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A Classic Argument for Birth Control as Salvation of the Planet

Volume 31, Issue 7,8 & 9, September 21, 2017

Barbara Julian, Victoria

     Both physically and conceptually, wilderness is essential, but it’s disappearing from planet Earth. Religions usually depict paradise as parkland (the word “park” is etymologically related to “paradise”), while wilderness was traditionally seen as alien, threatening, dangerous, bewildering, home of demons – a place to be cast out into. 
We could choose policies that would preserve natural areas as Edenic parkland, but we have more often turned wilderness into an image of hell than an image of heaven. Wide swathes of the globe are thronged with impoverished, warring populations who would fit well into the pages of Dante or the Medieval allegories of hell. 
     Key words are “throng” and “warring”, and on planet Earth too many humans are fighting for too small a paradise. Scarcity leads to war, and Earth has a scarcity problem because she hosts too many users going after too few resources. Since the resources won’t increase (the planet isn’t growing), we need to reduce the number of users, if we want peace on Earth. The most peaceful countries are the least populated ones. Why haven’t we learned anything from that simple observation?
     The ancient religious instruction to various tribes of humanity to produce children (to multiply so as to outnumber the foreigners) is counterproductive today. In only the last century (after about seven million years of human history) world population increased from 1.65 billion to seven billion people, while available soil and potable water declined radically due to overuse, pollution, and deforestation. What might religious bodies, which once recommended producing as many offspring as possible, offer as a morally appropriate recommendation today?
     With world population growing at the rate of a million and a half births per week (not evenly distributed, obviously), the total is expected to reach about ten billion by 2050. According to the British-based organization Population Matters, about 220 million pregnancies a year worldwide are unintended, and fully 40 per cent of Earth’s women have no access to family planning services. “Coercive pregnancy”, then, is one route to both poverty and ecological destruction. The route out is by establishing girls’ right to education and career opportunity as an alternative to becoming hapless breeders from puberty onward.
     Since one species, humanity, has been drawing down Earth’s natural resources at a rate since 1978 faster than the Earth can replenish them, we are causing not only the destruction of other species (the current Sixth Extinction), but also an increase in poverty and armed conflict. There are only two possible outcomes: either we control our birth rate, or we increase the death rate through starvation, disease and war. Which of these would a moral institution recommend? Is it time for religions to look at ancient reproductive strictures and come up with something more suited to present circumstances?
     What practical spirituality, then, would suit present circumstances? The spirituality of birth control involves goals not so different from traditional Christian aims: charity, justice, helping the poor, promoting peace and cherishing our earthly home. If these are virtues, then uncontrolled population increase is a sin. 
     The archetypal inhabitants of the original earthly paradise, the Garden of Eden, were expelled from their parkland of plenty for eating from the tree of knowledge. Once we have knowledge, we can’t “un-know” and can no longer linger in the comfort of childlike innocence (in-nocere: “not-knowing”). We know that there are too many humans drawing down the material-energetic resources of the planet, and we compound this guilty knowledge by pretending not to possess it. If the original sin is the fall into knowledge, the second must be the mis-use of knowledge. 
     Nature adapts quickly, forever re-positioning in response to changing conditions, but human thought systems adapt slowly. We know that we are creating a lethal threat to life on Earth, the foundation of all other environmental threats, the problem that left unsolved will prevent all technological solutions from working: we know we must control our numbers. We know the math and we understand the methodology. Simply, if a couple has two or more babies between them they are maintaining or increasing the problem, while if they have only one or no offspring they are halving it, or better. Why should the ethical course here be so hard to acknowledge? Why do not only religious institutions and governments but also environmentalists avert their eyes from this topic? 
     Those of us outside organized religion who nevertheless count ourselves spiritual and humanitarian, who have a pantheistic concern for living things and the sacred inorganic systems that support them, have a hard time understanding why churches and temples turn their backs on conservation morality. The planet’s wild places may be disappearing but the moral wilderness, dangerous and demon-filled, is flourishing.
     Democratic governments handle majority belief systems with care, fearing to alienate voters, and undemocratic regimes and theocracies look beyond our despoiled earthly paradise to some other realm of meaning. Social justice and conservation organizations such as Population 
     Matters are mired in a long slog against tribal, nationalist, religious and corporate interests in the pursuit of international human rights and environmental sustainability. It is like a sin of insanity that world religions should not be their ally, should turn their backs on what is simple, rational kindness: allowing children already born to grow up in a world of sufficiency rather than scarcity. To reduce both future numbers of humans and present denial of girls’ reproductive rights, shouldn’t be outside the realm of Christian generosity. It seems to be up to those outside Church governing structures to be the leaders here –  another task for an informed and caring laity.
     Find some useful statistics at: