People, People, People image

People, People, People

I have long been suspicious of the mantra that there are too many people in the world, but am definitely swimming against the tide on this one. David Attenborough recently declared that humans are a plague and who dares disagree with Attenborough?! In the UK we are also bedevilled by concerns over immigration, and the assumption that our “small island” is overrun.

The reason for my scepticism about the “too many people” assumption is firstly theological. I believe that when God made a covenant with Noah and all creation that he would continue to sustain life on earth he really meant it; which must mean, if it is to mean anything, that the earth can support whatever population dwells in it. (Believing this doesn’t mean I don’t take issues of environmental concern seriously but it does mean I think humans are fundamentally good news, and the earth is meant to be full of us.)

A second reason is observational – that human beings are very clever and very resourceful and that rather than hitting the limits of the Earth’s resources we have consistently demonstrated the ability to adapt and utilise new ones. Malthus has been proved wrong time and again, and I don’t see any reason why this should change.

A third reason is demographic, that global fertility figures actually reveal that in many nations there are too few babies being born rather than too many, and the global fertility rate is only just above the replacement rate. The reason for continuing population growth is not simply because too many people are being born but because those of us already alive are living ever longer.

Working within this framework I was fascinated by the scenarios painted in Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics – scenarios that point to a world that will look very different from what we have been accustomed to. “Thirty years ago, every developed country produced enough children to maintain a stable population from one generation to the next. Today, among developed countries, only the United States and France come close to producing the average 2.1 children per woman necessary to sustain population over time.” This has very practical implications – for instance, who is going to pay for health care and pension provision for the elderly when the number of retirees equals the number of workers (as is projected for Spain and Italy by 2050)? It also has significant social implications – such as the reality that by 2050 most European children will have no siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles.

The authors link the decline in European fertility and projected population decline (“thirty European countries are dying”) to Europe’s changing global role – that there are now no great powers in the continent which was once home to them all. An ageing, declining population does not project power in the way a youthful, growing one does. Instead, it needs to hope that the rest of the world will follow suit, “Thus, promoting worldwide fertility decline can be considered a kind of insurance policy, until the new multilateral order is more firmly established.” The only alternative course for Europe is,

to seek ways to advantage the family-oriented woman even at the expense of the career-oriented woman…Doing so, of course, would force Europe to abandon some of its most cherished tenets of feminism…a step which there is little evidence to suggest any European governments are prepared to take, despite the geopolitical consequences.

In contrast to Europe (and Russia and Japan) the USA maintains a healthy fertility rate. Interestingly, this seems to be linked to the greater commitment to organised religion seen in the US, with regular church attenders desiring larger families than non-attenders. The fertility rate seen in the US might also be a reason why the generally assumed rise of China to position of ‘top nation’ might not be quite so inevitable as most imagine; for China is no longer so much growing larger, as older. Also, as a result of selective abortion and infanticide (linked to the Chinese one child policy) there are now 51.3 million more males than females in China, with all the attendant social implications that might be expected from such an imbalance. Unlike Europe or Japan, China is experiencing “ageing before affluence” and “one worker may end up supporting two parents and four grandparents.”

India may actually be better positioned than China in the race for global supremacy, and will have a larger population by 2025. “Half of India’s population is under the age of twenty-five” and it “will add about 11 million workers each year to its workforce over the next decade.” India will experience its greatest youth bulge at exactly the point where China is rapidly greying – and, worryingly, these demographic changes may increase military tensions between the two gigantic neighbours.

This is all fascinating stuff, and raises some interesting things for us to think about from a theological and missiological perspective. For those of us in Europe, we need to think about how to respond to the cultural challenges of a society that is increasingly rejecting marriage and child-rearing. We also need to think about how we communicate the gospel to the elderly – for that is what most of us are going to be. It might also be worth us imagining what the demographic impact of religion could be in Europe. As the authors of Population Decline note,

So where will the children of the future come from? They may well come disproportionately from people who are at odds with the modern environment – from people who “don’t get” the new rules of the game that make large families an economic and social liability, or who, out of fundamentalist or chauvinistic conviction, reject the game altogether. If so, the future may belong to fundamentalism.

What is couched here in negative terms may actually represent a positive opportunity for Christians!

Missiologically, one conclusion is clear: Go to India!

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