Judaism and the Population Crisis

There has been an explosion in world population recently, largely due to an increase in life expectancies related to improved standards of living and advances in sanitation and medical technology. While it took until about 1850 for the world's population to reach one billion people, currently human population grows by approximately a billion people every 10 to 12 years.

According to the Population Reference Bureau's 1996 World Population Data Sheet, world population in mid-1996 was 5.77 billion people. It is growing extremely rapidly and is projected to reach 6.97 billion by 2010 and 8.19 billion by 2025. While it took all of human history to reach its current population, at current rates of growth, world population is projected to double in only 46 years, to over 11 billion people. There is currently a population increase of about 86 million people every year. At this rate, the world population increase every 3 years is almost equal to the entire present population of the United States!

Populations in underdeveloped countries are growing especially rapidly; many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have population-doubling times of less than 30 years. While population growth has been slower in the United States, our population nearly doubled in the last 50 years, from 132 million in 1940 to 249 million in 1990.

Rapid population growth is related to many current global problems, including hunger, resource depletion, energy shortages, pollution, poverty, unemployment, and stagnating economies. Even without the expected continued sharp increase in population, an estimated 20 million people, including over 8 million infants, die annually due to hunger and its effects, and there are almost daily reports about environmental threats, such as depletion of the ozone layer, destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats, global warming, acid rain, soil depletion and erosion, and air and water pollution.

Many people believe that rapid population growth is the greatest problem that the world currently faces. They emphasize connections between population increases and hunger, resource depletion, pollution, and other current problems. A group, "Zero Population Growth" (ZPG), argues that only with a stabilized population will the world's people be able to have clean air and water,decent places to live, meaningful jobs, and good educations.

How should Jews respond to the issue of the current population explosion? First, let us consider some religious concepts:

The first commandment in the Bible indicates the duty of procreation - "Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, . . ." (Genesis 1:28) Later, this was repeated to Noah after the flood had destroyed most of humanity (Genesis 9.1).

There are many Talmudic statements that stress the importance of having children. For example, Rabbi Joseph said, "One who does not have children, it is as if he has diminished the Divine image, since it is said 'In the image of God made He man' (Genesis 1. 27) and this is immediately followed by 'Be fruitful and multiply'" (Genesis 1:28). The school of Shammai taught that the duty of procreation was fulfilled when one had two sons (since Moses had two sons), while the School of Hillel taught that one should have a boy and a girl, since we are to imitate God and the Bible states, "male and female created He them" (Genesis 1.27).

In spite of Judaism's strong emphasis on procreation, there are justifications in the Bible for the zero population growth philosophy:

1. While in Egypt, Joseph had two sons during the seven years of plenty, but no additional children during the seven years of famine (genesis 41:50). The Biblical commentator Rashi, interprets this to mean that when there is widespread hunger, one should not bring additional children into the world.

2. According to the Talmud, Noah was commanded to desist from procreation on the ark, since it contained only enough provisions for those who entered the ark.

3. It can be argued that when Adam and later Noah were commanded to "Be fruitful and multiply", the earth was far emptier than it is today. Now that the earth is "overfilled", as indicated by the poverty, malnutrition, and squalor faced by so many of the world's people, the commandment may no longer apply.

There would thus seem to be some rationale for people who take the Bible seriously to practice and advocate zero population growth. But we should look more deeply into the problem. Are current crises due primarily to too many people or are there other, more important causes?

Perhaps what the world needs today is not ZPG, but ZPIG, zero population-impact growth. For it is not just the number of people that is important, but how much they produce, consume, and waste. Affluent nations have an impact on the environment very disproportionate to their populations. The United States, with less than 5% of the world`s population, uses a third of the world`s resources and causes almost half of its industrial pollution. It has been estimated that an average American has 50 times the environmental impact of an average person in poor countries, in terms of resources used and pollution caused. This means that the U.S. 1966 population of 265 million people has a negative effect on ecosystems equal to over 13 billion Third World people, or well over twice the world`s population.

It should be noted that wastefulness, injustice, heavy military spending, and inequitable distribution of resources are also responsible for current world problems. Most people connect the widespread hunger in the world today to overpopulation. Yet, several studies have indicated that there is currently enough food in the world to feed all the world's people adequately, and the problem lies in waste and inequitable distribution. For example, in the U. S. over 70 percent of the grain produced goes to feed the 9 billion animals destined for slaughter each year, and two-thirds of our exports are used for animal feed, while at least a billion of the world's people lack enough food.

Poverty, injustice, and inequality also contribute to continued population growth. The poorer countries do not provide unemployment benefits, sick leave, or retirement pensions. Hence, children are depended upon as the only form of security in periods of unemployment, illness, and old age. They are also regarded as economic assets, since by the age of seven or eight, children are net contributors to their families - fetching water and firewood from distant places, looking after younger children, cooking, cleaning, and hence freeing adults for other jobs. Furthermore, infant death rates are still relatively high in the underdeveloped world, so many children are desired to insure that some will survive to provide old-age security.

Because of these conditions, family planning programs by themselves, are ineffective in lowering birth rates. It is necessary to improve people's economic and social conditions, so that children are not desired to provide economic survival and old-age security. With an improved economic outlook, people start to limit their families, as has occurred in the United States and in affluent countries in Europe. However, unless the world changes its present unjust and inequitable social, political, and economic conditions, the world's population will continue to grow rapidly, along with global hunger, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and violence.

In conclusion, committed Jews can play a major role in addressing issues related to the current population crisis. While reaffirming that every human life is sacred and every birth brings God's image anew into the world, we should support family planning programs consistent with people's cultures and religious beliefs. We should strive to make people aware that population is more a result of global problems than their root cause. Finally, as we continue to battle for the justice and more equitable sharing of the earth's abundant resources that are necessary to improve conditions for all the world's people, we should make others aware that this is also the most effective way to move the world to a more sustainable population path.

Return to The Schwartz Collection on Judaism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights - Main Page