CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice

Population Explosion?

In 1998, in a moment of weakness, I offered the choice of a sermon topic in a service auction at TPUUF. Although I had made the reservation that the selected topic should not conflict with my moral view, the purchaser and I had a hard time seeing eye to eye. Finally, despite her interest in and strong support of ZPG (Zero Population Growth), I decided to take the chance and deliver this program. It is interesting to note that since then there has been significant press coverage detailing the point of view reflected here: declining hill towns in Italy, the risk of worldwide epidemics and dramatically reduced estimates of eventual world peak population. I have elected to include the entire order of service.

Population Explosion? (12/5/99)


Welcome and Announcements

Opening Words: #417* (in unison)

For the beauty of the earth,

this spinning blue green ball, yes!

Gaia, mother of everything

we walk gently across your back

to come together again

in this place

to remember how we can live

to remember who we are

to create how we will be.

Gaia, our home.

the lap in which we live --

welcome us.

(Barbara J. Pescan)

Chalice Lighting

Thomas Jefferson, commenting in 1774 on the rights of the colonists, observed: "The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time." Later, in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, he wrote: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness..."

This morning I light the chalice for this revolutionary idea: that all men and women, born in any age or place, are, by unalienable holy right, entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

*Hymn: #288 - All Are Architects

Sharing of Joys and Concerns

Four Promises

Later this morning I will be addressing the subject of population growth; its meaning and implications.

Before I begin, I want to make three promises to you:

First: This topic was suggested by ______, who bought that right in last year's service auction. Let me promise you that the views expressed here are mine and not necessarily hers.

Second: I speak on this topic, reluctantly, after avoiding it for a long period. But as you know, ____ can be very persuasive! I promise that my aim today is to aid the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, to which we are all committed. Thus you will hear, in so far as possible, facts rather than theories, questions rather than answers and suggestions rather than exhortations.

Third: To speak of population, we must consider copulation and other subjects with may alarm, upset and dismay members, friends and guests. Please accept my assurance, in the spirit of the well known phrase, "Think globally, act locally," that the address today is directed towards global concerns and is not intend to be critical of any persons here or of their views or their life paths.

For these promises, I ask, in turn, one from each of you: That you approach the subject with an open mind and try to put aside your pre-conceptions: perhaps then I can encourage another way of thinking.

Offertory - Kisses Sweeter Than Wine (Campbell/Ledbetter)

Meditation & Silence: #651 (responsively)

Please join me in reading this piece, The Body of Mankind, responsively. Where it says, "4 billion," I and you will read "6 billion."

(reading #651)

Let us sit quietly together here for a while and reflect on this reading calls to our first covenantal principle, that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and how we should answer that call.

Sermon: Large or Small?

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: Noble words by one of our founding fathers.

Life is the greatest gift of all; human life is the result of two people coming together, hoping to pass on the life given to them; hoping to give their children their best and withhold their worst; hoping that their descendants will make the world a better, kinder, juster place.

We cherish this opportunity as one of our greatest liberties - not given to us by government, but, again in Jefferson's words, unalienable and discovered, rather than bestowed.

The pursuit of happiness: Pick up a newspaper, turn on the TV, walk in the mall or through a park and you cannot help but be impressed that, in contemporary western culture, the pursuit of happiness appears to be the pursuit of copulation and copulation, sooner or later, leads to population. More of one, more of the other.

Recently, sometime in October according to some sources, the human family welcomed its 6 billionth member.

Was this good news or bad news?

Is 6 billion a large number or a small one?

Well, I have trouble with numbers with lots of zeros, so I thought we might focus for a while on a smaller one: 37.

So, let's consider 37. Perhaps you could help me by responding "large" or "small" to each of the following statements:

37 cents in your pocket

37 children in a classroom

37 survivors of an army

37 days to live

37 fraternity brothers in a VW bus

37 nurses serving 600,000 Rwandan refugees

I think you get the idea: whether 37 is large or small depends on what we are comparing it to.

Now, let's consider 6 billion.

But first, let me read to you a news release I found on the 'net last week:

"Reuters News Service: Washington, DC, November 25, 1999:


Today, at a hastily called press conference, US government officials announced the surprise addition of a major mammal to the endangered species list.  Dr. Siever, of the Hominid Division of the Fish and Wildlife Commission, Dept. of the Interior, commented, "It came as a great surprise to us that this species, which has a global range and is present in such apparently large numbers, must, in fact, be considered endangered.  Although nowhere near the carrying capacity of its range, it is showing signs of a population climax, which may be followed closely by a classic population collapse." 

All the hallmarks of a species at risk are there," she added: "declining fecundity, declining fertility, alteration in mating patterns and increasing senescence.  Finally, and perhaps most troubling, previously isolated groups have, over the last two decades, essentially merged into a single global breeding population.  This renders the species particularly vulnerable to alterations in predation, which may already be underway." 

Dr. Siever continued, "Although we hesitated to declare such a numerous species endangered, our most recent peak population estimate is 1 billion less than one made only five years ago and the trend of a declining peak seems to be accelerating.  Thus, we have no alternative but to add species Homo Sapiens, popularly known as Human, to the list."

In related developments, the President expressed concern over this decision and House and Senate leadership announced that joint legislative hearings would begin as soon as possible."

Of course, there is no such Hominid Division and Dr. Ima D. Siever did not announce that Homo Sapiens is an endangered species.

But let's look at the eight bases she cited for her conclusion:

"Signs of a population climax:"

The debate about the implications of human population increase date to the observation of Thomas Malthus in 1798 that, while food supplies increase linearly, population tends to increase geometrically; as the song says, "They didn't hesitate and soon I was grandfather of eight!" Malthus suggested that human population would inevitably out grow the Earth's resources and mass starvation would result. This school of thought, termed Malthusian, was popularized by Paul Erlich in his 1968 book The Population Bomb and in a series of similar works since then.

The major modern response has come from a group of economists, of whom Julian Simon has been the intellectual leader. Now, I know that economics is regarded as boring and often irrelevant. I would today, if I could, avoid economics completely. However, economic history and research tell us a great deal about how we live now, how we lived in the past and how we may live in the future. Nevertheless, I will speak of this dismal science as little as possible.

Simon pointed out that increasing demand tends to produce increasing and alternate supplies and economies of scale tend to reduce costs rather than increase them. This apparently paradoxical view is called Cornucopian.

Which is more realistic, Malthusian pessimism or Cornucopian optimism? The final reports are not in but the history of the 20th. cen. tends to favor the optimist: in the last 100 years, despite world population essentially quadrupling, inflation adjusted costs of basic resources have fallen by 10-70%, wages, again inflation adjusted, have risen worldwide and calories consumed daily per person have increased, secondary to inflation adjusted declines in prices of food and consumer goods.

And while this was going on, the human race experienced a unique flowering of culture, in the arts, in science, in technology and medicine, which overshadows the 15th cen. Renaissance.

"declining fecundity:"

Fecundity is the monthly probability of a breeding pair, involved in uninhibited intercourse, of producing a viable conception. In the US and Europe, for humans, this varies between 25 and 50%, leading to pregnancy generally within the first five months. However, here as across the world, fecundity is declining for a variety of reasons including use of contraceptives, decline in sperm count, delay in marriage, and decline in marriage duration.

Declining fecundity is one of the factors leading to:

"declining fertility:"

Fertility is the average total number of live births per woman during her life. The world average fertility, in our present state of health care and infant mortality, needed to maintain a stable population; for so-called "zero population growth," is 2.1. Country by country, fertility varies from more than 8 to as little as 1.2. In the US and most of Europe, fertility has fallen below 2.1 and, as in the rest of the world, is continuing to fall. In some countries, such as Italy, the decline is so large and prolonged that total population is already falling. In the US, if immigration were to be discounted, our total population would have started to fall in the late 80s.

In addition to declines in fecundity, declining fertility may be traced to:

"alteration in mating patterns:"

Across the world, women increasingly are choosing to marry later or not to marry and, married or otherwise, to limit family size through abstinence, contraception and abortion. In the US alone, more than 30 million viable conceptions have ended in abortion.

However, there is a darker set of changes: all of the old barriers to intercourse and reproduction seem to be eroding: family social and economic status, clan, tribe, religion, nationality - all of these tended to separate and isolate portions of the population into separate breeding pools - all are losing their regulating roles, as are age, and, perhaps, even gender. These may be natural biological reactions to declining fecundity and fertility.

In addition, there appear to be further compensating features of sexual behavior: within the dominant culture, female ornamentation and decoration as well as male display and competition are reaching levels never before seen except in isolated locales.

"increasing senescence:"

As a consequence of declining fecundity, declining fertility and alteration in mating patterns, coupled with stable life expectancy, an unusual and biologically threatening population profile is developing in more and more countries: A growing, aging segment which cannot reproduce and a large young segment which increasingly does not reproduce. Already in Japan, in the UK and France and now in the US and Canada, concern is increasing about how the elderly will be taken care of, provided for, as the young grow old themselves and are not replaced.

We see this clearly in the current concerns about Medicare and Social Security: the declining number of workers per retired person.

"declining peak population estimates:"

As recently as 1970, the projected peak world population was 11-12 billion. In 1994, the projected peak was 9 billion. The most recent estimates suggest a peak of no more than 8 billion. Perhaps more alarming, the rate of decline in estimates has been accelerating: A loss of 2-3 billion in 24 years has been followed by a loss of a further billion in only the last 5 years, despite a larger base and a shorter projection period.

"merging breeding populations:"

Concern for the welfare of our species is further heightened by the recognition that humans have essentially merged into a single global breeding population in the late 20th. cen.. The oceans, which previously served as barriers and protective zones seperating plant and animal species as well as human groups, have been breached. In 1998 alone, there were 522 million international air travelers; their numbers increase by more than 10% a year. AIDS, which has been so heart breaking in the US, as elsewhere, was apparently brought here by a single visitor. Long distance trucking in Africa and sexual tourism in southeast Asia are now seen as playing major roles in its further spread.

"changes in predation patterns:"

All of these developments make us, as a species, increasingly vulnerable to our major predator: infectious disease. With AIDs we have been lucky: it is difficult to contract casually, has no insect vector or animal pool, may take as long as ten years to kill and only infects 25-35% of offspring. Nevertheless, it has already killed more than 12 million worldwide and an additional 33 million are HIV positive and are expected to die.

Suppose that the HIV virus behaved differently: suppose it was air borne, or could be spread by mosquitoes, or killed in ten days rather than ten years? Then we would be facing a crisis similar to the Black Death. In a four year period beginning in 1347, the bubonic plague killed more than 25 million, perhaps 1/3 of the population of Europe at that time, producing a dark age from which civilization did not recover for over 100 years.

Modern medicine, particularly the use of antibiotics and vaccines, has stressed our natural predators: smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, influenza and bubonic plague, to name just a few, and many have responded by mutating. Somewhere, perhaps in a Mexico City barrio or in a New York 5th Avenue high rise; in a Thailand hotel or a Russia dacha, the next great plague may even now be gathering its strength to strike. And all of the population trends I have mentioned would make past epidemics pale by comparison.

Despite my pessimism, I still don't know whether 6 billion is large or small. However, human population growth appears to be a self-limiting problem. Barring a major epidemic, population will peak in the mid-21st century at about 8 billion, only 1/3 more than at present, and then decline rapidly. Even allowing for immigration, US population is estimated to rise no more than 6% before 2025, after which it will decline. And the best present estimates of the carrying capacity of the range, the human population the Earth can sustain, are between 15 and 50 billion, all comfortably greater than 8 billion.

Some of you may feel strongly that 8 billion is a large number. I would be remiss if I did not suggest positive, morally acceptable, steps you could individually take to curtail this number.

However, before I do, let me issue a caution: The nations of our EuroAmerican culture, where Malthusian views are increasingly popular, are largely already below population replacement rate, predominantly white, Christian in religious practice, democratic, at least in form of governance, and in the upper 2/5iths of the world in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) per person. We will collectively contribute only 3% to the additional expected population growth. The other 97% will occur in countries which are predominantly non-white, largely non-Christian in religious practice, authoritarian in governance and in the lower 2/5iths of the world in GDP. Thus, any active efforts to limit population in the developing or so called "third-world" nations may well be seen as the worst form of cultural imperialism, far worse than Schwarzeneger films and McDonald burgers.

Nevertheless, the most potent known single action, to limit population growth voluntarily, is to educate women. Literate and educated women have more life options and, in exercising them, tend to chose smaller families with more personal investment per child. There are many excellent women's literacy programs world wide - one of the largest is the oldest, Laubach Literacy, which currently operates programs in 34 countries.

However, in the poorest countries, those with GDPs in the lowest 1/5, this is not sufficient - unless family incomes can be raised, women and girls must labor in home, field and factory and educational opportunities, even when available, are not taken advantage of.

Perhaps the shortest route to increased family income, whether in a developed or a developing country, is access to capital. In the poorest countries, the best capital is living capital: animals which can work, give milk or eggs and meat, and which can be bred for sale. A very successful effort which is now operating 300 programs in more than 40 countries is the Heifer Project: chickens for the Cameroons, rabbits for China, llamas for Boliva, water buffaloes for the Philippines and camels for India.

In a moving letter in this year's catalog, a young girl in Uganda, where the GDP per person is less than 6% of that here in the US, recounts that after her family received a pregnant goat and it gave birth, they sold the extra milk and were able to re-roof their house but, even more important, they bought her a new blue pinafore and a yellow blouse and sent her to school for the first time.

I still don't know whether 6 billion is large or small.

It is accepted that the human species is about 3.8 million years old. However recent studies suggest that we here today are sprung from a single common female ancestor no more than 250,000 years ago - evidence for a near extinction which struck, not the dinosaurs or the bison, but our forefathers and mothers.

I have a sense that the terms of this debate will change radically as world population peaks in the mid-21st cen. and then begins what may well be a long, steep decline, although hopefully not to the depths reached just 1/4 of a million years ago.

Let me conclude with words from the visionary Carl Sagan, from his 1980 book Cosmos:

"For we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness.  We have begun to contemplate our origins: star stuff pondering stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.  Our loyalties are to our species and our planet.  We speak for Earth.  Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to the Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring."

Blessed be.

Ingathering of New Members:

Now we come to a wonderful moment, when we deal with our own local population explosion.

*Hymn: #331 - Life Is the Greatest Gift of All

Closing Words: Emil Gudmundson wrote:

And now, may we have faith in life to do wise planting that the generations to come may reap even more abundantly than we. 

May we be bold in bringing to fruition the golden dreams of human kinship and justice. 

       This we ask that the fields of promise become fields of reality.

Blessed be. Go in peace. The service is complete