Science in Christian Perspective


The Population Explosion
Wheaton College 
Wheaton, Illinois

From: JASA 25 (March 1973): 9-13.
A paper presented at the annual ASA Convention at Whitworth College, Spokane, Washington in August 1971.

In 1951 a Northwestern University centennial program devoted a session to discussing the population problem. Since that time much literature has appeared stressing the dire consequences of the population explosion. This is a problem for science inasmuch as improvement in medical services has reduced infant mortality and increased the life span but has also made available the means for controlling family size. If space and food were unlimited and waste products of civilization could be disposed of in a way to increase soil and stream production rather than to pollute our air and fresh water, the number of people on earth could continue to increase without our concern.

Statistics of Population

The statistics of population are impressive. In 10,000 B. C. the world's people numbered somewhere around one million. By 33 A. D. there were 275 million plus or minus a third. By Mohammed's time, 570 AD., there was no increase, but by 1650 there were 475 million people which was a doubling of the world's population in 900 years. In 200 more years the population doubled again to reach 1 billion people in 1850. Only 90 years were required to add another billion and 40 years more brought us to the more than 3 billion living in 1971. Estimates of future trends suggest 9 billion people by 2050 A. D.

Consider the situation in America. In 1938 Professor A. Franklin Shull of the University of Michigan listed estimates for the United States, "A population of 202, 000,000 may be reached by 1980; or the maximum may be only 138,000,000 reached by 1955 with a decline thereafter to 129,000,000 in 1980 or a population of about 155,000,000 may be attained by 1980." Now we see that the largest estimate was the more realistic. The rate of increase in the United States was 3% in the early days of our Republic, down to 1.2% during the 1920's, only 0.59% in 1932-33, but by 1950-51 it was 1.76%. If it continued during the next twenty years at an average of 1.33% we would have 217,000,000 in 1975. This agrees with figures from the projections of the Bureau of the Census. In 1968 the total reached 200 million for the first time. The census of 1970 revealed a population of 204,675,000. A recent report by a radio commentator gave our birth rate for the 1969 year as the lowest ever. Perhaps this trend will continue. It is

It is especially important that the U.S. population be checked. "In 1966, the United States, with only 6 of the world's population consumed 34% of the world's energy production, 29 of all steel production, and 17 of all timber cut."

especially important that the U. S. population be checked. "In 1966, the United States, with only 6% of the world's population consumed 34% of the world's energy production, 29% of all steel production, and 17% of all the timber cut."1

In any country the amount of growth in population is a balance between birth rates, death rates, and immigration. We may disregard immigration which is increased in a Hungarian crisis and reduced in a depression. Death rates have been going down. The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company announced that in 1957 the average age at death is the three score and ten mentioned in Psalm 90. Birth rates have been increasing. With static or increased birth rates and a lowered death rate, the total population increases. Mexico, for example, has a birth rate of 42.2 per 1000 and a death rate of 13.3. Such rates will permit a doubling of the population in 21 years.

Why Care?

Why should the U. S. care about the area south of the Rio Grande or on the other side of the earth? The former premier of Pakistan said, "America cannot long remain an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty." President Eisenhower commented, "The economic need of all nations-in mutual dependence-makes isolation an impossibility; not even America's prosperity could long survive if other nations did not prosper." Christians the world over have cared for the underprivileged and endeavored to advance their physical comfort as well as to give them the Scriptures for spiritual comfort.

The world falls into three groups, according to Warren Thompson of Scripps Foundation for Research in Population Problems. The first is Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Here low birth rates, low death rates, and low rates of natural increase will permit food and energy reserves to keep up with human needs. A second group is Eastern and Southeastern Europe, Japan, Spain, Brazil, and Argentina. These have moderate death rates, high birth rates, and a high rate of natural increase. This segment will become a larger part of the world's people. The third group represented by India, China, South and Central America already has three fifths of the world's numbers and very high birth and death rates. There is growth in population when subsistence increases and no increase or decline when there are epidemics of disease or scarcity of food. The first group has a good economy, the second will have an improved economy, and the third group will probably increase its members as its means of subsistence increases so their level of living will not be improved. If it were improved, the improvement would be in education, which would make the people aware of their poor lot by comparison with more fortunate countries and could stimulate them to produce the means of waging war in an attempt to improve their economy.

Recall, too, that dissatisfied peoples are likely to listen with sympathy to the promises of Communism. China is an example; Egypt has a treaty of friendship with Moscow. The United States cannot indefinitely make up the difference between satisfaction and restlessness in "have not" nations by means of dollars. The control of population is essential to prevent this social unrest. "Today the population bomb threatens to create an explosion as disruptive and dangerous as the explosion of the atom, and with as much influence on prospects for progress or disaster, war, or peace."2

Food Suppliers

Well-fed Americans have difficulty imagining a time when there will not he enough available food. With the government asking whole farms to lie idle and surpluses stored with lack of demand for them, it seems unlikely that America could be headed for famine. Probably we will not reach that extreme state, but there are reasons for thinking that our population is increasing at a more rapid rate than our ability to supply it with both food and energy for its industry. The problem is much more acute in countries other than ours, notably India and China. Furthermore, missionary activity must be accelerated if we are to reach the proportion now hearing the gospel each year or make any, advance in winning people to Christ, 165,000 new people are being added to the world each day. Are we reaching that many new hearers each day with the Word of Life?

Man was told in Genesis 1:28 to replenish the earth. He has done this with remarkable ability, one of the few commands of God which he has fully obeyed!

"Famines in diverse places" are predicted in Matthew 24. They are inevitable unless mankind can develop a way to balance the increase in numbers of people with more abundant sources of supply. Man was told in Genesis 1:28 to replenish the earth. He has done this with remarkable ability, one of the few commands of Cod which he has fully obeyed! But will Christians be able to "go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" when the population greatly exceeds its present numbers?

How much can supplies be increased? Dr. J. Murray Luck of Stanford University has made an extensive study of this.3 Only 2 to 3 billion of the world's 36 billion acres are under cultivation, and 6 billions are in pasture land. Any increase in cultivatable land would come at the cost of vast sums "to maintain the stability of such soils, to prevent erosion, and to provide irrigation, or drainage, and fertilizers." Because cattle, sheep, and swine eat about 3 times as much as man, we will eventually reduce their numbers and fortify our foods with factory made amino acids which now come from animal products in our diet. From leaves we may be able to extract our proteins. Fisheries may be extended into the southern hemisphere which now gives only 2% of our fish catch. Bacteria, yeasts, and algae will supply additional foods. But population has increased more rapidly than our improved food sources. "The director general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization was forced to report in 1951, that even though the world's production of food had increased by 9 percent since 1934-38, the population had increased by 12 percent. In consequence, available calories were reduced from 2380 to 2260 per capita per day, and hunger and food shortages increased."

When cultivatable laud is increased, the promoters must be aware of the effect of using this land for agriculture upon the value it may have as part of the balance in nature. The provost of Michigan State University, one of our leading agriculture colleges, reminds us that "if the recommended agricultural strategies continue to focus on ever larger areas of the earth's surface converted to narrow, intensive approaches for maximizing food production and continue to ignore broader ecosystem relationships, we are bound to seriously aggravate the later stages of the 'people-food crunch' whatever its magnitude."4

Other Needs

But other needs besides food are intensified with population rise. Dr. Luck mentions fibers used for fuel, clothing, housing, paper and packaging. Probably we shall have sufficient supply during the next century. Synthetics will give us 50% of our needs but sometimes at increased prices.

The equivalent of 10 tons of coal is used for each person in the U.S. for heating, to drive machines, and to run our industrial plants. This is about 9 times the world average. Our consumption of energy-yielding fuels is going up. Between 1940 and 1950 we increased by 50%. Dr. Luck estimated that by 1960 it would become 25% above 1950 and "by 1975 we will be using energy at the rate of over 2 billion tons of 'coal equivalent' per year, which is about that of the entire world at the present time," What is the possibility that our resources will last? Considering coal and oil, our fossil fuel, he says., "It becomes pretty clear that fossil fuels as sources of energy will have almost disappeared by the end of the next century if present trends continue."

Fortunately atomic energy offers some relief. "In our own country there will be at least 1 million kilowatts of generating capacity in commercial atomic power plants by the end of 1960," and much more today. The Argonne National Laboratory maintains that atomic power plants are safe, Someone commented recently, "We are all environmentalists until there is a brown-out." "Solar energy, at fantastic costs, can produce only 2 to 5% of our needs."

We use a considerable quantity of minerals. Most of the good grade ones will have been used up within the next century. Low grade ones offer new supplies but much of our power resources would be used in exploiting them.

Christians have had definite ideas in the past about slavery, alcoholism, crime and war. They need some realistic thinking about this oncoming evil.

The solution offered by Dr. Luck is "found in the maintenance of a very delicate balance between industry and agriculture and by a world-wide reduction in birth rate." The reduction would be accomplished by abortion at the request of a prospective mother, contraception, and decreasing tax exemptions for children. He would give foreign aid only to such countries as would show a program for controlled population. Nor should our country continue to "drain the rest of the world of many of its previous natural resources until we initiate measures to reduce our own rate of population increase."

Optimistic Views

You have noticed that I quoted from an article written in 1957. This gives credit to some of the pioneers in predicting future resources. Moreover re cent articles tend to give the same pessimistic picture. However some optimistic attitudes have been published. Consult the one by Thomas Nolan in 1958.5 He believed that we had reached a state of conservation where a sustained yield was possible. The reserves of petroleum were greater by sevenfold in 1958 than in 1923 but he foresaw that oil would not last forever. Even so he thinks technology will produce synthetic liquid fuels from oil shales, tar sands and low grade coals, subgrade and ultrasubgrade materials will yield metallic and nonmetallic minerals, uranium deposits have been found more extensive than expected; raw materials for our civilization can be obtained for a long period in the future." A 1970 newspaper report by Lester Brown of Overseas Development Council, gives encouraging results on improving grains such as wheat and rice so that Asiatic countries which previously imported cereals may have a surplus.6 Any improvement is most welcome, but we need to be alert to the predictions of doom given by such authors as Georg Borgstrom in The Hungry Planet and the Paddock's in Famine 1975! America's Decision: Who Will Survive?7

Water resources have both diminished and been contaminated, according to recent writers, but again Nolan is optimistic. We may be able to prevent evaporation from surface sources by spreading a film over ponds and reservoirs; research seeks to recharge underground aquifers; and the changing of salt water to fresh water holds promise. Such desalination is the hope of William Pollard, the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who predicts the world can care for 10 billion people but he thinks we do not have time enough to develop our system. Already on the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea the Russians are building plants to care for the communities living near the oil fields. Gale Young gives estimates that the cost of fresh water from salty seas is 25 to 36 cents for 1000 gallons. At Key West, however, the present cost is $1 per 1000 gallons. After comparing the costs of water and the amounts needed to grow rice and other grains, Young concludes that "desalination is a fresh water source of broad potential applicability" and "desalination agriculture is in the realm of practical possibility, rather than being far afield."' Such results are not considered realistic by several writers from Resources for the Future, Inc.9 In similar view, Robert D. Gerard of Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory reports that 57% of the desalination plants cannot produce water below $3 per 1000 gallons and only 5% show costs below $1. He recommends extending intake pipes to a considerable distance off shore to take advantage of the cold water in marine depths, a process which he thinks will cut the cost.

Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, believes our technology can keep up with our fertility. He writes, "I suspect that ultimately the population of the earth will be limited not by any scarcity but rather by our ability to put up with each other."° Teller's words are echoed by Paul F. Sears in his presidential address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science." "In 700 years, if the present rate of increase in the United States continued there would he standing room only, 6 square feet, with 4,646,400 people in each square mile just about 22 generations from now. A little after this the hypothetical human population would weigh more than the planet." At present, Paris has 142,000 per square mile, New YorkRUSSELL L
390,000 per square mile and Hong Kong 800,000 per square mile. Sears states that farm surpluses will be only a memory by 1978. We absorb agricultural land in the U.S. at a rate of some million acres a year. His final words were, "Our future security may depend less upon priority in exploring outer space than upon our wisdom in managing the space in which we live."

Twenty-two years later the presidential address of the American Association for the Advancement of Science had this advice,

The next step in space must be directed toward the earth. We must turn our newly discovered skills toward the construction of world systems that make the planet earth even better than it now is for the burgeoning numbers of people. We must invent new world technologies. We must commit the resources of space science, directly and indirectly, to the achievement of an optimum balance of man and nature on this magnificent but imperiled planet.12

A sample of the attitude of Americans on limiting population size was obtained from a questionnaire given to students and faculty at Cornell University.13 Although 84% agreed that family size should be limited, yet 65% said it wanted three or more children, only 30% favored two children and 5% preferred one or none. If this is true of Americans at large, then the probability of controlling the population growth is unlikely. It is the American child who uses fifty times more of the world resources than an Indian child does. With 1/6 of the world's population we use 40% of its natural resources and cause 50% of industrial pollution. So controlling the growth in numbers of the affluent is the main problem.

Possible Solutions

What must be done? Education is obviously necessary, not only of the masses through the news media, but even of the collegiate crowd. The Cornell Survey revealed both ignorance about the reproductive system and unwillingness to cooperate in population control.

In Latin American countries many men want large families in order to show their manliness. Futhermore undeveloped countries tend to feel that America wants them to control their population size so that Americans can have a better chance to get the products of the foreign soils and mines and sea than would be available to America if population pressure made it necessary to retain the food and minerals in the foreign countries. Hence America must be the first to slow its population growth before it can expect other countries to accept advice and techniques from us. We have the problem of not only adding to the knowledge of means of reproductive restraint but also of changing the psychology of those who prefer large families.

Suggestions for curbing the population boom in
clude the following programs. 14
1. Vigorous education about the population problem and its consequences.
2. Widespread information about birth control measures.
3. Legalization of abortion for any who wish it.
4. Invoke penalties for having more than two children per family such as limiting tax exemptions to four to a family and higher school taxes for large families.
5. Provide double exemption for adopted children.

In a comprehensive discussion of solutions, Joseph J. Spengler objects to number 4 (penalties for more than two children) because this would penalize the children. "Means for the rearing and training of these children might be unduly reduced by such a tax." He recommends that the need for large families to give economic support to the parents in old age could be replaced by a social security system in underdeveloped countries. Promised benefits could go to those with small families. Even a bonus could he given 20 years after the birth of the first child if no more than the target number of children had been produced. He also suggests threatening those with large families with "not sharing in retirement benefits upon reaching age 65 if the number of living children should be excessive."

Paul Ehrlich, whose book, The Population Bomb, was a best seller, recommends sterilizing capsules for women which would be removable, and introduction of sterilizing chemicals into food and water. These chemicals could be counteracted if reasons for reproduction were desirable, Lawrence Slobodkin, head of the Department of Ecology at the University of the State of New York at Stony Brook advocates giving girls equal pay for equal work so they need not have baby production as a career. Also child care centers for working mothers would encourage them to give up having more children. He cited Ireland and Sweden where social reforms have resulted in very little population growth. Slobodkin feels that Paul Ehrlieh is vocal for the catastrophic school and doing a disservice to his cause.16

Christian Attitudes

What are Christian attitudes? Christians oppose abortion, 17 are divided in attitudes on birth control, but certainly can be foresighted enough to realize that a population spiral upward is not desirable. Said Robert Conk in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, "The population bomb is as great a threat to mankind as the nuclear bomb. Fortunately its fuse is longer." Christians have had definite ideas in the past about slavery, alcoholism, crime, and war. They need some realistic thinking about this oncoming evil.

The ultimate solution does not lie with man. Dr. Luck believes "that man, in the wisdom with which he has been endowed, will continue to triumph in the never-ending struggle to sustain the individual and the species." But Christians are confident that Christ will return to earth to reign in righteousness and give the final solution to the problems that man has brought on himself. In the meantime we can favor those trends that ameliorate the living conditions of our nations.


1The Population Crisis: Rising Concern at Home, Luther J. Carter, Science, 7 November 1969.
2The Population Bomb. Hugh Moore Fund.
3Science, 1 November 1957.
4John E. Canon, Science. 19 December 1969.
5Use and Renewal of Natural Resources. Thomas B. Nolan. Science, 19 September 1958.
6Desalted Seawater for Agriculture: Is it Economic? Chicago Daily News, January 9, 1970.
7Georg Bergstrom, Collier Books. New York, 1967 and William and Paul Paddock. Little Brown and Company, Boston. 1967. 
8Gale Young. Science. 23 January 1970.
9Marion Clawson, Hans H. Landsberg, Lyle T. Alexander, Science, 6 June 1969.
10Science. 19 September 1958 in article by T. B. Nolan.
11The Inexorable Problem of Space, Paul B. Sears, Science, 3 January 1958.
12After the Moon, the Earth. Walter O. Roberts. Science, 2 January 1970. 
l3Editorial, Science. 23 January 1970.
14G. Bruce Lemmon, M.D. American Medical News. January 12, 1970.
15Joseph 1. Soeneler. Science. 5 December1969.
16In a speech at National Audubon Convention, Seattle, May 16, 1970.
l7Kenneth J. Sharp. Christianity Today. June 4, 1971.