Science & Health

Population growth from Genesis to Revelations

The Book of Genesis is a romantic fiction written by a woman. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea, for surely any creating God already knew he’d made the default gender of a foetus female. We are all female before some of us become male. Therefore, the idea of a woman springing forth from a man’s rib is perhaps a titillating plot twist to please a lover.

And the quote “be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the fowls of the air and over every living thing” is more in the nature of “come with me and be my love and we will all the pleasures prove”, for surely it was never meant to be taken seriously.

However, as we have seen from The Celestine Prophecy to the novels of Dan Brown, fiction, especially if based on religious themes, has a habit of being mistaken for fact. Now, in a world where the population has increased by five billion in my lifetime, so successfully have we gone forth and multiplied that we are facing our own extinction.

In 1968, when I was a young woman of childbearing age and the population of the world was 3.5 billion, Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb was published. The Ehrlichs estimated that one in four people on the planet went hungry. Population, which was increasing exponentially, had reached a point where there were too many people for the planet to adequately support at the current rate of growth. Therefore, by the mid-1970s, an overpopulated world would lead to desperation, mass starvation, war, pollution, ecological degradation and the collapse of civilisation as we know it.

For many like me who were the youth of the 1960s, this was plausible. We’d read Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring and recognised the breaking of the food chain. As well, there was acid rain and the threat of nuclear war. We read up on strontium-90 and the consequences of a nuclear winter.

As for starvation, the people of Biafra were suffering a most horrendous famine. We therefore embraced the idea of zero population growth. Among my contemporaries, it was considered nothing short of immoral to have more than two children per couple – replacement only. The axiom we tried to live by was a quote from Mahatma Ghandi: Live simply so others may simply live.

In the late 1960s we were also part of another movement for social change: a new wave of feminism. We feminists thought we knew the answer to unlimited population growth – educate girls. It was obvious. Raise the status of women across the globe, give women equal opportunity with men, economic freedom, control over their own bodies, access to contraception and the birth rate would naturally fall then stabilise. It was motherhood by choice, not from necessity or social pressure. And the patriarchy should ‘butt out’ and let women get on with it. 

We were naïve perhaps, for in the same year that The Population Bomb was published another important work was written. This one purported to be not simply fact but the word of God. Quite the opposite to ‘butting out’, the patriarchy, in the form of Pope Paul VI, brought forth his encyclical Humanae Vitae. Its core: every use of artificial contraceptive is a sin.

A year later I shared a hospital ward with a woman of my own age – I’ll call her Maria. I was there recovering from the birth of the first of my two-point-nought children. Maria was there struggling after the birth of her seventh, a little girl called Eve. Maria’s varicose veins had burst, her legs were bandaged to the thigh. She wept at night.

On the second morning, her Catholic priest paid her a visit. Curtains don’t block out voices. She begged, “No more children.” He talked about God and duty and prayer. He commended her on being a good and faithful wife. She sobbed. In the afternoon, we talked. She said the rhythm method didn’t work because she’d had one child a year since she was 18. I suggested the pill. She said she couldn’t risk her soul. I said, “Just say ‘no’.” She said: “But he’s my husband.”

Raise the status of women across the globe, give women equal opportunity with men, economic freedom, control over their own bodies, access to contraception and the birth rate would naturally fall then stabilise.

If Maria and I were Humanae Vitae and The Population Bomb in microcosm in a hospital ward, beyond us in the macrocosm of the world the thinking associated with each of these publications led to outcomes that were downright cruel.

The papal encyclical divided Catholics. For many of the laity who had hoped for a freeing up on the use of contraception, it was a turning point in their faith. For women in poor Catholic countries, the only defence against unwanted pregnancy was abstinence – hardly a choice at all, love and human desire being as it is.

Italy and Ireland, where contraceptives were unavailable, had the world’s highest rates of illegal abortions. As one Italian woman told me after her fourth abortion: “Of course, my husband doesn’t know. Men make rules because they’re not capable of coping with life, but we women just have to get on with it.”

At the same time, and in opposition to the Catholic Church, the world was gripped by an anti-population crusade. The International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Population Council, World Bank, United Nations Population Fund and the Association for Voluntary Sterilization promoted, funded and organised programs to reduce fertility among the world’s poor – not the world’s rich.

Millions of women in South American countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Taiwan, South Korea and Indonesia were bullied and coerced into sterilisation or fitted with IUDs, often by force and in unsanitary conditions. In 1979, China introduced the one-child policy of enforced abortions for second and subsequent pregnancies. In parts of Africa, women were used as guinea pigs and injected with experimental Depo Provera. All of this focused on women’s fertility, women’s bodies.

Women’s bodies were held responsible for the overpopulation of the world, but women themselves in much of the world continued to be uneducated or undereducated, denied independence, intellectual freedom and economic opportunity. 

One hundred and sixty years before the Ehrlichs, Thomas Malthus, in his Essay on the Principles of Population, similarly linked unlimited population growth with poverty and hunger. Malthus advocated later marriages, family planning and abstinence. At the time he was derided and his solution branded cruel and inhuman. Later – and quite unfairly – Malthus was credited with being the father of the eugenics movement, or ‘survival of the fittest’. This movement branded some people and races inferior and proposed selective-breeding programs to eliminate them from the human race. 

The eugenics movement spread across Europe and America in the early part of the 20th century, supported by governments and world leaders. Churchill, for instance, supported the British Eugenics Society. Such ideas formed the basis of the Nazi racial policies that led to the Holocaust in Germany.

Even later, some of the solutions to population growth that were offered were horrendous – such as stopping food aid to Biafra and others in need on the ground of ‘natural selection’. At the same time, in Western countries, including our own, there was a glut of grain. Australia’s wheat silos were full. Rather than allow the excess onto the market, which would lower the international price, stocks were destroyed. Profit before people. The ‘let them die’ solution had its advocates. 

It seems that whenever the spectre of overpopulation is raised the result is some form of horrendous cruelty.

In the 1970s, the predicted apocalypse didn’t happen. Although there were always wars, and some people somewhere in the world starved, in wealthy countries all was not only well but even better. As the saying goes, where some see a problem others see opportunity. 

Multinational companies grabbed the moral high ground. Joyously and profitably, humanity rose to meet a challenge. Of course, there is enough to go around. We just needed more – more of everything. And we could do it because God had provided the raw materials and we humans had the knowledge and the skills. We could trust technology, stimulate industry, provide more power, improve land use, intensify agriculture, open up more country for grazing, mining, gas and genetically modified crops. We could fertilise, irrigate, establish feedlots and fish farms and add hormones to feed all the people and increase GDP. Perpetual growth! But we knew, as we had always known, the four horsemen of the apocalypse were saddling up.

As for me and my contemporaries, we marched to ban the bomb and to end the Vietnam war – 100 per cent of babies prefer nappy rash to napalm. We dropped in at Greenham Common, we went to live in other people’s countries to do what we believed were good works, we travelled, delighted in other places, returned to Australia and stayed. Through the 1980s and 1990s, we raised and educated our two-point-nought children, earned incomes, opposed the war in Iraq, saved the Franklin, ditched plastic bags, divorced, had affairs and felt good about ourselves. For we were the luckiest generation in the luckiest of countries. We would be the first to admit it, we never really owned this country. We were interlopers living the good life

As early as the end of the 19th century, the effect of increased carbon in the atmosphere following the Industrial Revolution was already being discussed in scientific circles. Then, on 4 August 1912, an article appeared in a New Zealand newspaper that directly linked increased carbon to changes in climate.

The knowledge was now in the public domain, if any one was interested – which nobody was. At the time, the population of the world was under 2 billion. Therefore, the connection between increasing carbon dioxide and growing population seemed not so pertinent. 

In 2018, a new book claimed that the Ehrlichs got the timing wrong and nothing right at all. Population Bombed Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change argued that population growth was not only not harmful but good for us, and that the continued burning of fossil fuels was also good for us. According to the authors, Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak, the book attempts to “present a relatively concise case for the environmental benefits of economic development, population growth and the use of carbon fuels”.

The argument, they say, is between the pessimists and the optimists – the ‘Survivalists’ and the ‘Prometheans’. Survivalists view the resources of the earth as finite and hold that limits need to be placed on growth to safely guard the life-supporting capacities of the natural system. Survivalists include everyone from Malthus to David Attenborough and most of the world’s climate scientists – and, of course, the Ehrlichs, at whom their refutation is directed. 

The Prometheans have unlimited confidence in the ability of human beings to overcome all problems including environmental change. Our current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is obviously a Promethean. He advocates for not the cessation of fossil fuels to save us from climate change but technology.

Desrochers argues that energy from fossil fuels and new technologies in food production have made us healthier and wealthier than ever before. The bigger the population, the richer we are, the more we grow, the greater we become. We can do this because we are ‘unique among other species’ and because we can ‘transmit information and knowledge between individuals’. According to Desrochers, the more people there are, the more brains there are; the more brains, the greater the combinations of things we can create and do to solve our problems. I’ll leave aside the anthropocentric arrogance of this claim. Although, I wonder if Desrochers ever heard of the ‘hundredth monkey’ experiment.

I am no longer a young woman. I live in a world where the population will reach 10 billion by 2050. It’s a world where the Arctic burns, icecaps melt and grass grows on the Himalayas. It’s an age of extinction where 90 per cent of all animals on earth are humans and their food. I live in a country ruled by Prometheans.

Although birth rates have fallen where women’s status has risen, this is seen as a problem. Treasurer Frydenberg recently announced a ‘big baby push’ to stimulate the economy. This follows Tony Abbott’s call for ‘middle-class women’ to have more babies. Young single women and couples who have made a decision not to have children still must brave social and religious pressure.

Recently, Pope Francis declared that couples that choose to keep pets instead of having children are damaging their humanity. With the rise of ‘God-has-a-plan’ extreme religious views, laws that limit women’s reproductive rights by banning abortion are proliferating again. And this in a world where 4.5 million people are refugees and a child dies every five seconds from starvation.

In the global struggle against the spread of COVID-19, we have seen the spectre of eugenics rising as the current pack of Prometheans square off against the Survivalists over virus control versus the economy. We’ve heard arguments for ‘survival of the fittest’, with the old, the ill, those living in poverty, on the streets or in camps who are the most vulnerable to infection and death.

Wealthy countries were the first to buy up the world’s supply of vaccines. What does it matter if a few million people die as long as the rest of us can afford the best care and medication so that we can get back to our world as it was, living as we desire to live, exploiting the environment and making money? Again, cruelty is a proffered solution to a problem.

So did the writer of Genesis also write The Book of Revelations as a sequel when her romance of paradise failed? If she did, she’s left out a character, for there’s a fifth rider on the horizon. We’ve known them before, these apocalyptic horsemen. When has the world ever been free of them? They have ridden, one by one, across the earth at some time, affecting some people somewhere – on the white horse of pestilence, the red horse of war, the black horse of famine or the pale horse of death. But they have never ridden all together and everywhere at once.

But a fifth rider? Not a man but a woman. I imagine her holding a scythe. Her battered body aches and she weeps, knowing that she must cut down her own children if the world is to be beautiful again. She is the eternal female. We call her Mother, Gaia, Nature, the Earth. And, according to the writer of Genesis, her name is Eve.


Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.


About Robyn Friend

Robyn Friend is the author of two novels, three oral history collections and numerous articles, short stories, essays and reviews that have appeared here and in other countries over a period of forty years. She is a past peer of the Australia Council and member of the editorial board of The Indian Journal Of Australian and New Zealand Cultural Studies. She lives in northern Tasmania, where her garden is a haven for wildlife.

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