental conditions, which is one reason people all over the world live so much longer and see their populations grow. The way to contain pollution is to gnaw the economy, they say, so that we have the money and know-how to deal with it. Cornucopians point to various signs of ecological improvement in developed countries and suggest that less developed countries, if not stymied by low growth policies, will follow suit.

No one doubts there are serious ecological problems around the world. The question is whether these are "growing pains" or cancer symptoms.

One certainty is that economic growth contributes to ecological stress far more than population does. Here is how Nahid Toubia, a Sudanese doctor working for the Population Council, put it in Conscience a magazine of pro-choice Catholics: "Lees take an optimistic scenario. Let's drop today's world population by half, okay? And let's drop that half from the Third World, and otherwise let's continue what we are doing. Let all American kids drink as many Cokes as they like, drive as many cars as they want, pollute the world as much as they like, throw out as many disposables as they like. Will it reduce the environmental problem? No."

"Even were the poor to halt their population growth completely," adds Paul Shaw, writing in Environmental Impact Assessment Review, "the fact remains that 1.2 billion would remain entrenched in an entirely unsustainable relationship to their environment."

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"The biggest problem of the environment is inappropriate technology," John Griffiths of the World Bank told me.

"The really big problem in environmental degradation is [urban] migration rates," Nan Astone of Johns Hopkins University said.

Ecologists express concern about population as a background factor that exaggerates environmental problems and makes them harder to solve. But it is not the main thing, by almost anyone's accounting.


First hunger, then resources, then poverty, now ecology. When you dig into the serious literature on each of these issues, you find population assigned a nuanced, partial causality. Yet somehow population keeps popping up as a chief cause, if not the cause, of global problems. Dozens of specialized organizations, a whole UN agency, world conferences: all emphasize the role of population. When the 1992 Rio de Janeiro conference on sustainable development failed to make much of population, that become the story for many journalists: why were they ignoring the real issue?

Sharon Camp, a prominent population activist, summarizes the situation this way in Conscience. "No one expects [population stabilization] to eliminate world poverty or protect the global environment. It may increase the prospects for doing both, however, and it may be critical to do both simultaneously. A growing body of scientists believes, so, even though their conclusions are based more on intuition than science."

What is behind the intuition? Calvin Beisner, an evangelical who has written extensively on these issues, says population activists run the risk of falling into an antihuman ideology they may see humanity as consumer and polluter rather than created in the image of God.

Others charge that the population movement is eugenic—concerned to "improve" the human race by eliminating births from the "unfit." Feminist Linda Gordon writes that demographers in the 1950s "repeated on an international scale the motifs of the eugenics sensibility, the distinction between the moderate, restrained 'us' and the teeming, profligate 'them .'" New York's Cardinal John O'Connor charges that U.S. population policy aims to control "the black poor, the brown poor, the Latino poor, the Asian poor, the African poor, the Middle Eastern poor."

A third charge is that the population movement has become a self-reinforcing government lobby. And there is a close and sometimes incestuous relationship between government and many population groups. One activist told me, for example, that the Population Council has spent much energy lobbying the U.S. government to restore funds to UNFPA—a UN agency that helps pay for the Population Council. Many population programs depend on government funds, which they use directly or indirectly to rally support for government action. (The same complaint could be made about many other causes, from cancer research to defense subcontracting.)

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I talked about these suspicions with Steer. He affirmed that the population movement has changed its ground over the years, but suggested a less sinister way of looking at it. Why not, he asked, see it as an intellectual journey? Why not celebrate the fact that population researchers have arrived at far more nuanced ideas about their subject, that they now see the vital importance of economic development, women's education, and health—concerns that Christian missionaries have long held dear?

Conversations with people involved in the population movement convinced me that these people were genuinely and deeply concerned about human beings.

I had lunch with Robert Engelman, director of the Population and Environment Program for Population Action International. It was the day before I was to interview Julian Simon, and I asked Engelman—a former journalist—what he would ask Simon if he were me.

Engelman is a soft-spoken man who tries to be charitable, even in the way he talks about Simon. He thought a while and said he would like to ask Simon what he thought about falling water tables in places like the American Southwest, where farmers are pumping up reserves for irrigation much faster than the reserves are being replenished by natural processes.

I said that if I understood Simon correctly, I thought he would say he didn't know what the answer was, but he was confident that when the problem got bad enough—that is, when water was scarce enough to send the price up—someone would figure out an answer. I said I thought that was a pretty strong argument. Engelman grew passionately angry. He said he was shaken that an intelligent person like me could think that was a good answer. He asked why problems had not gotten bad enough to find an answer for the millions of women who die in childbirth, or the millions of children who die of diarrhea each year. Simon, he said, simply lives in a comfortable suburb, insulated from the world's problems.

It was a deeply emotional outburst. I could see that suffering people were at the front of Engelman's mind much more than the technicalities of an economic argument. Is it not scandalous to sit back and wait for problems to fix themselves instead of doing something? The problems of our world are too pressing and too painful for that.

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I understand and sympathize with that reaction, as any evangelical would. It is the same kind of response we have taken to a world without Christ. We cannot afford to sit and argue theology, it says. We have got to act before it is too late.

Urgency and heartfelt concern have limits, however. A great deal of good can be done by people passionately concerned for others. But so can a great deal of harm, if they are misguided. And the prophetic record of the population movement does not suggest overwhelming confidence. Andrew Steer is right: This can be seen as an intellectual journey. But there is another possibility: that the population movement is a crusade, pushing beyond the boundaries of science.

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