Welcome, Number 9,000,000,000!

In 1977, I wrote a book entitled Welcome Number 4,000,000,000! It was a sequel to Human Dignity & Human Numbers (1971). Both books dealt with the “population explosion,” that era’s supposed crisis issue. We were running out of resources of every kind. We would all be starving in a quarter of a century. Drastic policies for cutting down populations were proposed and often put into effect. Babies were not welcome. Everything was panic. The “green” movement began in this hectic atmosphere: “Save the earth, not the people!”

Such predictions of impending catastrophe were all wrong. Disaster did not occur. In “Apocalypse as a Secular Enterprise” (The Scottish Journal of Theology [1976]), I argued that this ecological frenzy grew, not from fact, but from a theological relocation of the transcendent order into this revolving world as man’s ultimate and only destiny (See, Schall, The Modern Age, 2011).

Moreover, as Julian Simon, Herman Kahn, and others at the time argued, along with certain key developments in growing grains, other resources were available. The whole focus of these issues needed reorienting. The four billionth child was not a disaster. Its birth was rather a gift to be welcomed. Why? It was precisely by having fresh brains and new demands that we learned to take care of ourselves, learned that the world is much richer than we understood.

We now have seven billion people on this planet. They are generally better off than any previous generation in history. Why? We can and do learn how to deal with ourselves when we need to do so. The world, contrary to the pessimists, is not a parsimonious place unless, in our foolishness, we choose to make it that way. Some half-century after these population scares, however, Western civilization, by its own moral choices, is experiencing drastic population decline. Yet man’s knowledge of everything about him and his world has never been more developed.

Within the next fifty years or so, we are to expect a world population of nine billion inhabitants. Should we again push the panic button? These remarks are occasioned by a documentary I saw (July 21) on KQED San Francisco about world population. Initially, I thought that this analysis was a rehashed Paul Ehrlich, of The Population Bomb fame. In a multi-scientist commentary, graphs were presented foretelling that world population will increase to nine or eleven billion in a few decades.


But this presentation was not in disaster-mode – as so much environmentalism is. Rather, it argued that men have the intelligence and capacity to deal with their increasing numbers. The documentary went through changes in agriculture, energy, and resources. We do have the capacity to deal with these things. George Gilder long ago taught that wealth consists not primarily in resources but brains.

What are we to make of this approach? First, environmentalism does have a totalitarian side. The papal advisor Joachim Schellnhuber’s solution is to reduce the world’s population to less than a billion. Trying to accomplish this feat legitimizes vast programs of abortion, family control, euthanasia, and other such “necessary” steps. If we maintain a priori the impossibility of mankind dealing with its own needs as they arise, we must impose rigid control over all human activities and values.

What the TV documentary lacked was any interest in the purpose of man. Scientists know that the Sun will burn out. Is man’s purpose simply to keep himself afloat in space for as long as possible? What ultimately makes the difference, if resources are as limited as many claim, whether we use them up rapidly or gradually? In the end, the same number of people will be supported.

But if the world and its resources, human and natural, exist for a purpose other than just to float on and on, another end of man can be conceived. Our world is intended to end. It is a temporary place wherein we each work out our final transcendent goal. We have here no lasting city. Ecology wants to make it last by controlling numbers and activities.

A better way exists. The main reason why we may not be able to support everyone, especially the remaining poor, is not due to lack of resources or ways to support larger numbers of our kind with better human conditions. It is due to environmental and government theories that insist that we can do nothing but limit ourselves to a few privileged people and their limited offspring down the ages, with no other purpose than keeping the earth afloat.

There is no good reason why a population of nine billion cannot thrive. The purpose of our kind living on this planet is a transcendent one. The world will end when God chooses, probably with plenty of “resources” left over. Its end has little to do with caring for the planet, but everything to do with how we live on it.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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