The Earth didn’t come with an owner’s manual—or did it?
If we got an owner’s manual with the planet, like you do with a new car or TV, perhaps we could look up the answer to this crucial question: Can our Earth sustain a population of 11 billion people?
We’re definitely headed in that direction. The United Nations estimates that our small globe will soon, within this century, contain four billion more people than it does now. They project that the human population will grow to approximately 11 billion people by the year 2100, up from 7 billion in 2012. Yikes.
That means, if you were born in the 21st Century, and if you live to be a hundred, you’re going to have a huge number of new Facebook friends in the 22nd Century.
The main problem, of course, won’t be reading through all those posts—instead, it will be feeding and housing and managing the resource utilization of all those folks. We produce enough food today to feed everyone on the planet—but can we increase crop yields by more than 50%? We can still breathe the air and drink the water in most of the places on the Earth—but will that be true by 2100? We generate sufficient energy to power the planet today—but with increasing demands from developing nations and the massive projected increase in new population, do we have enough for tomorrow?
These questions continue to plague scientists, planners and world leaders. Mostly, during the past several decades, they’ve answered those questions with a resounding “No!” During the past two centuries, the experts almost unanimously concluded that the Earth could not support its rapidly-increasing population, and issued some very frightening prognostications, starting with a man named Thomas Robert Malthus in 1798:
Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio, Subsistence, increases only in an arithmetical ratio. – Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Chapter I, paragraph 18.
Babies are the enemies of the human race… Let’s consider it this way: by the time the world doubles its population, the amount of energy we will be using will be increased sevenfold which means probably the amount of pollution that we are producing will also be increased sevenfold. If we are now threatened by pollution at the present rate, how will we be threatened with sevenfold pollution by, say, 2010 A.D., distributed among twice the population? We’ll be having to grow twice the food out of soil that is being poisoned at seven times the rate. – Isaac Asimov, from a 1969 interview.
The key to understanding overpopulation is not population density but the numbers of people in an area relative to its resources and the capacity of the environment to sustain human activities; that is, to the area’s carrying capacity. When is an area overpopulated? When its population can’t be maintained without rapidly depleting nonrenewable resources…. By this standard, the entire planet and virtually every nation is already vastly overpopulated. – Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Explosion, 1990.
Of course, we know now that Malthus was wrong. He predicted that humanity would exhaust the global food supply when the Earth’s population reached a billion people, and that didn’t happen. Today we have seven times as many people, and normally those who starve do so because of regional wars, severe local droughts or political strife—not because the planet can’t grow enough food. Hopefully, Isaac Asimov was dead wrong when he said “Babies are the enemies of the human race”—after all, without babies, the human race would soon be extinct.
So back to that owner’s manual question: without any instructions or prior experience, how do we deal with this issue of overpopulation? Should the whole world, like China has, restrict the number of children families can have? Should we make every effort to increase farmers’ crop yields worldwide? Or should we welcome the exponential growth of the human race, believing that our planet and our human ingenuity can somehow support all those new people?
From a Baha’i perspective, these questions involve both religion and science—and actually require the two to work together.
The Baha’i teachings maintain that we do have an owner’s manual for our planet and the people on it—the continuing, progressive revelation of the Creator to humanity through the evolving single system of religion. Baha’is believe that humanity only has one religion, given to us over the course of time by multiple messengers and prophets, and called by different names even though sharing underlying spiritual principles. That one Faith, the Baha’i writings affirm, has gently and lovingly taught us the best and most spiritual ways to deal with each other since the very beginnings of the human race:
… man’s glory and greatness do not consist in his being avid for blood and sharp of claw, in tearing down cities and spreading havoc, in butchering armed forces and civilians. What would mean a bright future for him would be his reputation for justice, his kindness to the entire population whether high or low, his building up countries and cities, villages and districts, his making life easy, peaceful and happy for his fellow beings, his laying down fundamental principles for progress, his raising the standards and increasing the wealth of the entire population. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 67.
Our world’s survival, prosperity and ultimate happiness depend, the Baha’i teachings say, on our ability to unite. If we continue to violently make war on each other, to separate ourselves according to race and class and nationality, to privilege the wealthy over the poor, to permit gross injustice to run rampant, and to despoil the ecosystem, then we threaten and ultimately destroy our collective future. If, on the other hand, we can learn to love one another, to forego our differences, to transcend our boundaries and to come together in unity, we all have a bright future.
That part of the science-and-religion equation can’t be solved by technology or new laws or more productive ways to grow food. It can only be solved in the human heart, which we know has a deep need for spirituality, for love, for connection to others.