7 Billion—Now What?

istock_000013889311medium2Seven billion people as of Oct 31, Reformation Day. The world’s population has more than doubled in my lifetime. For that matter, it’s increased three billion since I was in high school. It has increased by one billion in the last twelve years. By 2050 some estimate that we will need another planet to support 9 billion people.

Many doubt that the earth can sustain such a growing population and so focus on our need to slow the growth of population or even reduce it (sometimes by whatever means necessary as in China’s once child policy). Others believe that technology will find a way to save us no matter the size of population. But the question regarding how man people can the earth support is only one part of the equation.

In some ways, the more important question—at least for many of us who live in the West—is the question of how shall we live once our basic needs of food, water, shelter, and medicine, etc) have been met (and for many, I know that in itself is a big if)? What constitutes the good life to which we aspire? What constitutes a life well-lived?

I suspect how we answer that depends on how we view ourselves. For example, if we define ourselves as consumers, we will find our identity in what we consume. And then our purpose in life is to consume…and to consume abundantly. The earth becomes our shopping mall. And so the question of whether or not the earth can support many billions more depends in part on how we consume National Geographic has made very point. “The number of people does matter…But how people consume resources matters a lot more” (January 2011, p.63). And we might add, to what end do we consume?

What if we recaptured the insight that we are fundamentally human creatures? As creatures, we do not have life from ourselves. After all, as someone once said, what do we have that we have not received? This means we are contingent and dependent beings. We are defined by our dependence upon God, upon each other, and upon other creatures. As the creator became the creature for us in Jesus Christ and entered his creation to bring new life, so God sends us back into the world. He has called us to embrace the gift of life that we share with each other and with all of our fellow creatures on earth. The “good life” then, is constituted by these relationships and bonds. In this regard, I’ve always liked those words by Wendell Berry, “…material sufficiency met, life, which is a membership in the living world, is already an abundance” (The Way of Ignorance, 133).

So what does it mean to embrace the gift of life? Well, I’m going to take my point of departure from Martin Luther’s “thank and praise, serve and obey” in his Small Catechism. This suggests that it is a life that is first lived gratefully for the gift of life that we share with all other creatures on earth; and secondly a life that is lived gracefully for the sake of the life that we share with all other creatures around us. And so we might ask, what contributes to the flourishing of life that we share? Conversely, what diminishes that life that we share? At least, that might be a start.

In the meantime, the issues of population growth and the earth’s ability to sustain that growth will continue to be with us. National Geographic has looked at the issue throughout 2011. But one of the more thought provoking books that looks at the issue both theologically and ethically from a few years ago was by Susan Bratton, Six Billion & More: Human Population Regulation and Christian Ethics (Westminster, 1992).

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