Do you worry about over-population? Do you believe that the Earth has begun to reach its carrying capacity, its ability to support more people?

That’s certainly an understandable concern—the world’s population passed the 7 billion mark in 2012, and the United Nations Population Fund estimates that we will reach 8 billion people by the year 2025, the fastest the human population has ever grown.

Here’s a mind-boggling statistic: the Earth’s population now expands by somewhere between 75-80 million people each year. Do the math, and that works out to 145 new babies every minute.

In the year 1800, the Earth supported a billion people. By the year 2100, according to a recent study in the journal Science, the Earth will hold somewhere on the order of 11 billion people. Other demographic and birthrate projections estimate as many as 15 billion.

That’s the definition of exponential growth, and it has happened for very good reasons—because we’ve figured out ways during the last few centuries to grow more food, prevent or cure more diseases, reduce infant mortality and stop waging massive world wars. The plague, the Black Death and the huge influenza epidemics of the past are now ancient history. We know more, so we can save more people.

net-population-growth-distribution

But because we’ve been so successful in moving humanitarian, social and public health initiatives forward, we’ve witnessed a massive increase in human population—which will inevitably continue into the near-term future during the 21st Century. This has raised a whole host of tough questions. Do we have the resources to support such rapid growth? Is population growth sustainable? Can we possibly feed, clothe and shelter that many people? No one really knows, because we’ve never tried it before.

Today, July 11, is United Nations World Population Day, so it’s the right time to ask those questions.

In this short series of essays, then, we’ll explore the crucial issues of overpopulation, and see how the Baha’i teachings recommend dealing with the problem.

First, let’s look at the theme of today’s UN observance: Family Planning: Empowering People, Developing Nations. The United Nations says:

Around the world, some 225 million women who want to avoid pregnancy are not using safe and effective family planning methods, for reasons ranging from lack of access to information or services to lack of support from their partners or communities. Most of these women with an unmet demand for contraceptives live in 69 of the poorest countries on earth. 

Access to safe, voluntary family planning is a human right. It is also central to gender equality and women’s empowerment, and is a key factor in reducing poverty. Investments in making family planning available also yields economic and other gains that can propel development forward.UN World Population Day

This issue—birth control and ready access to safe, effective family planning—has sparked significant religious debate in the past, and still does today. Some major religious organizations have opposed modern birth control methods like the pill. Catholics and some Orthodox Jewish groups outlaw artificial contraception. Even some governments have opposed those methods for moral or political reasons.

How do the Baha’is deal with this weighty issue? Well, the Baha’i teachings on birth control have definitely evolved over time—which shows that the Baha’i principle of the agreement of science and religion, and the flexibility of a democratically-elected universal leadership body, both allow the Faith to react and adjust to new scientific developments. Note the dates on these two letters, one from a secretary of the Baha’i Guardian, Shoghi Effendi; and the following one almost 50 years later from the Universal House of Justice:

As to the problem of birth control. Neither Baha’u’llah nor Abdu’l-Baha has revealed anything direct or explicit regarding this question. But the Baha’i Teachings, when carefully studied imply that such current conceptions like birth control, if not necessarily wrong and immoral in principle, have nevertheless to be discarded as constituting a real danger to the very foundation of our social life. – from a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual Baha’i, October 14, 1935.

As to birth control methods, the House of Justice does not wish to comment on the effectiveness or possible hazards of present-day contraceptive agents, and leaves it to individuals to decide what course of action they will take in light of the teachings and the best medical advice available … – from a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual Baha’i, March 4, 1981.

Of course, we need to understand that birth control in 1935 was vastly different than the safe modern oral contraceptives developed in the 1960s—so you can see why the advice from the Baha’i administrative order changed and progressed. In the 1930s, birth control often involved harsh chemicals, primitive and harmful intrauterine devices or permanent sterilization—and in most places, all those methods were illegal. Now, oral contraceptives and much more sophisticated, benign devices are safely, widely and legally used all around the world.

But this issue, of course, involves much more than just the modern methods used to limit and control fertility—it involves the emancipation and equality of women:

… the principle of religion has been revealed by Baha’u’llah that woman must be given the privilege of equal education with man and full right to his prerogatives. That is to say, there must be no difference in the education of male and female in order that womankind may develop equal capacity and importance with man in the social and economic equation. Then the world will attain unity and harmony. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 108.

Baha’is believe that women must have full equality, including an equal voice in the important decisions every couple makes about procreation. When that equality happens, the Baha’i teachings say, the world will know peace.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

9 Comments

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  • Pete Jorgensen
    15 hours ago
    "Exponential" may sound scary but it's what we've had for hundreds of millennia. It's not exponentially, it's sustainability. Are we better off now and will we be better off tomorrow?
    We are not seeing the "fastest the human population has ever grown". Numbers from the UN Population Division show the current 1.2% was preceded by over 50 years of steady rate declines which trends say will go on well into the next century. As for how we'll provide for 145 new people per minute, global wealth creation has also been "exponential". For years ...now the world's total private net worth has grown 5% yearly; this means every minute adds $22 million for those 145 new people.
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  • 4 days ago
    This is a topic that all women need to discuss with their prospective spouses before marriage, no matter what faith you are. Men have used pregnancy as another way to subjugate their wives -- keeping them "barefoot and pregnant" to control them and keep them at home. It just another way that men "possess" their wives. Now, thankfully, women have a choice.
  • Jul 13, 2017
    Wikipedia has a great template with all its birth control related articles in one spot.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Template:Birth_control_methods
    Note: Birth control methods have an ideal use and typical use success/failure rate. I recently read all of the articles in the template, because of UN World Population Day recently. Effectiveness of methods is tired by ideal use according to a chart comparing some methods in on article: Tier 1 (18% failure rate). Typical use may diverge from ideal use rates listed.
    There is a World Contraception Day which is September 26. Just something noteworthy for future articles later in the year, maybe? ...
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  • Regina Rodriguez
    Jul 13, 2017
    While the issue of birth control is very complex, the hazards of pharmaceutical birth control pills are very real. Yet, they are praised to contribute to women's equality. Little attention given to the physical and psychological side effects of pills, shots and other devices. I personally believe the solution might be in a cultural change in how we view sexual intimacy and mutual responsibility. Since no method can prevent pregnancy 100% all the time, couples who try to avoid pregnancy need to be aware that even if they are careful, if they are both fertile, a child could be conceived. ... Maybe that is why a loving bond, marriage and equality are of utmost importance for sexual intimacy, and maybe that is where the "education" should start
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  • Terry Tibando
    Jul 12, 2017
    It seems that education, particularly in third countries is required, especially in African, Asian and Far Eastern countries judging by the above population density map with women receiving priority over men. Second, it still surprises me that sex in a legitimate bond of marriage is still viewed as just coitus when there other more natural and pleasant sexual practices that are just as effective oral or prophylactic birth control. The bottom line is education, education, education!
  • Leontine Wallace
    Jul 11, 2017
    A thought -
    As the newest research surfaces exposure to hormonal modifications over decades, and especially while adolescents are developing, could prove to be very damaging to women. While we may feel enlightened at this age of scientific discovery, it is wise to consider that women were also told smoking was safe during pregnancy and encouraged by doctors not too long ago.
    See the article below that promotes more research on the correlation between hormonal birth control and depression.
    http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/2552796
    Why is natural family planning, sex education, and respect from partners not considered the most safe and effective ...birth control?
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  • Jul 11, 2017
    There are three stance basically on how people should react to demographics and human population growth: pro-natalism or just natalism, liberalism or libertarianism, and anti-natalism. Pro-natalism is the belief that the birth rate should be brought up and maximized. Liberalism or libertarianism is the belief that spontaneous order will always lead to a birth rate high or low enough to meet the world's needs. Anti-natalism is the belief that the birth rate should be minimized. Pro-natalism goes along with overpopulation denial, because overpopulation is at cross purposes with natalism. There are lots of threats to human survival, but the birth ...rate being too low isn't one of them like pro-natalists suppose.
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  • Joyous Messenger
    Jul 11, 2017
    Overpopulation is NOT a real problem.
    The thing is: the predictions and calculations made by the Malthusians who promoted and popularized the idea that we were RAPIDLY approaching overpopulation have already been definitively proven wrong.
    The world was supposed to collapse by the nineties. Instead, it is nearing now the twenties.
    Why must we continue to fear this thing when the people who first promoted such a fear have been shown, by the natural progression of history, to have been so woefully wrong??
    • Pete Jorgensen
      15 hours ago
      Malthus was wrong. Baha'u'llah told us that people "have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization." If our concern is finite resources then we must consider that most of today's wealth creation is information. We now know how to make more food from less land, more clothing from less machines and more machines from less iron. It's reasonable to see Baha'u'llah's promise suggesting that this can and should continue --nay accelerate in future.