When 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 plankton?

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 five decades.

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 can’t move.”

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 baby?)

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 the

U.S. bishops’Secretariat for

Pro-Life Activities.