Critical Mass: World Population Reaches 7 Billion

October 10, 2011

For Catholics in the United States, October is Respect Life Month. This month has always been important to me as I’ve gathered with other believers to pray for a greater respect of the sanctity of human life in all of its stages – from conception to natural death.

While my opinion on abortion has long been ambivalent, my deepest belief is that this action is inhumane and should be discouraged wherever possible. I stand with the traditionalist Catholics. However, my opinion diverges when it comes to contraception, which I believe should be encouraged wherever possible – in all parts of the world.

As I write this post,  the population of our world is about to hit seven billion. Just over a century ago in 1900 we stood at 1.6 billion. Difficult as it may be to accept, the planet and its rapidly dwindling resources simply cannot sustain the exponential growth which our population has been experiencing. Bob Harrington has pointed this out quite astutely in a recent article from

Today’s focus on the economy largely ignores the problem of human numbers and the Malthusian consequences: war, famine, and disease.

The economic focus also ignores Plato’s insight that a stable society can be preserved only if deeply moral philosophical concerns guide advances in technology. Lulling materialists with a never-ending cascade of new toys, our industrial society has foolishly felt itself exempt from judicious moral restraint and so has recklessly set the stage for disaster.

Humans need to realize the ramifications of their skills. Controlling our numbers is now a procedure we have usurped from Nature, but continue to ignore, and the ecological consequences are calling us to account. A terrible fate awaits humankind if we do not grasp the reality that Earth provides a limited carrying capacity for all species — and act on that knowledge before it’s too late.

As J. Anthony Cassils points out, “The good news is that populations that grow exponentially can shrink exponentially.” If all fertile women, worldwide, were to have only one child, global population would drop one billion by 2050. By 2075, human population would be reduced to 3.43 billion, and by 2100 it would be reduced to 1.6 billion!

An awareness is growing that our planet is becoming overpopulated. Harper’s, a widely read magazine, has repeatedly published full-page advertisements stating that, unless restrained, the U.S. population, now 300 million, will rise to 400 million within 30 years. Increasing demand for water, food, housing, recreational sites, and other resources are a natural result of increased population.

More examples could be given, but consider this salient point about increase in consumption-population ratios: “In the U.S., total consumption of virgin raw materials was 17 times greater in 1989 than it was in 1900, compared with a threefold increase in population.” (Young 1995a)

We must choose between starting now to reduce our population, or move rapidly toward apocalypse.

What Harrington says is urgently true. I’m not suggesting that we follow the recommendations of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement and seek to bring the number of humans down to nothing (nor do I think that said plan would ever work). However, I am a strong  believer in the one-child family. And I think that it is certainly possible for families to control their reproductive capacity without resorting to abortion.

I believe in respecting life. However, I have always been a bit put off by the Church’s emphasis on the sacredness of human life to the exclusion of all the rest of God’s creation. What about the animals and plants that are quickly going extinct? What about the carbon resources that, after forming beneath the earth’s surface over millions of years, are now nearing complete consumption?

 I would urge us all to think a bit more about what “respecting life” actually means. Abortion is only part of the issue – there is also euthanasia, capital punishment, neglect of the poor and disabled, and misuse of our environment. This Respect Life month, I encourage us all to respect life not only in all its stages, but all its forms, and also to understand that humanity is on the verge of collapse if we continue to increase our numbers as we have done over the last century and into the present one.


2 Responses to “Critical Mass: World Population Reaches 7 Billion”

  1. Scout said

    Great post. I am not a Catholic myself, and am actually quite worried by the influence of the Catholic Church, but you make a lot of the points that needs making. I am glad you seem to reject the right-wing “demographic winter” theories about the desirability of an ever-increasing population.

    Another key argument to make is that the issue is not just about the size of the world’s population, but about the distribution of the world’s resources. The wealth gap between different countries and different classes within different countries is huge. The Third World needs a much better deal. Whilst the West could and should do more, one of the problems is that many of the poorest countries seem to be served by rather rotten governments.

    • Scout, thanks for your comments, and thank you very much for reading my blog. I am concerned about both the expanding population in general (and the damage it does to biodiversity) and the unequal distribution of the world’s resources (which can only be blamed in part on the governments of the poor countries – the governments of wealthy countries are also to blame).

      On a more general note, I understand your concern about the Catholic Church’s influence in terms of its opinion on birth control, LGBTQ rights, etc., but I’d like to argue that the Church is not all bad. I find that many people, particularly “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins, take a bit too much glee in exposing all the flaws and hypocrisies in the major world religions. I don’t deny the existence of those flaws, but I don’t think they are specific to religions per se; they are natural human weaknesses that lead groups of people to seek power (often unscrupulously) and then abuse said power once they attain it. “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Religious organizations set out to resist this tendency, but while inspired by God, they are led by human beings and unfortunately often fail. Meanwhile, I urge you to consider that not everything which religions have to offer the world is bad; so much of it is good and beautiful. The world is better off for having Michaelangelo’s “Pieta” and Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater,” I believe, not to mention Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry and Flannery O’Conner’s stories. Catholicism, I believe, is especially in tune with the relationship between the aesthetic and the spiritual, the human desire for beauty in its quest for transcendence. So, while I urge readers to take note of the flaws in the Catholic Church, I likewise urge them not to throw the baby out with the bath water!

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