Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

Does Saving Lives Lead to Overpopulation?

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Have you ever heard that our well-being is threatened by overpopulation? That we must choose between the planet and the people?

It’s a myth that has been around a long time, at least as long as 1798 when Thomas Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population, which theorized that the population would soon outgrow the earth’s resources.

It’s the third of the myths that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation seeks to rebut in the 2014 Gates Annual Letter which deals with misconceptions that block progress for the poor.

Melinda Gates emphasizes the importance of saving lives instead of looking to reduce the population. She says:

In this version of the future, currently poor countries are healthier, richer, and more equal—and growing sustainably. The alternate vision summed up by the Malthusian myth—a world where sustainability depends on permanent misery for some—is a misreading of the evidence and a failure of imagination.

Gates is completely right that people who don’t have to worry about day-to-day survival are in a much better position to make choices that benefit them, their families, and the planet.

Christians can agree with the importance of saving lives. Additionally, we can counter the overpopulation myth with sound biblical principles regarding stewardship, human nature, and what it means to be made in God’s image.

Dominion is Stewardship

In Genesis 1:26-28, God directs Adam and Eve to cultivate and take dominion over the creation. Today, many people misconstrue “dominion” to mean irresponsible and selfish use of resources.

Unfortunately, humans have used their God-given dominion irresponsibly to pillage and waste the earth’s resources. This is because we are sinful and we live in a fallen world; it is not something that God gave us license to do.

Instead, God gave us dominion so that we could be stewards of his creation. That means that we don’t own the creation – God does. We are to treat the creation accordingly. Hugh Whelchel quotes Francis Schaeffer who says,

Fallen man has dominion over nature, but he uses it wrongly. The Christian is called upon to exhibit this dominion, but exhibit it rightly: treating the thing as having value itself, exercising dominion without being destructive.

Though we are fallen and can be tempted to misuse the resources that God has given us, God has redeemed and restored us so that we can play a part in restoring the creation around us.

Understanding Resources – and People

When we think about resources, we tend to view them as static. That is, we think that they exist in a limited amount and once we use them, they are gone forever.

This is zero-sum thinking – the notion that there’s a fixed amount of stuff in the world and if one person uses it, someone else has to go without somewhere down the road.

That’s part of the story. God did create a fixed amount of resources. But we can think of it as a “positive-sum game” where everyone wins. That’s because people are inherently creative and they can use their ingenuity and their everyday work to grow the resources at their disposal.

When Malthus was writing in 1798, it would have been inconceivable to him to think of the way we grow and manufacture food today. He was writing at the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the West when most people grew their food themselves and had to pay particular attention to food preservation. Meats and beans were cured using salt and were stored in the coldest and driest places of the home with high risk of spoilage. Modern technology has eliminated many of these problems for both rich and poor today.

Sometimes, we tend to view people as parasites who drain the earth without contributing anything. But since they are made in the image of the divine Creator, human beings have remarkable creative ability themselves. As we work, we should be using resources to bring something much better to the table. Working is a way of expanding what we have and creating new wealth.

Increasing Population & Increasing Production

As the population grows, we will have human resources who can innovate to create more wealth and resources. It’s true that we are consumers. But we are also producers.

When we come together in society through productive activity, we lessen our burdens because we get increasing access to goods as well as increasing alternatives.

So rather than be worried that increasing populations will exacerbate poverty, we should realize that increasing populations can unleash their human potential to the rest of the world in ways that were never before possible.

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Editor’s note: Dr. Anne Bradley contributed to this post.

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