How can I answer concerns about overpopulation?

“How can I answer concerns about overpopulation?” New Era, Oct. 1971, 40–42

“My ecology class in school hits hard at people who are selfish enough to bring more than two children into the world when it is becoming overpopulated and so highly polluted. How can I answer this?”

Answer/Howard M. Bahr

To determine whether or not an act is selfish, we must know the motives and values of the persons concerned. I hope you have discussed the word ethno centrism in your sociology or social science classes. Ethnocentrism is a term for the tendency of human groups to view their own values as right and proper and to view all other values or ways of doing things as incorrect, evil, or even selfish.

The phrase “people who are selfish enough to bring more than two children into the world” is a perfect example of ethnocentrism. The phrase says that obviously, anyone who could want more than two children must be selfish—and likely many other negative things as well, since he doesn’t think the way the teacher or the majority of the class thinks.

Let’s examine a few examples that would represent selfishness from your classmates’ point of view. A governor launches a highway safety campaign to reduce accident fatalities; a physician struggles to keep elderly people alive; a nurse works to help premature or sickly children survive; a soldier takes prisoners rather than killing the helpless enemy; a social worker tries to improve hygienic conditions and thereby reduce infant mortality in a city slum.

Each example is one that expresses the value that people are important, that the sanctity of the individual human life outweighs the abstraction of overpopulation.

In terms of the original question, the people in these examples are all behaving selfishly in that they are maintaining or even increasing the size of the population because of their belief in some other higher value.

Stephen Crane once wrote a poem with a line to the effect, “Think as I think … or you are a toad.” The response was, “I will, then, be a toad.” In dealing with ethnocentric persons whose favorite cause has become overpopulation, people who have higher priorities had better resign themselves to being labeled toads. But that’s the burden of being different—and of having the gospel’s set of values.

I am afraid there is no easy response to your question, “How can I answer this?” Simply put, you have one set of values; they have another. Our democratic societies guarantee your right to embrace values different from those of your neighbors. You have a right to your beliefs about the sanctity of human life, the beauty of children, and you have the right to have a family that allows you to express those values in your behavior.

Similarly, those who choose to prevent children from being born or who choose to severely limit their numbers, rather than learning how to organize and share in a way so that more children could be accommodated in their homes, also have a right to their values.

The facts are that there is no real correlation between pollution and population size. For decades society has ignored the problem of pollution and has done many things that maximize short-term profits but are costly in terms of long-range pollution. Whether society is willing to make the massive changes in social organization necessary to reduce pollution or even to become a nonpolluting society remains to be seen. But to blame the problem on population size is a cop-out. Pollution stems from the way the population lives, not the size of the population.

With the advent of ecology as a big issue, the antipopulation people have changed their arguments with remarkable ease. You may recall that the argument used to be that we must cut down on our population growth or starve. It was said that unless we stopped having so many children, famine awaited.

Then, when the “green revolution” in agriculture made it clear that the earth can feed many times its present population, the starvation argument dropped into second or third place, and pollution and crowding became the familiar arguments.

In the days when improving the standard of living was seen as a virtue, parents contemplating a family often made a conscious choice between a child and some material acquisition. “Shall it be a baby or a baby grand?” was one way the problem was put. In those days it was sometimes difficult for some people to identify the values involved and to decide which was the selfish choice. Now it is much easier. The so-called experts in population and ecology have given us the go-ahead on the baby grand, assuring us with great glee that at the same time we are making a choice for the survival of humanity. What bunk! What sheer, transparent bunk!

No one knows what an optimum population is. To specify an optimum, one must have a set of values, and science cannot provide the values to be used as input in computing this kind of an optimum. For example, if you decide that one of your values is to prevent as much starvation as possible (that is, you decide that to starve is worse than to have never been born), then you arrive at a very different optimal size than if one of your values is that human life should be experienced by as many human beings as possible.

If your over-riding value is the greatest good for the greatest number, and if you spell out what is meant by “good,” then you may have another optimum size.

The point is that all the talk about overpopulation is tied to assumptions about how many people ought to be supported, the way they should be supported, and why. But these underlying values are rarely, if ever, specified.

Sometimes persons are impressed with the rhetoric of the antipopulationists and pass that rhetoric along without realizing that its underlying values and assumptions run counter to many of their own values. Today, the notion of overpopulation is in. It is one of the most accepted ideas of our time. Few persons bother to ask what it really means or to ask which values are taken into account in deciding what is the over-, under-, or optimum population size.

But for you, a follower of Christ, the setting is somewhat different. The values that make up the gospel of Jesus Christ derive from Christ’s teachings about who man is and what earth life is for. Let’s make some of these values explicit. The gospel teaches that man, an eternal being, is a child of God. The gospel teaches that life is a very important period of schooling, but it is only one phase of man’s existence. The gospel teaches that one of the chief reasons for coming to earth is to obtain a physical body. Receiving this body and the opportunities associated with mortal life constitute critical steps in each man’s progress toward his eternal destiny. As children of God and members of an eternal race, we recognize that this mortal life is temporary and that the apparent limits here—three dimensions, death, beginnings and endings, sorrow and pain—do not necessarily apply in existence beyond mortality.

The gospel teaches that man, a child of God, is more important than any of God’s other creations. Trees, rivers, air, wilderness, earth, and even other worlds were created for man; he was not created for them. “This is my work and my glory,” God states, “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (See Moses 1:39.) This does not mean that man is to treat these creations with disrespect; on the contrary, a profound reverence for all forms of life and for the miraculous, complex working of nature is one of the hallmarks of the Christian life. But our scale of priorities is clear: a human being is worth more than a tree, a forest, a national park, or even the wealth of the whole earth.

In light of these values, phrases like “baby pollution” make me shudder. The earth exists for us, not the reverse. The issue is never earth versus man but rather earth for use of man. The priorities are clear: the benefits of earth life should be given to as many of our eternal race as possible. If earth life is a period of schooling, let us organize ourselves so that the benefits of that schooling can be had by all whom our Father wishes to send. And let us understand that the advantages of that schooling do not depend on the maintenance of any particular man-land ratio, nor the return of every family to a family farm. A place in the country and a two-car garage—or even a small apartment and access to Central Park—are not the prerequisites for a quality experience on earth.

To those persons who see man as a descendant of lower forms of life, an accident in an accidental universe, and who see life as a brief and nasty experience leading nowhere, perhaps it makes sense to try to ensure that their own and their offspring’s world be as pleasant and unchallenging as possible. In this perspective, whether there be few men, many men, or no men at all is really of little consequence, and perhaps they would say the fewer men, the better.

But if we believe that man is the offspring of God, that the earth is for man, and that earth life is a time to gain a body as well as experience living with other men, then some of the so-called problems are transformed into life-giving challenges.

You must realize that in the end, unless your classmates and teachers either share your values or are willing to respect them, you cannot answer their population and ecological questions to their satisfaction. This is because your views on the nature of mankind are different from theirs—the facts that you interpret one way, they will interpret another. Believe me, the differences are deep and fundamental. Perhaps, at least with your close friends, the discussions should begin at the “what is man and what can he become?” stage, rather than with your views on the population problem.

However, you should know that the problems human societies are experiencing are not due to population, per se, but to corrupt and inefficient forms of social organization. Some of the experts would have you believe otherwise, simply because it is much easier to prevent children from being born than to convince the grown men and women of the world to change the values by which they live.

We, too, believe that environmental pollution is a serious problem. But it flows not from population size, but from societies being badly trained, poorly organized, heedless of the consequences of their actions. We believe that if you teach the human family correct principles, they can create a quality and quantity of human life on a scale now unimagined.

In closing, let me list a few quick answers. To people who lament about space, point out that most of the earth’s land surface is uninhabited, or sparsely inhabited. We should stop pouring our resources into killing each other, and should learn how to make the rest of the earth habitable. If that does not provide enough space—and some of the population projections are designed to impress the reader that a population of infinity is just around the corner—then talk about cities on the sea, under the sea, or towering into the sky. Given the speed that the last decade’s science fiction has become this decade’s fact, such notions are not too far out. Mankind is too culture-bound in his ideas about what kinds of living facilities humans can use. If your interrogator finds earth too small, point out that a solar system and universe out there await colonization, and that the challenge of conquering space is not likely to be met as long as earth is sparsely populated. In short, space is not the problem. Don’t let anyone tell you that it is. Intelligence, imagination, and industriousness are the things in short supply.

To people who lament about food: take note of all the land we keep out of production to keep prices up and all the land we don’t bother to cultivate because we lack the knowledge or the resources to make it productive, and take note of all the land that could be better used. Note also the underdeveloped state of hydroponics, farming the sea, and creation of foodstuffs in chemical laboratories. Finally, observe the tremendous waste and inefficiencies in preparation, distribution, and storage of foods. Food is not the problem. Business and international politics are the problems.

If food is not the problem, and space is not, then what? Is the problem that we don’t have enough wilderness areas available? Then legislate! Organize the landmass in such a way that sufficient areas stay available. It can be done. In the end, if the choice is between having to reserve one’s space in a national park two years in advance and allowing another million children to be born, I opt for the children.

So recognize the ethnocentrism—the name-calling—for what it is, and learn to live with it. Face up to some of the facts about what it means to be a follower of Christ. The Savior warned his followers that they should expect persecution. Bearing the label “selfish” for our defense of large families in an antifamily era may be one of the forms of persecution that the Saints in our time will have to bear.

Finally, you should always keep it clearly in mind that the name-calling derives from a fundamental conflict of values. Don’t be disturbed when you find that reconciliation within the value framework of your friends is impossible. As a Latter-day Saint, you disagree with certain people on the nature of man, so it is to be expected that you would disagree about how to deal with the problems of mankind.