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On Overpopulation

There are a good many issues upon which Environmental and Jewish values seem to be in lock-step, and then there are those challenging issues where our environmental values and our Jewish values seem to come into conflict. Perhaps no issue presents such divergent viewpoints between the Environmental and Jewish perspective as that of “overpopulation”. As our planet is set to cross the 7 Billion human threshold this year, and environmental problems continue to grow exponentially worse, there is no better time to address this issue than the present.

Many environmentalist identify overpopulation as one of the ‘root causes’ of our current environmental catastrophe, while the general Jewish perspective is taken from Genesis 1:28, “God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." Such radical differences of opinion between the two schools of thought seem at first very difficult to reconcile. However, I will here argue that the root problem of our current environmental catastrophe is not that there are too many people, but that we as a people are not utilizing our resources wisely. While the Environmental and Jewish perspectives may disagree on an “ideal” number of people to populate the earth, both perspectives place emphasis on managing resources wisely. Thus, an approach that is both Jewish and Environmental must focus on resource management rather than population dynamics as the basis for environmental improvement.

Many environmentalists cite overpopulation as one of the ‘root causes’ of the environmental devastation we are currently witnessing. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the“staggering increase (in human population) and the massive consumption it drives are overwhelming the planet’s finite resources. . . By any ecological measure, Homo sapiens has exceeded its sustainable population size. ” According to this view, the negative effects of overpopulation are widespread and endemic. As human population’s grow unsustainably, so do human’s use of fossil fuels, trees, water and land, thus creating problems such as global climate change, plant and animal extinctions, and pollution. Additionally, as China’s and India’s populations grow wealthier, their use of resources will correspondingly increase, which will further exacerbate our current environmental crisis. In our already crowded, polluted, and technologically advanced world, it is easy to relate to the concern that exponential population growth will indeed create deeper and more severe environmental crisis’s in the future.

However, the overpopulation argument, when taken to its logical extreme, can lead some to very unsavory and misanthropic conclusions. Supporters of the New World Order system argue that global population must be brought down dramatically in order for the earth to be able to support all of its inhabitants sustainably. This ‘goal’ of a radically lower global population would presumably either be brought about through self-inflicted environmental devastation, or worse, through human manipulation of population dynamics through war, population culling, forced sterilizations, or curtailment of reproductive freedoms such as China’s ‘One Child Policy’. Of course, there are other, less repulsive ways to reduce global population growth, including the “empowerment of women, education of all people, universal access to birth control and a societal commitment to ensuring that all species are given a chance to live and thrive”. While these types of means might present fewer moral concerns, the underlying assumption remains that too many people is a bad thing and therefore we should act in order to reduce global population in order to protect the earth and all of its inhabitants.

What does Judaism have to say about the overpopulation issue? Does Judaism see overpopulation as a valid concern, or does it offer a different perspective to this debate? On a fundamental level, Judaism’s offers a very different approach to population dynamics. In Genesis 1:28, G-d speaks his very first words to the humans he has just created. He says, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." Such a statement could not be further from the environmentalist’s worldview. Later G-d twice promises to make Abraham’s children as numerous as the “stars of the heaven,” (Gen 15:5 and Gen 26:4) which again reinforces the Jewish ideal of population growth as divinely ordained and therefore a moral “good”. Even more basically, the Jewish belief system sees human’s as created in G-d’s image and G-d is good, therefore humans are a “good” and not something to be purposefully prevented from reproducing.

How then does Judaism address the question of limited resources which uncurtailed human population growth will surely create? Judaism holds that G-d will provide for everyone’s needs, provided we humans act in accordance with divine will. The Jewish perspective is that nothing is beyond G-d’s power, the feeding of 7+ billion people included. Indeed, G-d was able to keep hundreds of thousands of recently freed Israelites alive in the desert for 40 years through providing them with manna and leading them to water. Surely, if hundred’s of thousands can survive wandering in a desert for 40 years, G-d must be able to provide for the world’s current and future populations, if only he wanted to. As psalm 145:16 relates, “You (G-d) open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.”

Given our current state of environmental devastation and widespread global poverty and hunger, it can be argued that G-d does not want to provide for everyone’s needs on the planet at this time. Indeed, the Torah reminds us repeatedly that should people obey G-d’s commandments, we will be rewarded with plenty of food, rain, and other material abundance. However, should people fail to obey G-d’s commands, there will be widespread hunger, drought and suffering. From this vantage point, the problem of resources being unable to keep up with the needs of a growing human population is framed more in terms of ‘right action’ than it is with ‘overpopulation’. The problem, as the Torah sees it, is not that there are too many people on the earth. The problem, according to a Torah worldview, is that the people on earth are not acting properly, and are suffering as a result. Should people repent and change their wrong actions into right actions, dwindling resources would no longer be as pressing of a concern.

When faced with a choice between the Environmental approach that emphasizes humans as an environmental problem and the Jewish weltanschauung that sees human population growth as a blessing, I come down squarely on the side of Judaism. However, we must remember that our needs as a species will only be met provided we act according to the divine will, and that should we fail to do so, our existence on this planet will be filled with misery and hardships. Thus, the Jewish approach does not recognize ‘overpopulation’ as an inherent problem, but rather emphasizes ‘improper action’ as the source of suffering, and ‘proper action’ as the source of all true healing. The Jewish concept of Ba’al Tashchit (do not waste) embraces the idea that ‘wasting of resources’ is an example of improper action, and ‘proper utilization of resources’ is an example of proper action. This concept needs to gain more traction both within and outside of the Jewish community if humans are to solve this population size / resource availability equation. To be fair, there are some environmentalists who place emphasis on proper resource utilization rather than on curtailing human population growth. Most notable among them is Buckminster Fuller, who worked to design technology that would provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people while at the same time using the fewest amount of resources and creating the least amount of waste. By incorporating the Jewish values of proper action and Ba’al Tashchit into our lives, we can create a world that is both highly populated and also able to live within its planetary constraints. We can thus look to Jewish values as a guide for how to create a world in which people are valued as ‘reflections of G-d’ rather than as a ‘problematic resource-abusers’. A world is indeed possible in which human survival does not come at the expense of other species, but rather 'the desires of every living thing are satisfied' to the mutual benefit of all.

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  • Deborah Klee Wenger
    March 9, 2011 (5:14 pm)

    Beautiful insights and a way to resolve the dilemma!


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