Be fruitful and subtract: Should Christians depopulate the earth?

Those who built fallout shelters in the 1960s can attest to the fact that in that decade there was no shortage of opportunity for alarmism. One such alarmist was Paul R. Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb predicted that the long-overpopulated planet Earth was in danger from its ever-increasing inhabitants. Ehrlich’s book contained such soothsayings as this:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…

Well, we’re still here. The catastrophic predictions made by Ehrlich only earned him a spot on ISI’s 50 Worst Books of the 20th Century list — not the mantle of a prophet. While the overpopulation hype of the ’60s and ’70s died with its failed realization, the movement’s offspring persist in the present day, and one of the more surprising habitats for such thoughts is among Christians.

J. Matthew Sleeth has penned a book review/essay for the latest issue of Books & Culture in which he makes a “Christian case for small families.” Sleeth, who thinks the earth is undergoing an overpopulation crisis, argues that it is proper Christian stewardship not to have too many babies:

…it all comes down to Christian virtue. Should I choose to have a large family and add even more people to a crowded planet? The Population Resource Board estimates that more that 106 billion human beings have been born since God issued the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.” I think that we can safely count “be fruitful and multiply” among the few divine commands that we have fulfilled. But we must not forget that this commandment applies to every one of God’s creatures, not humans to the exclusion of all else. We are to be good stewards, not exterminators.

God has also given us another commandment—we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. I agree […] that large families are preferable for a number of moral and economic, not to mention personal, reasons, but I believe that the Golden Rule trumps all other considerations. The suffering and the terrible quality of life that result from unchecked global population growth is more important than my desire for a large family, or my country’s continued economic growth.

Sleeth’s argument places him in a bit of a biblical conundrum. First, he claims that the command to be fruitful and multiply is “among the few divine commands that we have fulfilled.” This is absurd. I haven’t committed adultery or murdered anyone — does this mean the Ten Commandments are now null and void? Shall we throw out the Great Commission while we’re at it? The command is a pattern for general activity given to us by God which will be fulfilled only in the New Earth.

Next, he implies that the injunction to be fruitful and multiply is somehow undermining the Golden Rule. His reasoning? There are plenty of people to go around:

…There are a number of countries in the world—including virtually all of Europe, as well as Russia and Japan—that do not have a fertility rate necessary to sustain their current populations. And it is true that this may cause some short-term economic instability. But on a global scale, the problem isn’t underpopulation, it’s overpopulation. As noted earlier, any of the countries that have a static or shrinking population need only open their borders to immigration if they want to grow their population. There is no global shortage of people.

There is, however, a global shortage of the things necessary for each and every person on the planet to live a good life. When I say “good life,” I don’t mean a life lived according to the current North American standard; I mean a life that is good in the way that God intended it to be. Many of us go about our daily lives without once seeing God’s creation unmarred by human hands. A growing global population will mean more human destruction of creation.

In a nutshell, Sleeth seems to grant a greater value to scenic views than he does to full quivers. Using Sleeth’s “Golden Rule” rationale, having a large family would be doing harm unto my neighbor. Is this really so? While I’m sure my own neighbors are often irritated after hearing one of my two year-old’s tantrums, I’ve yet to meet one who wishes he hadn’t been born. Sleeth doesn’t say that, but the effect of his thinking means that he wishes X number of potential future children will not be born.

Sleeth’s argument also falters due to his failure to put teeth to the issue. His ideal of Christian family minimization could only make an impact if it could be accomplished. For that to happen, a number must be given. How many kids should a Christian family have (or not have) in order to be the “good stewards” that Sleeth envsions? Are 2 kids too many? 3? 5? 7? Where do we draw the line?

Sleeth doesn’t draw that line, perhaps because Christians have no guide for doing so — other than the beleaguered secular policies of the population control movement. It would behoove the proponents of such policies (and their future grandchildren) to take a lesson from their own ideas and stop reproducing them. After all, there is no global shortage of ill-informed ideas.

2 thoughts on “Be fruitful and subtract: Should Christians depopulate the earth?”

  1. I haven’t committed adultery or murdered anyone — does this mean the Ten Commandments are now null and void?

    Excellent point.

    In a nutshell, Sleeth seems to grant a greater value to scenic views than he does to full quivers.

    You hit the nail on the head there.

    I see several possible tendencies in Sleeth’s article that could lead to huge mistakes if they grow in importance in his mind:

    * Valuing “nature” just as much as we value people.
    There are–on the earth and in the oceans and in space–still huge reserves of resources, land, energy, and ingenuity. (In fact, the more people we have, the more ingenuity we have.) Given God’s command to be fruitful and multiply, can there be a better way to invest those resources than in more people? Do we like people or not?

    * Valuing “quality of life” more than we value people.
    “Quality of life” is used to justify abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. I know a great way to eliminate human suffering and death forever–kill everybody now. We’ll save future billions from the hospital bed and the grave–and heaven.

    * Spiritual pacifism–valuing our own man-made purity over the eternal destinies of other people.
    To refuse to have children is to limit our involvement with the world. It’s a refusal to evangelize in a very important way. Look at me: the hands of everyone in my rapidly shrinking clan are so clean! Meanwhile, burgeoning numbers of my neighbors are never hearing the Gospel.

    I’m not saying that Sleeth has these ideas–just that, if he’s not careful, these ideas may grow out of what he’s got.

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