Why is it hard for Christians to talk about population?

I was talking with Lowell Bliss, one of the authors of our Climate Change and the Gospel book when the issue of the lack of discussion of population among Christian environmentalists came up. He wondered whether at the Jamaica conference which led to the book, there had been any explicit mention of population levels as a specific problem, either global or local, and we thought no, it hadn’t. Migration had been talked about, in particular in a session looking at influxes into Asian cities and the difficulties that caused, but as an issue of redistribution than sheer numbers.

In turning the conference proceedings into the book and looking for gaps that needed to be filled, I’d pushed for a chapter on population to be added, and fortunately had an expert in mind to write it. But the number of people with such expertise in the Christian world seems relatively small, and population is often mentioned merely as an aside in books on the climate, if at all.

For example, taking a couple of books off my shelf largely at random, Jonathan Moo and Robin Routledge’s As Long as the Earth Endures seems to have no mentions of population at all, although it is clearly a factor in how humans take dominion over the earth, the subject of one chapter. Michael Northcott is not one to shy away from difficult issues but his A Moral Climate starts with a chapter detailing the problems facing the world, without mentioning population as a multiplier for other issues. This point does get made in a later chapter in a discussion of Ethiopia, but only in a single paragraph.

There are definitely exceptions though. Lowell gives a few pages to the issue in his Environmental Missions book, and he tells me John Stott gives it as the lead environmental issue in his last book, The Radical Disciple.

This is far from the interest shown in some previous decades. I=PAT and similar formulations seem to have been common parlance in secular environmental writing of the 1970s for instance: I’m not familiar enough with Christian works of the period to know how much it carried through. But why might it be so difficult to mention today? Here are my initial thoughts (purely from a UK context), but it would be interesting to think through these further.

  1. Most obviously, anything involving children can be a very emotive issue. For most people, having a child, or at least the possibility of having one, is a blessing. Those who find it difficult or impossible to have a child find it a struggle and sometimes even a stigma. Anything which involves the suggestion that this opportunity should be taken away or limited needs to be handled with care, and those who decide to remain childfree are often thought to be rather odd. All this goes even more so in our more modern UK society where personal freedom and choice has been increasingly promoted over any idea of common good.
  2. If you talk about the need for population reduction in the Global South – which is of course where the fastest rises occur – various charges can be laid at your door. One is post-colonialism, wanting to interfere in others’ affairs, or perhaps even racism. Here we see a reflection of a cultural shift since the 1970s: at that point it was still considered acceptable for the UN and similar bodies to advocate policies for the whole world, even if the ideas came largely from Global North experts and perhaps favoured Global North countries. A second objection brought is that asking the Global South to reduce their population deflects from the real problem: over-consumption in the North. (Of course, those trying to address this problem get told that it will be soon swamped by the rise in consumption of billions in China and India, with other nations following behind. Sometimes you can’t win.)
  3. Talking about population reduction in the UK has a different set of problems. Opinion polls have shown that a sizeable majority think it would be better if the population were lower, but the practicalities of getting there pose challenges. This is particularly true if we look at environmental considerations and set a target based on those: for example the Global Footprint measure would advocate a cut to about a third of our current population. There are three major (perceived) obstacles: the need for coercion along the lines of China’s One Child Policy, the need for younger working people to balance the elderly to keep the economy going (the ‘demographic time-bomb’), and again accusations of racism: population is growing both through immigration and a higher birth rate among recent immigrants. Cases can be made against all of these, but it is hard to get a public hearing or a rational debate.
  4. There also seems to be a general perception, at least among those who claim to know something about population, that it isn’t as much a problem as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. I would suspect this is due to a combination of two factors. First, graphs of the mid-range population forecast suggests that rapid population rise will be over by about 2050, and the overall peak around the end of the century will be 10 billion or a little over: that doesn’t feel so much more than now. Second, it’s known (rightly) that much of the rise is already locked in. A combination of these two factors leads to the view that everything will be fine and there’s not much that can be done to improve things in any case. (Neither of these is true: in particular, though we know that educating and empowering women are amongst the most effective ways of curbing population rise, we have plenty of that left to do.)
  5. Environmentalists have tended to focus on climate change as “the issue”. This has tended to squeeze out many other concerns that we should have. A typical counterresponse to population campaigns can thus be to argue that the other issues are more important – at least according to environmentalists – thus giving an excuse to not worry about population. Those arguing for population decline have now improved their argument to put population in a wider portfolio of environmental and socio-economic issues which interrelate and need addressing together. More mainstream environmentalists need to make the equivalent move in the opposite direction.
  6. All of the above apply equally to secular and Christian campaigners. Christians have their own separate problems. One is that the Bible teaches that children are a blessing, we should fill the earth and we should seek to have descendants who can carry forth our inheritance. These points are made both explicitly and implicitly through the Old Testament; one of the most significant themes is that Israel is formed of those who trace their lineage back to Abraham. The New Testament does not repeat these themes, but does not counter or update them either, save for the replacement of Israel with the people of God who form a spiritual rather than biological family. What is needed is better understanding of how these theological principles apply today, reading them in conjunction with wider environmental concerns. This hasn’t been studied adequately, partly due to the controversy of the topic.
  7. A second problem for Christians is the teaching of Roman Catholics and some others against some methods of birth control. This is a difficult issue: as a non-Catholic I can sympathise with the reasons for holding such a view even though I do not agree with it.

So what needs to happen? Certainly environmentalists, both faith-based and others, need to know more about the facts of the case. When they do so, they will discover that action is still definitely needed, even if that action is just more of what we are already doing, and that a clear argument needs to be made against some of the false reasoning that many believe. The information is out there, but just needs to be expounded and included in environmental writings in an appropriate way. Secondly, a sensible theological debate in the Christian world is overdue, and theological input lacking: more research is needed.

But perhaps most important of all is for population to retake its place amongst the key environmental indicators: part of what we all consider when we look for a better future for our world.

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