The Secular Tribulation by Phil Morse (September 1994)

p> This month, the United Nations is holding a conference in Cairo to plan global strategy to stabilize the world’s human population size. Since the world is finite, human population growth cannot continue infinitely and even the Vatican recognizes that basic premise.

The last conference in Mexico City ten years ago was sabotaged by the Vatican and the religious right working through the Reagan administration, and as a result the good start in the ’60s and ’70s at stopping population growth was undone. Time is running out and it must not happen again.

The world’s population presently is doubling about every 50 years. With each doubling our environmental problems worsen. They are symptoms of a greater problem and should have been the wake-up call, but they were easier to treat and the real problem of overpopulation has been ignored. As environmental problems worsen, they will become more severe and more costly to correct and eventually could be overwhelming and uncorrectable. We may have already reached that point with the problem of nuclear waste disposal. The initial successes of the environmentalists may prove to have done more harm than good.

Religions teach that life is sacred. The idea that there could be a population problem conflicts with that concept of the infinite value of human life. If human life is infinitely valuable then the idea that we are overpopulated is an oxymoron, or stated the other way, in an overpopulated world, how can human life be infinitely valuable? To the believer, God gives life, only God can end it and each additional life is one more soul to glorify God and anything different is unthinkable.

In addition to religious belief, there are logical reasons to want more population growth, such as the free lunch of deficit spending with the dream of growing out of debt by having more taxpayers in the future, and of ethnic groups (especially religious) who want to grow to dominance. More people means increasing land values. An unpleasant consequence of stopping growth is that it will contribute to recession. Although such reasons are compelling, they do not change the basic premise that population growth must stop because the world is finite.

Fishers everywhere have been experiencing declining catches since the 60s and the ocean fish stock is near collapse. Forests worldwide are being destroyed. In this country, old growth forests are already 90% gone and cutting continues at a rate that is 60% greater than their rate of regrowth. “Renewable resources” such as forests and oceans of fish are really not renewable, when demand exceeds supply. When they are gone, the jobs associated with them will be gone as well, and no amount of hand-wringing over job loss will preserve the forest or restore the fish populations.

As the population grows faster than the economy, the pool of those unemployed also grows. We are distracted by the accelerating loss of jobs and fail to see that it is caused by unsustainable population growth.

In the developed economies in the early phase of the industrial revolution, economic growth exceeded population growth (jobs were created faster than workers were added to the population) and standards of living rose. Today that seems to have peaked and population growth (especially because of migration from the undeveloped nations) exceeds job creation from economic growth and the numbers in poverty are growing. In the undeveloped economies, that never happened and is unlikely to now because resources are not infinite.

The overpopulation epiphany might come when forced on us by the end of cheap oil. Petroleum took millions of years to form and we are consuming it in only a few hundred. It powered the industrial revolution and is the raw material from which most insecticides and fertilizers are made. Oil will never be totally gone, but when it cannot be pumped fast enough to meet demand, the price will rise, until it becomes unaffordable. At that point the green revolution will be over.

Technological advances can and will occur and the exhaustion of some essential resources will be compensated for. The advances required relative to the already developed economies are modest but it is difficult to imagine how those economies that have not been able to eliminate poverty with current technology will be able to leapfrog to an even more advanced technology which requires capital and technological expertise to implement. “Technology will provide” has replaced “God will provide” but realistically, even technology cannot provide to infinity.

Conservation of resources can help in the developed economies but is meaningless in the undeveloped since their consumption is already so low. By that measure, the developed economies are the most overpopulated and since they posses the power, they will have the greatest dilemmas to resolve when the tribulation causes people to attempt to migrate.

As some predict, a “great tribulation” is coming, but not because God is piqued but rather, because of human population growth beyond a sustainable size. This secular tribulation will increase the death rate until the population shrinks to a size sustainable without cheap oil and cheap fertilizers made from oil.

If we cannot stop population growth in a more or less benign manner, we will be forced to think the unthinkable and make choices that we would rather not make, including redefining the value of human life, the rights of the elderly versus the rights of the young, whether to allow immigration and resettlement of victims of unexpected environmental change or victims of religious wars or “ethnic cleansing,” or innocent political refugees. These dilemmas will intensify as overpopulation worsens.

Why not be on the safe side and work to control our population growth sooner than later, when we can do so in a benign manner?

Philip M. Morse is a Foundation member from Massachusetts: “I work for Bull Computers (formerly Honeywell computer division) and will soon be retired. My work is in production of computer publications, printing, inventory control and distribution. Before Honeywell, I had a short career flying as an airline pilot as a summer job during college at Suffolk University (BS in BA). Even though I was brought up in a Methodist family, I have always been a skeptic but not an atheist until my 50s in a gradual process of self-awareness.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation