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When families gathered around the table this Thanksgiving Day, I’ll bet no one asked “Who wants another serving of plankton?”
BY SUSAN E. WILLS
families gathered around the table this Thanksgiving Day, I’ll bet no one asked
“Who wants another serving of plankton?”
Turkey, stuffing, cranberries, three or four vegetable
dishes, pies, topped with remorse over the annual gluttony. But
Unappetizing as a serving of algae
and protozoa sounds, it would be preferable to the only other food source David Lytle warned would be available circa 2006.
Back in 1972, he predicted: “The human race has 35 years left. After that,
people will start eating plankton. Or people.”
Lytle was a devotee of Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 book The
Population Bomb spawned a cottage industry in doomsday population screeds.
In its prologue, Ehrlich advised: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.
In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in
spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” He estimated that one-third of
Americans would succumb to starvation well before the turn of the century.
Instead, of course, we are
suffering from an epidemic of obesity. The World Health Organization reports
that 1 billion people worldwide are classified as overweight, and 30%
clinically obese. Agriculture today is so efficient that governments are paying
billions to farmers for not producing food.
Admittedly, starvation is
horrific, but it does not result from food scarcity. Where starvation occurs,
it is usually the result of distribution disruptions such as state-sponsored
genocide and civil wars that uproot populations and hamper local food
production and supply.
Grossly underestimating the
spectacular gains in agricultural productivity attributable to human ingenuity
was not the only thing Ehrlich and fellow misanthropes got wrong. They also predicted that “mankind would breed itself
into oblivion.” In fact, birthrates worldwide have plunged since 1950. The
Total Fertility Rate — or “TFR,” the average number of children a woman gives
birth to in her lifetime — in 2000-05 (2.65 children) is approaching half the
rate in 1950-55 (5.02 children).
Most of the population growth in
the latter half of the 20th century came from people living healthier and
longer lives (except in regions of the world hardest hit by AIDS or
alcoholism). The U.N. Population Division’s “World Population Prospects: The
2004 Revision” reports that global life expectancy at birth rose to 65 years,
from just 47 years in 1950-55. By 2050, it is expected to reach 75 years.
The combination of fewer births
and increased longevity produces an upside-down population pyramid: fewer
children (to grow into young adults who enter the workforce) compared to the
numbers of retirees dependent on Social Security and pensions paid for out of
the salaries of current workers. (Note: There never was a Social Security “lock
box.”) By 2050, there will be only two workers to support every retiree in both
Europe and the United States.
On a purely economic level, then,
children are a boon to any nation. They require an investment of about 18 to 22
years of rearing and formal education, but then they become the producers,
innovators, consumers and taxpayers who keep the economy humming for four to
So why was the arrival of the 300
millionth American last month greeted with such mixed reactions?
Crunching the Truth
In an emblematic piece titled “The
Coming Crunch,” The Wall Street Journal
applauded the increase in taxpayers, but bemoaned crowded megacities
on both coasts and fretted about the strains on highways and natural resources.
Conscious Earth, an environmental blog, stated: “The U.S. is the world’s third most
populous country, has the highest environmental impact, and is continuing to
grow. In biological terms, that is referred to as cancerous.”
Martha Farnsworth Riche, a
research demographer at Cornell, told the Washington
Post: “We are not wide-open spaces anymore. Our choices are constrained.”
Her myopic view was seconded by John Keeley,
spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies: “Things are pretty dire. Look
at circumstances right here in the D.C. area: the horrible rush hours, the high
cost of housing, the crowded conditions in schools and the increased job
competition.” The result, he added, is a “population density so stultifying you
But anyone who has flown across
the United States
has seen vast areas of wide-open spaces. Only about 5% of America’s 2.3
billion acres are developed. In 2004, our population density was a comfortable
83 people per square mile.
Two questions seem germane: What
factors account for the drastic fall in fertility since 1960? And how can we
avert the disaster of population implosion and potential economic collapse?
Ben Wattenberg, in Fewer (2004), suggests numerous factors
contributing to declining birthrates: abortions (50 million annually in recent
years); sterilization (coerced or encouraged, as countries strived to meet
population targets required by World Bank development loans); contraception,
used almost universally in the developed world and elsewhere; divorce;
cohabitation; couples not getting married until their late 20s and 30s,
reducing a woman’s childbearing years; STD-related infertility; sex ratio
imbalance, notably in China and India; migration from farms to cities (where
children are viewed as less valuable because they produce no “return on
investment” until fully grown and educated; greater education for women,
leading to higher employment among women; and rampant consumerism fostered by television,
now available in virtually every human community.
To these, one could add several
more. The growth of secular humanism has contributed to the devaluation of
human beings. As Pope John Paul II stated in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Value and Inviolability of
Human Life): “[W]hen the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose
the sense of man, of his dignity and his life” (No. 21). Extended families are
no longer bound by geographical proximity; often even close relatives live too
far away to help with childrearing. Raising children is increasingly costly.
High taxation reduces a family’s disposable income. Our consumption-driven
culture exalts freedom, entertainment and postponing responsibility and
maturity as long as possible. Exhibit A: The average age of videogame players
is now 29.
Saints Among Us
And what curtails freedom,
movie-going and immature pursuits as effectively as having to be responsible
for children? At least that’s the view of the self-absorbed. In The Baby Trap (1971), Ellen Peck wrote:
“[T]he birth of children marks the end of adventure, of growth, of sexuality,
of life itself.” (Can you spot the real
Raising good children requires
sacrifice, but any normal parent would agree that the rewards are beyond
measure. Only God can love as lavishly and purely as a child loves his parents.
Children teach their parents most of the important lessons of life. We learn to
love selflessly and unconditionally, to cherish the weak and vulnerable, to
value being together more than having stuff. We learn how priceless are the childlike qualities of innocence, gratitude and wonder.
When we co-create a family with
God, we give our children and ourselves an identity, a bond, a safe harbor that
can endure through all life’s disappointments and tragedies. A consolation
surpassed only by the knowledge of God’s love.
Brothers and sisters are the
greatest gift we can give our children. In the daily give and take, the
jockeying for Mom and Dad’s attention and favor, they develop the virtues
necessary to lead holy and productive lives. Between his baptism and attaining
the age of reason, every child is a saint. Apart from one’s children, how many
saints does one have the opportunity to love and serve?
For the good of individuals,
families, our nation and world, we need to restore appreciation for the gift of
children, beginning with those closest to us. And let’s pause to give thanks
for the 300 millionth American born last month. Even now, he fills his parents’
hearts with joy.
Susan E. Wills is associate
director of education for
U.S. bishops’Secretariat for