When you contemplate the future, you probably worry about population growth, and you wonder: Can the Earth sustain a few billion more of us?
Humanity has definitely, as the Torah recommended, been fruitful and multiplied:
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. – Genesis 1:28.
From about a billion people on the planet in the year 1800, we’re slated to reach 8 billion by 2025, and a projected 11 billion by 2100. In three centuries, the Earth’s population will have grown exponentially.
That really scares some people:
… the chief cause for the impending collapse of the world—the cause sufficient in and by itself—is the enormous growth of the human population: the human flood. The worst enemy of life is too much life: the excess of human life. – Pentti Linkola, Can Life Prevail? – A Radical Approach To The Environmental Crisis
Whether we accept it or not, this will likely be the century that determines what the optimal human population is for our planet. It will come about in one of two ways: Either we decide to manage our own numbers, to avoid a collision of every line on civilization’s graph—or nature will do it for us, in the form of famines, thirst, climate chaos, crashing ecosystems, opportunistic disease, and wars over dwindling resources that finally cut us down to size. – Alan Weisman, Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth?
But some forward-thinking experts have begun to question these kinds of purely quantitative, numbers-based assumptions, and contemplate a more nuanced, qualitative answer:
It’s not how many but what kind of people—an 11 billion world peopled by rampant consumers has no future. A world peopled with morally-advanced individuals … would be a good world to live in. – Paul Hanley, Eleven, p. 338.
Environmentalist and author Hanley, who is also a Baha’i, writes that the world’s rapidly-approaching population boom requires a fundamental change in the way humanity relates to the planet and to each other:
Eleven billion people will populate this marvelous planet by the end of this century. Adding almost 4 billion to an already overburdened world will force everyone to change everything. The sweeping changes that make an 11 billion-world work will wholly transform humankind, reshaping its inner life and external conditions. This process will result in the emergence of a new culture, a new agriculture, and ultimately a new human race. – Ibid., p. 1.
This revolutionary idea—that it’s not the quantity of the population, but the population’s spiritual qualities that matter most—puts humanity’s exponential growth curve into an entirely different light.
Today we have a world of more than 7 billion people, and virtually every expert agrees that we’re using the Earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate. In the wealthiest places, we’ve become hyper-consumers, prodigious and profligate users of land, raw materials, water, energy and everything else. That immoderate over-usage has befouled our atmosphere, our waterways and our soil. In the poorest places, a few billion of us don’t have enough to eat. In order for the world to survive, the Baha’i teachings say, this basic global imbalance, the disunity it stems from and the injustice it fosters all have to stop:
The fundamental purpose animating the Faith of God and His Religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men … Our hope is that the world’s religious leaders and the rulers thereof will unitedly arise for the reformation of this age and the rehabilitation of its fortunes. Let them, after meditating on its needs, take counsel together and, through anxious and full deliberation, administer to a diseased and sorely-afflicted world the remedy it requireth …. It is incumbent upon them who are in authority to exercise moderation in all things. Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence ….
Please God, the peoples of the world may be led, as the result of the high endeavors exerted by their rulers and the wise and learned amongst men, to recognize their best interests. How long will humanity persist in its waywardness? How long will injustice continue? How long is chaos and confusion to reign amongst men? How long will discord agitate the face of society?…
The winds of despair are, alas, blowing from every direction, and the strife that divideth and afflicteth the human race is daily increasing. The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appeareth to be lamentably defective. I beseech God, exalted be His glory, that He may graciously awaken the peoples of the earth, may grant that the end of their conduct may be profitable unto them, and aid them to accomplish that which beseemeth their station. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 215-217.
So what if we began to follow Baha’u’llah’s wise counsel, and began working to change the world’s “lamentably defective” order? What if we administered the remedy of exercising “moderation in all things,” especially where it concerns the number of people on the planet?
In the next essay in this series, we’ll explore those crucial questions, and see if we can find a few answers in one very unexpected place.