WASHINGTON –– The United Nations chose Oct. 31 as the date of the birth of the 7 billionth person inhabiting the planet.
The exact date when that number was reached may be in dispute. How many people really live in Lebanon, which hasn’t taken an official census in nearly 80 years? How do little brothers and sisters born surreptitiously under China’s strict “one family, one child” policy get counted?
Dates aside, though, how do we provide for the care and feeding of 7 billion people — not to mention their dignity?
“What will it take for them to produce enough food?” asked Bob Gronski, a policy adviser with the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. “And the economic question: If they don’t have enough income to produce the food, then what do they do? That’s where we will see the stress.”
Gronski added, “And then energy becomes more expensive — scarce in some cases — water resources become more expensive.” It becomes an issue then, he said of “feeding not the total 7 billion per se, but you’ve got to feed the local conditions.”
Under that scenario, according to Gronski, Americans must ask, “Are we really able to take care of our own needs?” He explained: “One kind of food cannot feed a population. All kinds of food have to be grown here. In the United States we depend on these imports from Mexico and other places. But are they (in Mexico) able to take care of their own needs? … These are the questions we should have been asking all along.”
According to the United Nations, it took just a dozen years for the world population to climb to 7 billion. The planet is expected to peak at 10 billion by 2050.
It’s worth noting that the planet’s population grew despite the loss of tens of millions of lives in World War I, followed by an influenza epidemic, and the carnage of World War II, which included the incineration of two Japanese cities with atomic bombs.
“We no longer have that really terrible way of reducing populations by having epidemics,” noted Dr. Kevin Cahill, director of the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham University in New York, and president of the Center for International Humanitarian Cooperation.
“But there are epidemics of noncommunicable diseases like obesity and diabetes. Society is no longer as lean or as mean. People are sitting in countries where these noncommunicable diseases are going to be the major killers in short order,” he said.
Cahill said the world would be better off if the United States, the world’s largest supplier of small arms, “invested our energies and our monies in the health and welfare of these 7 billion people and not the bombing of them.”
“Natural disasters are probably going to occur with increasing frequency, there are conflict disasters that are going to continue in our unhappy world,” he said, citing Somalia, which he visited annually for 35 years to practice medicine.
Some things are predictable, he said, such as the recent flooding in Thailand, but that’s because “they’ve deforested the area.”
Part of Cahill’s work at Fordham is training students in “disaster risk reduction,” with, by his count, 1,600 graduates now working in 33 nations. “We train humanitarian workers to work in complex humanitarian disasters, earthquakes, floods, conflict zones.”
Abdi Kusow, an associate professor of sociology at Iowa State University, tackled the issue of overpopulation and the chicken-and-egg question of whether development or political stability needs to come first in order to rein in population numbers.
“In several examples, in Africa and in Asia, the areas that are experiencing the most extreme poverty may be areas that are politically unstable,” Kusow said. The Democratic Republic of Congo finished last among 187 nations measured by the 2011 Human Development Index issued Nov. 2 by the U.N. Development Program, followed by Niger and Burundi. The index measures national achievement in health, education and income. The United States finished fourth overall, but when internal inequities in those three areas were factored in, it dropped to 23rd.
Kusow said the goal of some is to persuade families to have fewer children. “How it’s done I’m not sure. What China did and what India may do could be radically different … but the target may be the same.” China’s one-child policy is still law; India had to scrap a forced sterilization program shortly after its start in 1976 because of a severe backlash.
“When people look at this 7 billion baby thing, they’re looking at the dark side of it rather than the possibilities side of it. It’s not something to be frowned on and discouraged,” said Jesuit Father Richard Ryscavage, director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Fairfield University in Connecticut, who recently took some students to the United Nations.
“They’re not welcoming the 7 billionth baby. They’re calling attention to the negative side of it. They show the population rising and the numbers every day. It’s a scare thing,” Father Ryscavage said. “The United Nations is not approaching children as a resource in our age. They see babies as liabilities. …. The U.N. has responsibilities in this area. Since they express such rhetoric on this issue and not represent other perspectives on this, it’s a scandal.”
“To me,” Father Ryscavage said, “it’s such a striking contradiction to the central premise of Catholic social teaching: Every human being has a dignity and value that has to be respected and becomes a resource.”
Hand-wringing over the dangers of overpopulation has gone on since at least as far back as the 18th-century philosopher Thomas Malthus, when the world population was well under 10 digits, according to Father Ryscavage. Instead, leaders should tackle “distribution of food, and control and corruption, and issues in the developing world. These are the issues that should be addressed, not the negative alarmism we’re seeing now.”
The U.N. population report noted that while the planet’s population is getting younger, it’s getting older, too. Fordham’s Cahill noted that U.S. babies born today have a 70 percent chance of living to age 100.
Barbara Pagula, wife of the founder of Catholic Golden Age, an AARP-style organization that has enrolled about 1 million Catholics since its founding in 1974, would rather do her work rather than think about an aging population.
“I don’t even think about it, really, to tell you the truth,” Pagula said. “I’ve got a lot of other things on my mind other than getting older,” she added, laughing.
“We’re all going down the same road. Nobody’s turning around.”