The ethics of a world at 7 billion

STAFF REUTERS A combination photo shows six of half a million babies born around the world October 31, 2011 that … Continued



A combination photo shows six of half a million babies born around the world October 31, 2011 that will push the global population to the milestone of seven billion. The babies are from (L-R, top to bottom) Venezuela, India, the Philippines, Russia, Georgia and the U.S..

Despite a margin of error such that it might not happen until well into next year, many population predictors are claiming that Monday, October 31, 2011 marks the day the earth became home to seven billion human beings. 

The UN has used this milestone to discuss reproductive health, women’s rights and inequality. The children’s rights group Plan International has instead focused on a female infant in India in order to raise awareness of the hundreds of thousands of female fetuses and infants killed there every year. Still others have invoked climate change, rising sea levels, expanding deserts and the fact that growth has been largely funded by rapidly depleting natural capital in ways which disproportionately hurt the poor.

The diversity of agendas being put forward is clear evidence of how ‘population politics’ spins this kind of data in our national and international discourse.  And because many religious groups have special concern for the poor and protecting creation, it is likely that these political agendas will obscure the lessons we should learn from this milestone.

Manipulation of population predictions for political ends is nothing new. As Peter Singer points out in his important book
The Life You Can Save
, everyone from 18th century English economist Thomas Malthus to 1960s entomologist Paul Ehrlich have warned that the human race was headed for a catastrophe because population growth was soon to outstrip the Earth’s resources. Ehrlich, for instance, dramatically claimed that by 1985 hundreds of millions of people will have starved to death.  Such predictions could not have been more wrong: Food production grew strongly in the final three decades of the 20th century, and the proportion of people living in developing countries who were not getting 2200 calories per day declined from more than one in two to one in 10.

Simply put, we are not producing too little food for our growing population. Part of the reason why many millions remain hungry is lack of distribution, but it also turns out we are not eating much of the food we grow. One hundred million tons of corn is turned into biofuel each year for American gas tanks. Furthermore, we continue to create food via the notoriously inefficient method of feeding other animals and then eating them. The world now uses more than 756 million tons of grain annually to feed livestock. Singer notes that if it was equally divided among the 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty, it would provide each of them more than half a ton of grain (about 3 pounds per day)—more than twice as many calories as one needs.

Perhaps we should focus instead on our consumerist use of resources and a growing inability to provide environmentally-safe energy.  Indeed we should, but these practices are largely unique to the oil-soaked lifestyles of the middle- and upper-classes in the developed world.  And in such cultures the problem is that there are not enough people.  Virtually no European country is able to replace its population, and some are beginning to panic. The BBC recently reported that a German government minister suggested that it would be time to “turn the lights out” if something isn’t done to raise its population.  Russia, in a desperate attempt to repopulate itself, has instituted Give Birth to a Patriot day where workers in various areas are given time off of work to go home, have sex and (hopefully) procreate. Given UN predictions that the world population will top out at 9 billion and then begin to decline, the next population crisis might ask the human race to repopulate ourselves.

No, the lesson to learn from this milestone, especially for those who have a religious motivation to aid the poor and care for the earth, is not that we should impose a secular, Western understanding of reproductive control on poor people of color in the global south. This is a new kind of colonialism. Instead, we should take a hard look at the everyday choices we make and how they affect the earth. This benchmark offers us a chance to honestly examine our lifestyles and see if they can be offered to a God who demands good stewardship of the Earth and its resources.


Charles C. Camosy is Professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University.  He is the author of
Too Expensive to Treat?
and the forthcoming
Peter Singer and Christian Ethics

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  • WmarkW

    What needs a hard look is the extremely high correlation among poverty, status of women and fecundity. Chris Hitchens points out that poverty is highly correlated with a society’s use of the talents of women. But the developed world makes clear that the more choices you give women about how to spend their lives, the fewer will choose to raise more than one child.

    If recent research is correct that IQ is at least 50% hereditary, we’re headed for Idiotopia at a breakneck pace.

  • usapdx

    Those that speak against birth control, what do they say to the nations that cannot feed their people? What will they say when earth cannot feed all the people?

  • fkissling

    The binary approach to efforts aimed at addressing population growth and the effect it has on poverty and global warming illustrated in this article went out of date at least 20 years ago during UN meetings on population (1994) and environment (1992). The effect of population growth on human and planetary well being is far more complex than Camosy presents and the solutions are multiple: less consumption, environmental justice, smaller carbon footprints, more regulation of environmental abuses by corporations, increased reliance on local agricultural production, more clean water, better health care, and meeting the unmet need for family planning expressed by 200 million women who say they want to limit their family size but lack access to contraception. Camosy seems to be for everything but family planning.
    The ethicist tells us that the lesson we should learn at 7 billion “is not that we should impose a secular, Western understanding of reproductive control on poor people of color in the global south. This is a new kind of colonialism.” Who, I wonder does he think is doing that or does he just like ad hominem attack? Perhaps Camosy as an ethicist of faith needs to learn that the old language of social conservatives that focuses on fear and polarization – secular against religious, Western against the global south, reproductive control as opposed to voluntary family planning is what needs to be avoided if we wish to solve poverty, gender inequality and human degradation. Polarization is contributing to the unconscionable 350,000 plus maternal deaths each year that result in large part from that unmet need for family planning that women in the developing world so desperately are asking for.

  • ccnl1

    Population control is a problem in Africa (fertility rates of 5-~8). Not a problem in other parts of the world with fertility rates of 1-3). See the CIA World Book (2005-2010).

  • annedanielson

    Distributing food, clothing and aid to countries with corrupt governments is a huge part of the problem because often times these corrupt governments become an obstacle to those who desperately need food, clothing and aid.

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