“Realities of the Population Explosion,” Ensign, May 1971, 18
In 1798 Thomas R. Malthus, an English economist and clergyman, published a book entitled Essay on the Principle of Population. The main idea of the book was that population tends to increase more rapidly than food supplies, and that, unless war and pestilence killed people off, there would be starvation.
Malthus’s dire prediction has been rejected and revived many times. Today it is being revived again. The neo-Malthusians are currently claiming that the population of the world is increasing so rapidly that extreme measures should be taken by governments to curtail population growth. Not only will we run out of food, they say, but we will also exhaust other natural resources, suffer unbearable pollution, experience more war and crime, have so much congestion in our cities that life cannot be enjoyed in them, have inferior social services, and experience a general deterioration in the quality of life. They strongly advocate birth control by contraception, sterilization, abortion, and the imposition of a special tax upon those who have more than a specified number of children, usually two.
A sample of this idea is taken from a letter to the scientific journal Science. In the March 13, 1970, issue, Gerald Gelber writes, after referring to two methods of birth control, “Some might say that both alternatives smack of thought control, deprivation of personal liberties, and moral evil. Of course, they are correct. Consider the final alternative: total economic collapse and demoralization of earth’s population within two or three generations!”
And in an editorial in the July 31, 1970, issue, Garett Hardin concludes: “If parenthood is a right, population control is impossible. If parenthood is only a privilege, and if parents see themselves as trustees of the germ plasm and guardians of the rights of future generations, then there is hope for mankind.”
Yet there are other voices that are less anxious. Ansley J. Coale, after presenting a very logical discussion on population growth in relation to the environment, writes, “To design policies consistent with our most cherished social and political values will not be easy, and it is fortunate that there is no valid reason for hasty action.”1 Dr. Coale is director of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints strongly encourages married couples to have children. It is against birth control. In a letter from the First Presidency to bishops and stake presidents, dated April 14, 1969, the Church’s philosophy is expressed: “We seriously regret that there should exist a sentiment or feeling among any members of the Church to curtail the birth of their children. We have been commanded to multiply and replenish the earth that we may have joy and rejoicing in our posterity.
“Where husband and wife enjoy health and vigor and are free from impurities that would be entailed upon their posterity, it is contrary to the teachings of the Church artificially to curtail or prevent the birth of children. We believe that those who practice birth control will reap disappointment by and by.”
With this statement from the First Presidency as background, it may be useful for Latter-day Saints to know that there is considerable scientific evidence in opposition to the alarmist view concerning the population explosion.
As an introduction, it is important to know that it is difficult, if not impossible, to make accurate predictions about the population levels of the future. This is because the factors that control population do not remain constant. Thus, if one extrapolates the trend in the United States birthrate between 1957 and 1968 (see Table 1) into the future, the birthrate will be zero in only about twenty-two years. Obviously, this is ridiculous. If the trend in birthrate between 1919 and 1936 had been extrapolated into the future, the prediction would have been that birth in the United States would cease altogether by 1975.2 Again, this is ridiculous. Therefore, caution should be exercised in forecasting future populations.
Table 1. Birthrate in the United States by Year
Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1970.
Let us consider first the population problem in the United States. Here is where the greatest excitement is. Note that Tables 1 and 2 show the birthrate is declining rapidly; yet population is increasing with phenomenal rapidity. Not long ago the U.S. Census Bureau projected four different birthrates.3 The one that was next to the lowest predicted a population of around 308 million by the year 2000, compared to around 200 million today. However, an analysis of the 1970 census in U.S. News and World Report for August 31, 1970, indicated that this figure must be revised downward. The same conclusion was reached by the National Goals Research Staff established in 1969 by President Richard M. Nixon.4 This advisory group suggests that the population might well be stabilized (that is, have zero growth rate) by the year 2000. (Other demographers seem to think likewise.) If the death rate stays at about 9.5 per thousand (Table 3) and the trend in birthrate (Table 1) continues, such a possibility is not hard to visualize.
Table 2. Population of the United States for the Years 1790 to 1970
Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1967.
Table 3. Birth and Death Rates by Country
Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1970.
1. Food. Let us consider some of the factors that are supposed to warrant population control in the United States. One is the potential lack of food. About 1935, a yield takeoff (or sudden increase) occurred in the United States for all grains. Since that time the yield per acre has climbed steadily upward. Speaking of this phenomenon, one expert has said, “Once underway, yield takeoffs appear to be irreversible except in time of war or some similar disaster. Thus far, all have continued indefinitely—the rising yield trends have not leveled off or shown any tendency to level off. If anything, the rate of yield increase tends to accelerate as a country becomes more advanced.”5 The cause is scientific research in agriculture. And there is no reason to believe that research will not continue to produce new technological advances. Also, millions of acres of our arable land are being held in reserve and could be used, along with millions more of marginal land, for food production. Few agronomists that I know would contend that the United States is in danger of a shortage of quality food in the foreseeable future.
2. Pollution. Another factor that is supposed to dictate against further population growth is pollution. But, as noted by Henry Wallich, “Per square mile, our [U.S.] population is minimal compared with that of European countries which seem to be able to maintain reasonable standards of public cleanliness, decorum, and social efficiency.
“If large parts of our country are polluted, it is not because we are too numerous, but because we pollute. The way to stop that disgrace is not to stop having children, but to start cleaning up. The growth of the GNP, sometimes now referred to as gross national pollution, gives us the resources for the job.”6
3. War and Crime. As regards war and crime, it is likely that overcrowded conditions are conducive to aggressive and criminal behavior. Hitler claimed that he moved eastward into Poland for lebens-raum (living space). However, these conditions are not the basic cause of crime. If they were, the most crowded areas of the world would be expected to have the highest crime rates. As noted by T. C. Jermann, this is not so.7 The Netherlands, for example, with the highest overall population density in the world (Table 4), has one of the lowest crime rates in the Western world. And while England has fifty million people crowded into an area smaller than California, there are fewer murders in the entire British Islands every year than in Chicago or Cleveland. Population density, in itself, does not produce crime.
Table 4. Annual Rate of Change and Density of Population for Selected Countries
Annual Rate of Change
Germany, F. R. of
Source: Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1970.
4. Natural Resources. Insofar as the exhaustion of natural resources is concerned, the recycling of some of these, such as our mineral resources, is plausible and would certainly minimize the rate of their depletion. Some of the minerals in obsolete airplanes, automobiles, refrigerators, and other equipment and machinery could be reclaimed and used again. On the other hand, it is impossible to recycle fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Ultimately they will be exhausted. But nuclear energy, as a source of power, is being developed rapidly. There is a limitless supply of nuclear energy, and it will likely be possible to operate nuclear power plants with no air pollution, few radiological hazards, and even little thermal pollution. An optimistic article in this regard was recently written by Alvin N. Weinberg, director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.8 He visualizes that nuclear energy can supply the energy needs of the world without creating insoluble problems of pollution, even if its population reaches twenty billion. He also visualizes the use of nuclear energy to desalinize seawater and to extract minerals from low-grade ores that are currently unusable. Consequently, the supply of natural resources need not be a critical factor in limiting population growth.
5. Congestion. We do have congested cities. Here, the basic problem is one of population distribution. According to U.S. News and World Report for August 31, 1970, more than half the nation’s 3,042 counties lost population in the 1960s. There are some villages in New England with smaller populations now than at the time of the Civil War. The trend toward the cities has been going on for a long time. It is estimated that by the year 2000 twelve metropolitan areas will occupy one-tenth of the land area in the United States but will contain over seventy percent of the population.
What is needed is a redistribution of the population. This fact is admitted by President Nixon’s National Goals Research Staff. They call attention to three ways of achieving it: Spread population by generating growth in sparsely populated rural areas, foster the growth of existing small cities and towns in nonmetropolitan areas, and build new cities outside the large metropolitan regions. In an article in the Improvement Era (December 1969, pp. 11–14), Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus, president of Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, is quoted as saying, “If cities with a population of some 250,000 each were scattered evenly across the U.S., we would not have the population problems, traffic problems, riots, and many other ills that develop when cities become too large.” It is also noted that he believes pollution comes from concentration, and that if the population were dispersed across the land in small cities, there would probably be no pollution problems. Then it is pointed out that his ideas are similar to those of Joseph Smith, who envisioned small cities of 15,000 to 20,000 surrounded by a green belt and with many other attractive features. His ideas, as described in the article, could be commended to modern city planners.
Those who believe that population control is the universal panacea for all of our problems seem to be unaware of the alternative solutions that have been proposed. They also seem to be unaware that population control has its negative aspects. Let’s consider some of these.
For zero population growth to occur immediately in the United States, as some want, it would be necessary to cut the birthrate about in half. We have a young population because of our past history of high birthrates. Thus, a large proportion of the population is concentrated in ages in which the mortality is small. To bring the birthrate down to equal the death rate, women would, for the next fifteen to twenty years, have to bear children at a rate that would produce only a little over one child per completed family. At the end of that time, there would be a very peculiar age distribution with a great shortage of young people. This would bring economic and social disruption.
In a growing population, there is a correspondence between the diminishing numbers of people at higher ages and the diminishing number of leadership positions. In a stationary population, with its uniform distribution of ages, there would no longer be a reasonable expectation for advancement as one grows older. This would kill incentive.
Another argument against zero population growth is that, as noted earlier, the proportion of older people is increased. Consequently, the burden of pensions increases; there is more sickness, and hence, more need for nursing homes, hospitals, and medical care; there is decreased adaptability to changing technology; and there is less innovation and greater conservatism. Further, the economy tends to stagnate. It is fear of economic stagnation, or at least of economic slowdown, that has motivated Japan, the most densely populated country on earth, to adopt a policy to increase its birthrate. As of 1968, Japan had 3,508 people per square mile of cultivated land, compared with 1,487 per square mile in runner-up Holland. Some Japanese economists maintain that a decline in West Germany’s economic growth rate in the late 1950s was caused primarily by a drop in the growth rate of Germany’s work population, and they suggest that Japan’s economic miracle may be stalled by the same problem.
Regardless of the ethics of certain groups within the United States, family planning will probably become increasingly popular. And as research in contraceptive methods continues, more effective and convenient means will be discovered. Also, it is not improbable that abortion will be legalized in many states. Already twelve states have reformed their abortion laws, four have declared their abortion laws unconstitutional, test cases are pending in others, and in New York State, abortion is a private matter between the doctor and his patient. All of this will have an impact on population growth, especially since statistics reported in Science show that, on the average, 20 percent of all births are unwanted.9
It is to be genuinely hoped, and we should exert our influence to see that this hope is realized, that we are permitted to enjoy freedom of choice as enunciated in the 1966 United Nations Declaration of Population: “The opportunity to decide the number and spacing of children is a basic human right.”
But some would have it otherwise. In the Congressional Record of August 11, 1970 (vol. 116, no. 138), the Honorable John G. Schmitz reports that in the state of California a bill to remove all state income tax deductions for more than two children has been approved by the Revenue and Taxation Committee of the state senate. In the United States Congress, legislation has been introduced in both the House and the Senate to remove the federal personal income tax deductions for all children after the second. And in Hawaii a bill before the state legislature would compel the sterilization of all women after they have their second child. Then he states, “Such legislation heralds the coming of a new Nazism to our land.”
It was hopeful to read in Newsweek, January 25, 1971, an opposing viewpoint: “Last week no less an authority than the government’s chief demographic expert attacked the conventional wisdom head-on and offered an entirely different view of the effects of overpopulation. ‘Economic and social factors are more important than population growth in threatening the quality of American life,’ declared Conrad F. Taeuber, supervisor of the 1970 census, in a speech delivered at Mount Holyoke College. ‘The population problems of the United States are and will be much more a matter of geographic distribution and the way we use our resources than of the rate of increase in our total numbers.
“‘Changing standards and habits, in activities, technology and the style of life have much more to do with the accumulation and disposition of waste materials and pollutants than does the number of persons involved.’ While the U.S. population increased 13 per cent in the last decade, the total volume of goods and services grew about 60 per cent. Between 1930 and 1968 the population grew by 63 per cent, but the consumption of crude petroleum increased by 300 per cent and that of natural gas by nearly 900 per cent.
“For the time being, Taeuber believes, the population growth rate is ‘not a threat to very much of anything.’”
Further, President Nixon’s National Goals Research Staff believes, “We have before us a set of decisions. One which appears not to be urgent is that of overall size of the population—even after the effects of a considerable amount of immigration are taken into account.” At the present time immigration contributes about 20 percent to the rate of population growth in the United States.
Turning to the world situation, Table 5 shows the growth of the world’s population since the birth of Christ. Obviously, the population has increased exponentially with time. If current birthrates are used to estimate future populations, the results are astronomical. But, as noted earlier, extrapolations are questionable. In this rapidly changing world, the factors that govern population growth, especially birth control, are changing with equal rapidity. This is pointed out by Donald J. Bogue, director of the Family Planning Center, University of Chicago, who says, “For more than a century, demographers have terrorized themselves, each other, and the public at large with the essential hopelessness, inevitability and morale-breaking pessimism of the ‘population explosion’ via exponential growth. Their prophecies have all been dependent upon one premise: ‘If recent trends continue. …’ It is an ancient statistical fallacy to perform extrapolations upon this premise when in fact the premise is invalid. It is the major point of this paper that recent trends have not continued, nor will they be likely to do so. Instead, there have been some new and recent developments that make it plausible to expect a much more rapid pace in fertility control.”9a
Table 5. Population Growth of the World Since Christ’s Birth
Birth of Christ
Fall of Roman Empire
Columbus discovered America
Declaration of Independence
California gold rush
World War I
World War II
Table 4 shows that there are many countries and areas in the world that are still sparsely populated. Australia and Canada actually need more people and encourage immigration. When one travels over the pampas of Argentina, the wheatlands of Canada, the rolling countryside of Australia, the great heartland of America, as I have done, he cannot help but be impressed by the open spaces that still exist. And I have been amazed at the open countryside in such lands as Thailand, Malaysia, India, Iran, Israel, and Western Europe. And even though there is little open countryside left in Japan, there are still many beautiful, secluded places where one can commune with nature.
Nevertheless, birth control will continue to spread in the developing countries, especially as new and more convenient contraceptive techniques are devised, because it is estimated that in these countries the number of live births per woman is 30 percent greater than the number desired.10
Without a doubt, the most critical factor in the developing countries is the food supply. Population growth rates have far exceeded rates of yield increase, whereas the reverse is true in developed countries. Overall, the rate of increase of food production in the world has about kept pace with the rate of increase of population. However, food needs will continue to rise from two main sources: increased population and increased per capita income leading to increased per capita consumption.
What about the future, then? According to Charles E. Kellogg, deputy administrator of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service and probably the world’s leading authority on the soils of the world, the arable land of the world amounts to about 6,589 million acres. This is not quite twice the figure that the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations gave in 1961 for the arable land in use. Later he revised this figure upwards.11 Hence, there is no shortage of arable land at present, nor will there be for a long time. Much of this land is in developing countries in areas such as Africa and South America. As new technology develops, land that is thought now to be submarginal will be reclassified as arable. Dr. George Harrar, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, estimates that with present technology, food output could be doubled or trebled without bringing one additional acre into cultivation.12
Thus, without stretching the imagination, one can see how a combination of cultivating presently unused lands and applying modern technology could increase world food output about sixfold. Even this may be conservative. The new wheats developed in Mexico under the leadership of Norman Borlaug, recent Nobel Prize winner, have phenomenal potential. In using them, yields per acre have been trebled in Mexico and doubled in the United States and parts of India, Pakistan, and Turkey. It must be emphasized that these increases cannot be achieved without good fertilization and soil management. The new wheats are credited with breaking a yield barrier that has persisted for thirty years in India, a country that has more than a million new mouths to feed each month. And they have converted Pakistan into an exporter rather than an importer of wheat.
Patterned after the new wheat varieties, new varieties of rice have been developed by the International Rice Institute in the Philippines. Their yields are equally spectacular. The claim has been made by L. R. Brown of the Overseas Development Council that “miracle rice is going to affect more people than any other technological development in history because, of the 3.5 billion people in the world, 1 billion eat rice.” Because of new rice varieties, the Philippines and Pakistan became self-sufficient in rice in 1968, and India expects to grow all it needs by 1972. In fact, India’s overall cereal crop is expanding more rapidly than population.
The most serious limiting factor in food production around the world is water. Think of the arid areas of North Africa, central Australia, the Middle East, China, and the great American Southwest. These arid areas could produce abundantly if water were available. Fortunately, man’s ingenuity may take care of this problem. Alvin N. Weinberg has written on the desalinization of seawater as it relates to agriculture.13 He believes that seawater can be desalted by using part of the energy generated in a nuclear-powered agro-industrial complex. Cost of desalting could easily fall to between 10 and 20 cents per 1,000 gallons, which is cheap enough to produce wheat at competitive prices. I have talked several times to Dr. Perry R. Stout (director of the Kearney Foundation of Soil Science, University of California at Davis), and he enthusiastically shares Weinberg’s views. He has his own plan for such a complex in India. Of course, nuclear energy could also be used to pump the desalted water to where it is needed. Thus, it is not impossible that water could cease to be a limiting factor in the future and that the arid areas of the world could be made to “blossom as the rose.”
If the agriculture of the world could be as efficient as that in Israel, there would be no need to worry about food for many generations. Recently I had the opportunity to travel over most of Israel in company with Israeli soil scientists. They showed me many facets of their agriculture. They are understandably proud of their achievements. In the northern part of Israel, in the hills west of the Sea of Galilee, I saw orchards that were made by leveling off the tops of hills with bulldozers. Bordering the orchards were huge rocks that had been moved aside. The soil that was left was still mostly rocks, but trees were growing and producing. On the shores of the Dead Sea I saw a hydroponics operation. There they were farming “the climate.” They could produce such products as peppers and tomatoes earlier than elsewhere. Consequently, they received a premium for what they produced. Down near the Red Sea I saw fields being irrigated with irrigation water that was too salty by most standards. Still the crops were growing and being harvested. Israeli farmers now produce 75 percent (by value) of the country’s food. Even surpluses exist for some agricultural products. This kind of production would not normally be expected from such an arid land.
That the world’s food needs can be met in the future is attested by many of those engaged in agriculture. Professor V. W. Ruttan of the University of Minnesota, after reviewing three recent books on world food production, said, “Clearly the technical and economic capacity exists, or can be created by investment in agricultural experimentation capacity and in the industrial capacity, to produce the essential chemical and mechanical inputs, to meet world food requirements for the foreseeable future.”14 R. T. F. King, of the University of Cambridge, agrees. He says, “It appears to be technically feasible to feed the growing population of the world, but, as noted, it may cost more per unit of output to do so, and so food prices may rise.”15
Recently I talked to Dr. R. C. Pickett, a colleague of mine in the Agronomy Department at Purdue University. He has traveled to nearly every country in the world, usually more than once, in search of sorghum varieties that might be used in plant breeding programs aimed at relieving the world’s food needs. He has as much firsthand knowledge of agricultural conditions throughout the world as any man I know. It was gratifying to hear him say that, with the proper use of current technology and the land available to them, most of the countries of the world, including the developing ones, could be self-sufficient in food. Other references could be given. Nevertheless, those already cited should suffice to indicate that the problem of feeding the world is not insoluble.
I would not want to leave the impression that agricultural scientists are not concerned about the world’s food problem. Also, it must honestly be admitted that not all agricultural scientists are as optimistic as those whom I have cited. The reason for this is not hard to see. If the world’s population continues to increase at the present rate of 1.9 percent per year (Table 4), it will double every thirty-five to thirty-eight years (Table 6). The difficulty is compounded by the fact that the highest rates of growth are in the developing countries. In some of these countries 40 to 45 percent of the people are under fifteen years of age. Yet these are the countries where the prospect of increased agricultural production is the poorest. Therefore, it is not uncommon for agricultural scientists to recommend that the growth of the world’s population be curtailed. But, in general, they see no need for the drastic measures referred to earlier. Unlike those who are less well informed, they don’t demand emergency action.
Table 6. Time Required for the Population to Double
Annual Growth Rate
As a matter of fact, it is difficult to predict what will happen in the future. As one agricultural scientist put it: “Beyond the end of this century we begin to pass into a science-fiction world in which neither the food that will be eaten nor the manner of producing it will necessarily be the same as today.”16 How much can we increase photosynthetic efficiency? Is there a way in which we can increase the amount of food the ocean can supply? What about synthetic foods made from petroleum and other natural resources? Can arctic regions and deserts be made productive? It is highly likely that other factors will become critical sooner than the food supply.
Now let us consider the religious and moral issues involved in birth control. As indicated earlier, the Church is opposed to birth control. Why is this? One reason is that the Lord has told us to multiply and replenish the earth. This is a succinct commandment, but he has not left us without further information. Through his prophets he has told us that before we came here we lived in a premortal spirit state. There we looked forward to coming to this earth and obtaining a mortal body—the tabernacle of the spirit. Earth life was regarded as an essential step in our eternal progression. Hence, each spirit child of God awaits the opportunity to come here. We, as parents, in cooperation with our Heavenly Father, provide that opportunity. In the Doctrine and Covenants we read, “And again, verily I say unto you, that whoso forbiddeth to marry is not ordained of God, for marriage is ordained of God unto man.
“Wherefore, it is lawful that he should have one wife, and they twain shall be one flesh, and all this that the earth might answer the end of its creation;
“And that it might be filled with the measure of man, according to his creation before the world was made.” (D&C 49:15–17.)
Is it any wonder, then, that the family occupies a central place in the philosophy of the Church? Many of our Church presidents have expressed their feelings on the subject of the family and birth control, but none more beautifully than President David O. McKay. Here is what he said:
“Love realizes its sweetest happiness and most divine consummation in the home where the coming of children is not restricted, where they are made most welcome, and where the duties of parenthood are accepted as a co-partnership with the eternal Creator.
“In all this, however, the mother’s health should be guarded. In the realm of wifehood, the woman should reign supreme.
“Man, not woman, is the chief cause of this evil of race suicide now sweeping like a blight through the civilized nations.” (Gospel Ideals, p. 469.)
With these thoughts in mind, our greatest concern should not be the size of our family but the quality of it. The future of America and the world could be assured better by teaching children correct principles than by limiting their number. We have been commanded to subdue the earth. There is still ample opportunity to do that. With His help, our potential is unlimited.
In summary, the world does have a burgeoning population. There are problems concerning overpopulation, food production, and pollution, but they can be solved with dedication and ingenuity. And there is reason for optimism. Drastic and undemocratic action is neither advisable nor necessary. Parents should feel free to have the children they want. Certainly there is no need for them to feel apologetic about following the counsel of the Lord and being fruitful. They should be concerned primarily with engendering a spirit of love and happiness within the home and with teaching their children correct principles. If they can do this, they will make the world a better place in which to live.