Scattered throughout southern Mexico and the central American nations of Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras are the remnants of one of the most powerful and enduring civilizations the Western hemisphere ever produced. For more than 2,000 years, Mayan culture thrived here, giving rise to vast city-states and temples that rivaled Ancient Greece, and inspiring the development of some of the most advanced farming, irrigation, engineering and architecture techniques of the day. During its golden age, or “classical period”—which ran from the third to the ninth century—the Mayan civilization consisted of more than 40 different major settlements and harbored millions of inhabitants, making it—by the reckoning of some experts—one of the densest populations in human history.
Then, within barely 200 years, it was gone. Vanished. An estimated 90 percent of the Mayan population either died or migrated elsewhere, leaving their once glorious cities and temples to be slowly consumed by the encroaching jungle and the decay of time.
Theories of precisely what happened to the Mayans vary, and include drought, deforestation, food shortages and political turmoil. But over the years, experts have come to accept one overarching root problem to explain all of them: There were simply too many Mayans competing for too few resources.
It’s a tragic story but not wholly unique. Besides the Mayans, overpopulation is cited as one of the primary causes of the disappearance of the ancient Cambodian kingdom of Angkor, and likely had a hand in the collapse of Mesopotamia and the Mycenaean civilization in Ancient Greece, as well.
Today, we humans find ourselves in the midst of our own population crisis, but this one’s on a global scale—which means the stakes are higher than ever. The world’s population reached 7 billion last year, and the United Nations projects it could hit 11 billion by 2050, putting enormous strain on the planet and its natural resources, not to mention the people who happen to be competing for access to them.
Thanks to advances in medicine and food production, compounded by an overall rise in living standards and the rapid urbanization that followed the industrial revolution, we’re producing more people than ever, and they’re living longer and consuming more than at any other time in history. The recent human growth spurt has been nothing short of dramatic: It took thousands of years for us to hit the one billion mark, which we did in 1804. Since then we’ve added another billion people an average of once every 35 years—the vast majority of them in developing nations plagued by poverty.
The trend is so troubling that in 2009, Sir John Beddington, the chief scientific adviser to the British government, declared the population crisis a “perfect storm” that will lead to shortages of food, water and energy, and set the stage for widespread destabilization.
“If we don’t address this,” he told the Guardian newspaper, “we can expect … an increase in rioting and potentially significant problems with international migration, as people move out to avoid food and water shortages.”
Last Friday, to little fanfare, the Royal Society released a report that sheds light on how bad things have gotten and what we can do to reverse the trend. The survey found that despite a general decline in fertility since the 1990s, 80 million new people join the human race each year. And a whole lot of them are extremely poor. There are now 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day, the organization found; to manage the growth, the world’s poorest countries will need to build the equivalent of a city of a million people every five days from now until 2050.
To avoid a looming catastrophe, the Royal Society recommends that developed and emerging economies stabilize and then reduce material consumption (easier said than done), and has called on governments to focus their efforts on encouraging family planning on both a national and international level.
“Voluntary family planning is a key part of continuing the downward trajectory in fertility rates, which brings benefits to the individual well-being of men and women around the world,” the report states.
Simply put, we need to be having fewer kids. I’d call that common sense. Critics, however—most of whom frame their opposition in religious terms—claim that such a policy not only “devalues children,” but defies the instructions of God as spelled out in the Scriptures.
Indeed, in the book of Genesis, God instructs Adam and Eve:
“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
And for three millennia we’ve been following that prescription (the sea and the air can attest to it)—regardless of the fact that it was intended for a displaced tribe of Semitic nomads whose very existence as a people depended upon settling in somewhere and procreating as much as possible. In the middle of the second millennium B.C.—when the Exodus is generally believed to have taken place—the population of the entire world was under 50 million, which is about the same number of people who live in the Northeastern U.S. today (give or take a few million). Nonetheless, conservative branches of all three Abrahamic religions continue to celebrate procreation as a religious duty.
Putting aside religion for a moment, what is the correct moral response to the population crisis? To answer that we need to understand why people have kids in the first place. More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, compared to some three percent who did in 1800. The days of the big farming family are largely a relic of the past. The few remaining utilitarian reasons to have kids (like propagating the family name, or having someone to look after you when you get old) could easily be settled through adoption. Procreation today is not about furthering the tribe, as it was with the Jews of the Old Testament, or even the species (we already know there are plenty of us here already); it’s about the personal rewards of having and raising one’s own offspring, or else, in the case of unintended pregnancies, having the leisure or lack of resources to know or care enough to avoid it.
There’s really no alternative but to accept the fact that for a majority of people, child rearing is a predominantly selfish endeavor. But does that mean it’s morally wrong? Not necessarily. There’s nothing inherently wrong with following a self-fulfilling drive; selfishness only becomes society’s problem when it comes at the expense of someone else’s welfare. Which is why I believe we have a moral responsibility to be cognizant of the impact overpopulation has on the world and place voluntary limits on our procreation; otherwise everyone else—even the childless—will suffer the consequences. So how many is too many? According to John Guillebaud, professor of family planning at University College in London, if all couples limited themselves to having no more than two children, we could cut the population in half within six generations, making life much more livable for those people who remain.
In 2010, Guillebaud and a colleague advanced the idea of a voluntary two-child limit at the annual conference of the Royal College of General Practitioners. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Guillebaud called on physicians to do their part:
“[Doctors] rightly play a significant role in preventing unplanned pregnancies, especially among young people, but what about planned pregnancies? Without censoring those who through ignorance of these issues had larger families in the past, shouldn’t we now promote a non-rigid guideline to UK couples that a two child maximum is the greatest contribution anyone can make to a habitable planet for our grandchildren?”
According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 48 percent of pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended—and 20 percent of those end in abortion. At the very least we have a moral responsibility to eradicate unwanted pregnancies. Yet getting there requires not only education, but a strongly proactive family planning initiative on the part of the world’s governments that includes free contraception. Unfortunately, given that we just had a U.S. presidential candidate running on a major party ticket call birth control immoral, we could be facing an uphill battle.
Everyone has a natural-born human right to procreate, and no government should ever infringe upon that right or even attempt to limit it. The challenge we face will be especially difficult because it’s one we must accept on our own, as a gift to future generations. I’m willing to do my part. Are you?