God's Babies: Natalism and Bible Interpretation in Modern America
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6. An Ecological Critique
of Natalism

I will here complete my evaluation of natalist interpretations of the fruitful verses, which I previously weighed against their original Near Eastern context and then compared with Augustine’s thinking about human fruitfulness. Now a constructive ecological response to natalism will be offered, bringing together Scripture, Christian tradition, and the 21st-century context of North American and global population growth and ecological footprints to produce an alternative interpretation of the fruitful verses, one shaped by concern for biodiversity and ecological sustainability. This chapter considers the purpose and context of human fecundity, as well as the concepts of abundance, limits to growth, and what it means to “fill” the earth. As in the previous two chapters, there follows a section which evaluates the major natalist arguments, supported by further ressourcement from patristic and classic Christian thought.

Ecological crisis and the role of population

Population size is a multiplier of ecological impact. One way to quantify that impact is the ‘ecological footprint’ (EF), developed by the Global Footprint Network since the 1990s. It sums up how consumption of all types (e.g. food, construction, travel, and manufactured goods) uses renewable resources such as fresh water, trees, and crops. The sum of consumption is the ecological footprint. The annual production of each resource is also calculated and is called biocapacity. For example, wood from trees grows each year, so it is a renewable resource. If trees are felled faster than they grow, that part of the footprint exceeds its biocapacity and means that the stock of trees shrinks that year. All kinds of resources are converted into standard units called global hectares (gha), and the planet has around 12 billion gha available each year to be shared among the human population. Calculations in 2010 suggested that humankind was using about 18 billion gha. Not living within our means, we incur detriment each year, for example by lowering aquifer water tables and reducing soil depth.

Ecological hermeneutics

Consciously ecological approaches to biblical interpretation, hereafter referred to as eco-biblical,174 are a recent innovation. Brief comments on local environmental problems and animal welfare appear in exegetes of the 19th century and earlier, but the first instance I have found addressing broader environmental problems features in a 1957 commentary on Genesis by David Stalker of Edinburgh University. He sees soil erosion and the depletion of whales as symptoms of human “exploitation” of nature and suggests that “a profitable discussion could be held about the guidance which Genesis has to offer on this problem” (28). Joseph Sittler after 1955 pioneered an ecotheology that included exegetical remarks on New Testament letters, and later on Psalm 104 (Bouma-Prediger and Bakken 20, 32, 38, 51). The trickle of eco-biblical work increased after the 1967 article by Lynn White which blamed western Christian reception of Genesis for the ecological crisis (1205) and provoked substantial responses by Old Testament scholars, including James Barr in 1973 and Bernhard Anderson in 1983.The volume of eco-biblical research has continued to grow: it was surveyed by Gene McAfee and Gene Tucker in the 1990s, and by Ernst Conradie in 2006. Diverse approaches to eco-biblical interpretation have developed. I will describe these under three headings and identify which one offers the most appropriate methodological resources for the particular requirements of this project.

One type of eco-biblical work can be characterized as recovery or “apologetics” (Horrell, Bible 11), aiming to show that Scripture is full of ecological wisdom or at least that it does not promote an exploitative attitude. A radical objection to this approach is that it is anachronistic to expect ecological awareness among the ancient biblical writers. For example, James Nash claims the Bible is “ecologically unconscious,” especially with regard to biodiversity (214). Eco-biblical apologetics is also criticized for unacknowledged selectivity from the canon, ignoring the diversity of biblical voices (Conradie 296). Celia Deane-Drummond agrees that these criticisms are deserved responses to unsophisticated portrayals of ecological concern as the original meaning of a wide range of biblical texts,175 but considers that most work by Old Testament scholars has avoided these defects (272). The recovery approach is often helpful: for example, the message of caring for the land is clearly rooted in the Old Testament context of good husbandry of poor and easily ruined land (Wright; Habel, Land; Davis, “Learning”; Marlow). However, with regard to the issue of high fecundity, I demonstrated in chapter 4 that the Israelite writers had little experience of overpopulation and normally desired fecundity, so the recovery approach is not likely to be sufficient for my purposes.

A second approach, influenced by the hermeneutic of suspicion and ecofeminist ideological criticism, emerged in the late 1990s. It is best represented by the Earth Bible project, which is based on six “ecojustice principles” that are summarized by Norman Habel as the intrinsic worth of all creatures, purpose, interconnectedness, mutual custodianship, earth’s voice, and resistance to injustice (“Challenge” 125). This approach has many virtues: it helpfully engages with science and politics, and is designed to facilitate dialogue with people of any faith or none. However, for my project, where the aim is evaluation of Christian reception, it is less suitable. The ecojustice approach rejects dominion, hierarchy, and dualism (Habel, “Challenge” 128), whereas a nuanced affirmation of those concepts is necessary here; otherwise, a basis for calling humankind to responsible behavior would be lacking. According to some biologists, humankind, like any other species, should reproduce as much as it can, regardless of limits to growth and without concern for impact on other species, sacrificing individual welfare for aggregate prosperity (Sideris 56). Justifying an intelligent limitation of human fecundity for the sake of biodiversity depends on perceiving a special human status and responsibility for other living creatures, which David Clough calls “instrumental anthropocentrism” (Horrell, Bible 131). Even dualism must be redeemed, as transcendence of instinct is required. So the ecojustice approach is not sufficient as a methodology here.

A third way, which I do adopt in this chapter, was developed by Ernst Conradie and the Exeter University project on “Uses of the Bible in Environmental Ethics.” David Horrell argues that even the most ecofriendly verses are “ambivalent and ambiguous,” and he points to contrary interpretations by Beisner and other foes of environmentalism (Bible 117, 14). He is also concerned that much work of the Earth Bible type is not persuasive to conservative Christians. His response begins by noting that interpretation normally uses doctrinal lenses, for example Augustine’s rule that all exegesis should foster love of God and neighbor, and Luther’s key principle of justification by faith (Bible 123). Horrell suggests a method for constructing a new lens by “consciously bringing certain texts and themes into central focus, [and] marginalizing or resisting others” (Bible 128). Drawing on numerous Old and New Testament verses, he proposes several interpretive principles: the goodness of creation, its interconnectedness (the inclusion of all creatures in covenant, praise, and reconciliation), and a unique human role (Bible 129-36). Horrell acknowledges a need for awareness that this selection of principles is prompted by contemporary environmental issues, and we should not “pretend that the doctrinal lenses emerge solely from the texts, nor even the tradition, alone” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate 236). This “acknowledged circularity” is unavoidable.

My use of Christian tradition needs clarification. There is no consensus in the tradition about reproduction or the fruitful verses, as my chapter on Luther illustrated. I have prioritized the early Church Fathers because of their importance in the tradition and their proximity to the formation of creeds and canon. Whereas chapter 5 looked in depth at one Church Father’s thought in historical context, this chapter draws on a wide range of patristic writings without revisiting their context. However, none of the ideas presented here are peculiar to one Church Father, and most of them represent a majority patristic view. This ressourcement applies these ideas beyond their original context, but that is a characteristic of any effort to “rediscover and renew the Christian tradition” (Conradie 295), and the tradition develops in every age precisely by its encounter with whatever issues are then contemporary.

The role of contemporary context also needs clarification. Eco-Bible is informed by ecological science (especially its contribution to calculating the limits of earth systems and the vulnerability of particular species to extinction), but the commitment to an ethic of biodiversity derived from Genesis 1 here takes precedence. The ecologists consulted by the Earth Bible team considered the ecojustice principles appropriate (Habel, “Challenge” 126), but other observers of nature might find different principles there, such as ruthless competition or purposeless futility (Sideris 2). With regard to fecundity, there is no ecological reason to prefer a regime of low fertility and low mortality to one in which both rates are high. Rather, since evolution requires variation and selection fuelled by the early deaths of infants and pre-reproductive individuals, a regime of high fertility and high mortality could be deemed a good ecological pattern for society. Further, many ecologists judge the success of an individual life by its genetic contribution to the next generation, the number of biological descendants, according to which criterion Genghis Khan (a polygamist with many descendants) is held up as a paragon of human behavior (Zerjal 720) and Jesus of Nazareth is regarded as an abject failure. Karl Barth (ix) and the Church Fathers warn us that Christian ethics should not be based upon examining nature.176

A danger in eco-Bible, as in environmentalism, is neglect of connected interests such as those of women and the poor. The camps of political exegetes rebuke each other for neglect of other dimensions of liberation: one example is Womanist (black) criticism of early feminism for ignoring racial oppression. Such conflict causes fragmentation but also mutual awareness, and hopefully it leads to efforts at convergence so that one liberative reading does not act unwittingly against another. Therefore a critique of natalism should avoid, for example, a denigration of early Judaism which plays into the hands of anti-Judaists. Another caution for practitioners of eco-Bible in general comes from those ecofeminists who identify a series of connected dualisms such as man/woman, human/animal, spirit/body, Heaven/Earth. They claim that eco-Bible only functions properly under the umbrella of ecofeminism. I take this as a warning that an eco-biblical treatment of the fruitful verses should not denigrate motherhood or blame women for high fecundity.

Population and environmental impact

Eco-biblical writings are often prefaced by a survey of ecological crises, and here they sometimes do mention population. For example, one of the five causes of the ecological crisis identified by Martin-Schramm and Stiver is “too many people” (Horrell 5). However, after such introductions eco-biblical writings rarely engage with the population issue or the fruitful verses. For example, of the imperatives in Genesis 1:28 there is far more eco-biblical writing about “subdue [the earth]” and “have dominion” than about “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth.” This is sometimes due to a downplaying of the significance of population, but even those acknowledging its impact rarely apply ecological hermeneutics to the fruitful verses.

Catherine Keller observed that “among Northern ecumenical Protestant Christians – ethicists, feminists, eco-spiritualists, liberation theologians, and justice activists – there seems to reign an unstated assumption that population is never worth highlighting” (110). Since the 1970s, wider academia has normally been reluctant to highlight population as ecologically problematic, and eco-Bible followed that fashion with good reason. Since the 1950s, many who emphasize overpopulation as the cause of environmental crises have been motivated by anxiety about rich nations’ power and national security. The affluent North was responsible for most ecological impact, but many of the voices against overpopulation focused on high birth rates in the global South, and Andy Smith discerns in this a prejudice against colored women (75). Evangelicals and Catholics are also wary because of institutional links between family planning and abortion. So it is unsurprising that eco-biblical readings have rarely focused on any of the fruitful verses.

A dualism contrasting the ecological impacts of consumption and population associates the poor with the issue of population (Hynes 43). Population is regarded (wrongly) as only an issue for poor nations, so those who (rightly) regard affluent people as the main cause of ecological impact consider it inappropriate to focus on population as a problem (Smith 77). Ernst Conradie, a South African theologian, regards contemporary debates about relative impacts of population and consumption as reflecting “tensions between North and South,” and so to highlight population is to side with injustice, because that choice “implies that the impoverished countries … carry a special responsibility” for the crisis (Christianity 21). However this dualism is defective. First, it fails to notice exceptions, notably the U.S., where numbers of births each year substantially exceed deaths. Due to higher per-person greenhouse gas emissions, the natural increase of the U.S. population each year generates more additional emissions than the (much larger) combined natural increase of all Africa. At a smaller scale, in the UK births also exceed deaths. For example in 2012 there were approximately 813,000 births compared to 569,000 deaths (ONS).

Second, and more widely applicable for most developed countries, the dualism is based upon a focus on present rates of population growth rather than historical population increases. For example, the U.S. population in 1800 was 5.3 million; by 1900, it was 76 million; today it is over 300 million. Many observers assume that U.S. population growth was mostly due to immigration, but most additions to its population have been births in the U.S. Using annual data that begins in 1909, one can calculate the number of U.S. births from 1909 to 2012 to be 359.5 million.177 Across the same period, the number of legal immigrants was only 52.4 million,178 so the number of U.S. births was nearly seven times greater. By analogy with climate justice models of “contraction and convergence,” which take historical emissions into account, rich nations have a large total impact on the environment due to past population growth. A responsibility to “contract” the U.S. national ecological impact could be met through a lower birth rate. So highlighting population size as an ecological problem is not intrinsically biased against poor countries.

Figure 6. Addition to U.S population: births in the U.S. compared to immigration, 1909-2012.

Ecofeminists are divided on the question of the significance of population size. Some would rather ignore it. For example, Patricia Hynes claims that the equation for ecological impact, I=PAT, gives a false impression that poor people are equally responsible by including population.179 Her suggestion to delete P (population) from the equation (40) is, however, a rhetorical step too far. Population is a multiplier of impact. For greenhouse gas emissions, there has been research on population’s effect. One study by Dietz and Rosa finds a 1.15 global ratio of change (elasticity). This means that if there were a 10% rise in population it would cause 11.5% more emissions. Anqing Shi finds a global average elasticity of 1.42, but with regional variation (35, 39). For the U.S., Michael Dalton finds that the “effect of smaller population size on emissions is somewhat more than proportional” (90).180 Those figures are just for emissions: the elasticity for ecological footprints is less well established, but it is safe to say that impact is roughly proportional to population. In future, to achieve higher affluence181 for the poor, the future reduction of the total ecological footprint requires some mix of new technology, lower consumption in rich nations, and population shrinkage everywhere.

Another reason for the lack of eco-biblical treatment of the fertility theme is a belief that biblical reception does not affect birth rates. Eco-Bible began from a conviction that exegesis can affect attitudes toward the environment and that ecofriendly interpretation can therefore make a difference (Horrell 6-7). By contrast, many assume that birth rates are governed by economics (the common belief is that poor people will have high fecundity until they become richer), and that religion makes no difference. However, the demographer Massimo Livi Bacci finds that “cultural factors … seem to be more significant to fertility decline than economic factors” in developed countries (116). Eric Kaufmann and other social scientists have found that in developed countries religiosity is more important than education as a predictor of the number of children born to a woman. As noted in chapter 1, the birth rate among fundamentalists is higher than among moderate U.S. Protestants, and that difference is partly caused by religious differences.

Ecological perspectives on fertility

The design of life on earth seems harsh to individual creatures, but supportive of biodiversity. Globally there are around 1.75 million named species, and over the last 200 million years the number of diverse species has been slowly increasing (Eldredge 12). The common pattern of life on earth is profligate reproduction and equally high mortality, especially among the young. The selective cycle repeats in each generation, and there is competition between species.182 One might expect frequent loss of species, but the normal rate of extinction is low: the lifespan of a species is typically 1 to 10 million years (Baillie, Hilton-Taylor, and Stuart 41). Five brief episodes of mass extinction (the most recent happening 65 million years ago) each wiped out more than half of all the species of those moments, but all these episodes had external physical causes183 and none of them was caused by one or a few species multiplying so much as to crowd out many others. In the most recent few thousand years, often called the Anthropocene (human era), a sixth episode of mass extinction has begun, caused by human impact.

The flourishing of a species or a local subpopulation is measured ecologically by quantity, health, and genetic diversity. Geographical range is also important, but a species limited to one region (endemic), or even to a single island, can still flourish in that place, though it is more vulnerable than a widely distributed species. Number is important because too small a population is endangered, at risk of local extinction (Ranta, Kaitala and Lundberg 214). However, as numbers rise above that minimum the additional gain to a species’ chance of survival diminishes. At high levels, number conflicts with health; for example, with a local absence of predators, reindeer numbers and density will increase to the point where individuals’ health deteriorates. By contrast, wolves are slow to reproduce, and even when food is abundant they tend to maintain steady numbers and good health (Rockwood 150). Robert Attenborough notes that “natural historians have long been impressed by the persistence and relative numerical constancy of many natural populations” (190).

The population of each species is regulated by external influences in a diverse ecosystem. Some species rapidly increase in numbers to the limit of local resources and then fall precipitately; for example, cinnabar moths often strip their food plant (ragwort) and then crash with most larvae dying (Moss, Watson, and Ollason 35-37). That, however, is not the norm. Even at the end of summer, tree foliage is rarely all eaten because leaf-eaters do not increase to anywhere near the limit of their food, mostly because of mortality from predation and disease. Populations are regulated by mortality but also by fertility.184 Reproduction is controlled by variables such as mating, conception, and brood size. For example, territorial behavior means that only those individuals who secure a territory mate in that season. Honeybee queens adjust their egg-laying rate to match food supply, reducing it when flowers are poor. In nature, local population growth often follows a logistic curve: the rate of growth slows as population density approaches a certain level, and the population size then flattens out or peaks.

In nature, density-dependent effects on mortality and fertility usually prevent overcrowding, but in laboratories many experiments have put a population of a species (for example fruit flies, mice, or rats) in a confined space while supplying unlimited food. In all species tested, beyond some high population density, the birth rate (and/or infant survival) began declining to a low level. Various mechanisms were observed: fruit flies laid fewer eggs and mice neglected their young, leading to infant mortality rates above 90%. Some rats engaged in non-reproductive sex, while others became homosexual or asexual (Rockwood 66).

The stability and longevity of a species is dependent on the biodiversity of the surrounding ecosystem. The flourishing of life as a whole is defined by number of species, number of individuals (and their mass), overall geographical spread, health of ecosystem services, and diversity. The persistence of biodiversity is mysterious but at least partly explained by species being limited to ecological niches and constrained by particular local food supplies rather than total global resources.

Homo sapiens has exceptional ability to adapt and occupy additional niches, and to modify environments to be like familiar habitats. Local studies find that rising human population density only slightly reduces biodiversity up to a certain level, but beyond that, threshold biodiversity falls rapidly and the numerical size of nonhuman populations also declines (Cincotta 69). A sixth episode of mass extinction began (gradually) at least ten thousand years ago, largely due to human population growth (McKee 61), but 20th-century growth in consumption per capita hugely multiplied the effect, so the extinction episode has become increasingly acute (Eldredge x). One measure of biodiversity based on vertebrates, the Living Planet Index, fell by 30% between 1970 and 2003. Data for earlier decades is patchy but suggests “large losses” in the mid-20th century (Loh et al. 20). The human ecological footprint (including large U.S. and European components) crowds out many nonhuman species.

Figure 7. Fall in combined mass of wild land vertebrate species from 1900 to 2000. Data source: Vaclav Smil, “Harvesting the Biosphere: The Human Impact.” Population and Development Review 37.4 (2011): 613-36.

Fertility in eco-biblical perspective

The hermeneutic lens used here is drawn from selected Scriptures, with a special focus on Genesis 1. One reason for giving that chapter priority is its canonical position at the beginning of the Bible, making it familiar to contemporary readers. Another is that Christian tradition regards the first two chapters of Genesis as depicting how life on Earth was originally intended to be prior to the sin of humankind. It portrays an ideal world, but it is also more realistic than many other creation stories insofar as it constitutes wisdom literature based on the ancient writers’ awareness of the created world. Some features of the story are recognisable to a modern scientific worldview. However, it differs in being a vision of an ideal world that is more ordered and peaceful than the writers’ known world (Bauckham, Ecology 25). Genesis 1-11 is also an aetiology, showing how the original creation became the world known by its early readers. The ostensible scope is the whole of creation and humankind in general, not only Israel.

Principles relevant to the question of fecundity’s relation to sustainability can be derived from the text. Genesis 1 provides a pattern for reproduction. Its purpose is the perpetuation of each species, and it is designed to work in parallel with a great variety of different species reproducing at the same time within the same world. That provides a context for human fecundity as one species within that created plan, but there is also a unique human role and vocation to uphold this purpose of the creator. As implications of those principles, the following additional concepts are explored: the limits to growth, the idea that abundance is only one aspect of flourishing, and the metaphor of “filling” a land. These will be illustrated from Genesis chapters 3-11 and other biblical texts that portray the world after sin, in which relations are broken and fertility has become ambivalent.

David Horrell’s seven principles for ecological hermeneutics in general can be related specifically to human fecundity. Biodiversity is intrinsically valuable to God (Bauckham, Ecology 78) because of the goodness of all creation and the nonhuman calling to praise God (principles 1 and 5). The importance of perpetuating every kind of creature is explicit in God’s covenant with all creatures (principle 4). Limits to growth are implicit in the connectedness of life in failure and flourishing, and in humankind’s membership of the Earth community (principles 3 and 2). A human vocation to facilitate the diversity of species and their flourishing is one aspect of eschatological reconciliation (principle 7).

Perpetuating diverse species

Genesis shows a great variety of species being created and sustained. The major categories mentioned are grass, herbs, trees, life that swarms in the waters, flying winged creatures,185 livestock, creeping things, and wild beasts. Applied to each of these categories is the phrase “according to their kinds” (1:11, 12, 24, 25), implying many different forms within each. Elsewhere in the Old Testament over 120 kinds of animal are named, and the writers probably knew of many others that did not happen to feature in Scripture.186 They were perhaps aware of stories of yet more varieties unseen, especially hidden in the seas. A divine intention for this variety to persist is implicit in the assessments that “it was good” (1:12, 21, 25), and is explicit in the Flood story where God commands that from “every kind” of living creature a breeding population must be saved “to keep them alive” (6:19-20, ESV).187

The purpose of fruitfulness is the perpetuation of distinct species. That is the meaning of the phrase “bearing fruit … each according to its kind” (1:11, ESV).188 The idea is not explicitly repeated until Genesis 5:1 when “Adam … fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image,” but it can be assumed that each kind in chapter 1 is fruitful in its own likeness, perpetuating that species. This suggests that the original creatures brought forth at God’s command by the waters and the ground (1:20, 24), the first generation, were not immortal and their continuity depended on the reproductive capability incorporated in each species.

Abundance or quantity of creatures is one aspect of God’s design, as indicated by the words shrtz, “swarm” or “teem” (1:20, 21), and rbh, “increase” (1:22, 28), used in the imperatives that God speaks to nonhuman species. Geographical extension is another aspect, as indicated by the distribution “on the face of the whole earth” (1:29, NIV) of the vegetation which is designed to be food for all the animals (1:20), and by the word “fill” spoken to nonhuman species (1:22). The species are intended to spread across the sea and the land. These words are spoken to all kinds of creature so the abundance and spatial extension of “living creatures” must work in tandem with maintaining diversity. Algae alone carpeting a sea, or bindweed covering a continent, would satisfy both the numerical and spatial criteria, but would not comply with God’s intention for biodiversity, and so would not be good.

All species are intended to multiply and fill simultaneously. I initially consider only aquatic species as the formula differs for others. On the fifth day, “God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters of the seas” (1:22, ESV). The framing as a blessing and the context of chapter 1, especially regarding its orderliness, suggests that the simultaneous multiplication of all these species is not designed to cause rapid extinctions. When one species multiplies and fills the seas it does not prevent other species from doing the same. Flying creatures are similarly addressed. God creates “every winged bird according to its kind … God blessed them, saying … let birds multiply on the earth” (1:21-22, ESV). Again, many different species of bird increase in parallel. It is reasonable to suppose that a similar design applies to the nonhuman animal species created on the sixth day.

Beisner makes a counter-argument that the Earth is divided into three domains: sky, sea, land; and the land is reserved for humankind. Beisner finds a “difference between what God told Adam and what He told the fish and birds: He told Adam to be fruitful, multiply, and fill up the earth, i.e. the land or ground, not the sea or the sky” (“Imago” 191).189 His idea interprets the biblical phrase “birds of the air” but fails to account for the blessing, “let flying creatures multiply in the land” (1:22), which uses the same word, ‘rtz (land), as the blessing of the sixth day (1:28). The author of Genesis is well aware that birds do not live off thin air but feed and nest on the land. God intends them to multiply in the same zone as humankind.

Beisner’s attempt to remove flyers from the land fails exegetically and has few supporters, but a similar idea that excludes land animals from living space is given credence by some biblical scholars. They interpret the omission of a separate blessing for land animals (the nonhuman creatures of the sixth day) as indicating that the parallel flourishing of many species, while appropriate in the sea and air, is not appropriate on land. Nahum Sarna comments on the “absence” of blessing that “whereas the natural habitat of fish and fowl allow for their proliferation without encroaching adversely on man’s environment,” on land the wild animals are “a menace” (11). This might seem plausible since there was conflict between large carnivores and livestock keepers in the Old Testament world (Ezekiel 34:8) as there is today. However, it does not fit the setting of Genesis 1 where all kinds of animals eat plants (1:30). Also, the livestock-hunting large carnivores are only a small subset of all the nonhuman creatures living on the land.

Even if a conflicted context were imagined, the interpretation fails because the categories supposed by those exegetes to be unblessed in 1:24 include the “cattle” which Israelites and Old Testament writers would want to be blessed with prolific reproduction. Gordon Wenham finds the unblessing idea unconvincing and considers it more likely that “the blessing on man (v.28) covered all the works of the 6th day, including the land animals” (Genesis 26). John Calvin also comments on the lack of a second blessing on the sixth day: “Why does God here not also add his benediction? I answer: What Moses previously expressed on a similar occasion is here also to be understood, although he does not repeat it word for word” (24). The omission of a repetition is comparable with other variations in chapter 1, which is not exhaustively repetitive. Seven elements of a daily formula appear on the first day, and subsequent deviations from strict repetition, including the omission of “it was good” on the second day, and “it was so” on the fourth, may be regarded as “elegant stylistic variation” (Wenham, Genesis 17, 19, 23).190

In any case, God later explicitly calls upon every kind of creature disembarking from the Ark to “be fruitful and multiply on the earth” (Genesis 8:17). This includes wild creatures. There is a small number of kinds of domesticated animals, but most of the kinds told to “multiply on the earth” are wild, the beasts, reptiles, and insects for which humans had no practical use. And the space in which God instructs these kinds to multiply is explicitly “the earth.” Richard Bauckham points to God’s allocation of food to all species (Genesis 1:30) and deduces that it is not the Creator’s intention for humankind to excessively multiply or fill “to an extent that competes with the livelihood of other living creatures” (Ecology 17).

Limits to growth

Reproduction has two modes: the expanding mode is appropriate where there are empty spaces, while the replenishing mode is for spaces that are already filled. In the world of the biblical narrative, there are two moments when the expanding mode is active globally for all species. The first moment is the time after God created the world. In the beginning in the Priestly text the earth is “void” (1:2), and in the Yahwist’s story it is a time before rain, when “no bush of the field was yet in the land” and “no man” (2:5, ESV).191 The initial spatial distribution of the first “living creatures” and their number are not specified in chapter 1. In chapter 2, the first human is located in one place, and the male-female pair from each kind of animal may similarly be the first ur-animals.192 So in both creation stories there is a progression from an originally empty earth to its occupation.

The second moment of universally expansive reproduction is the time after the dry land re-emerges around Noah’s ark. Since in the narrative all living creatures have been wiped out (except in the sea), the earth is empty and must be repopulated by the male-female pairs193 after they disembark from the ark. From a single point location (8:4), the multiplying animals will slowly spread out across the whole earth (7:9; 8:19). In this moment of re-colonization each kind of animal and bird will increase in total number as well as spatial extent until the earth is filled. The ancient Israelites assumed that the process had been completed before their time, for the psalmist observes that “the earth is full of your creatures” (Psalms 104:24, NIV). The writer of Genesis perceived that animals had completed filling the earth many years before his time, and chapter 1 looks back to the beginning before that happened.

The replenishing mode is the continuing fertility that maintains diverse species on a filled earth. Ancient people were aware that while the number of birds would fluctuate from one year to the next, they did not keep growing in number generation after generation. The blessing “be fruitful and multiply” (1:22) is active in the present as well as the past. In the present, the word “multiply” or “increase” refers to that replenishing reproduction by animals and birds that maintains each kind.

That is the picture for the world as a whole, for nonhuman kinds and perhaps also for humankind, though they had been slower to fill the world. Ancient Israelites imagined that humans had settled in most of the inhabitable regions of the known world. At spatial scales smaller than the whole earth, a land or a place could still be empty. A land that had in the past been filled by people might become uninhabited as had happened on the plain of Jordan (Deuteronomy 29:23; Genesis 13:10). The most important local exception to a full earth was Canaan, which had become notionally empty because the Canaanites had forfeited their right to live there. Colonization by the sons of Jacob, and the gradual birth of the Israelite nation depicted in the Old Testament, warranted a rhetorical return to the expansive population growth associated with moments of origins.

Land allocation and boundaries

The principle that more people need more land is implicit in Old Testament texts: God tells Moses to “distribute the land by lot according to your clans” (Numbers 33:54a, NIV). “To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance” (Numbers 33:54b, ESV). The same idea underpins the complaint by Ephraim and Manasseh that the amount of land allocated to them is unfair compared with the land allocated to smaller tribes (Joshua 17:14).194 Since more people need more land, boundaries are proxies for ultimate limits on population size. The geographical boundaries between Israelite tribes are detailed in Joshua 12:6 to 22:9, and their purpose is to prevent disputes. The areas are large and mostly unconquered, so the boundaries are at first experienced as targets, not as limits. Near the end of Joshua’s life God says that “there are still very large areas of land to be taken over” (Joshua 13:1, NIV). However, for intra-Israelite relations there were limits: if one tribe reproduced faster than another Israelite tribe, then the boundaries would become constraints.

Boundaries also existed that subdivided the land for each clan and family. At these smaller scales, the limit can be more acute because it is far more likely that one family would grow more than another, than that a whole tribe would grow faster than another tribe (due to statistical averaging with larger totals). The land allocation text for each tribe repeats the phrases “clan by clan” (Joshua 13:15; 13:24; 13:29; 16:5; 15:20) and “by their families” (17:2). Scripture does not systematically describe the subdivisions of land, but a few are mentioned incidentally, for example Timnath for Joshua (24:30) and Gibeah for Phinehas (24:33). These boundaries were tangible in topographic features and marker stones, and were not changeable. “Do not move your neighbour’s boundary stone set up by your predecessors” (Deuteronomy 19:14, NIV). Alteration by a growing clan that wanted more land is forbidden. The allocation was fixed, in the ideal picture presented in Scripture at least, so a clan that became more fecund after the allocation could not be awarded additional land.

Looking beyond inter-clan relations, the principle of limits on encroachment is sometimes applied to inter-national boundaries. God specified to Moses the borders for the ancient Israelite nation: “This will be your land with its boundaries on every side” (Numbers 34:12).195 The ancient Israelite kingdoms never occupied all the land: Sidon, though allocated to the tribe of Asher, was not captured, and even Solomon did not capture Gaza. Actual borders did not reach the prescribed borders and this mismatch explains some instances of expansive language. Later after the Assyrian invasions which destroy the northern Israelite kingdom, Isaiah rejoices at the success of the southern kingdom of Judah: “You have gained glory for yourself; you have extended all the borders of the land” (Isaiah 26:15, NIV).

A clear idealized vision of stable inter-national borders can be construed from the Table of Nations (Genesis 10) in which nations descended from seventy named grandsons of Noah are allotted specified places in the geography of the known world. A later remembrance confirms that stability of spatial allocation was intended. “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God” (Deuteronomy 32:8, ESV). In early Jewish tradition the number of nations remained at seventy, a number symbolizing plenitude. Arguably, it is a divine arrangement that should not be transgressed. How then may Israel be created as a new nation when the earth is already full of nations? How can space be made? One answer from the Old Testament is that the extreme wickedness of the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 9:5) justified their dispossession, so Israel inherits the land which had been allotted to them. It is a special case, and it is a replacement not an expansion. These texts speak against the expansionist ideology of empire.

Quantity is not an absolute good

Reproductive abundance is normally regarded as good in the Old Testament, but it is occasionally portrayed negatively. There are concepts of excess, and a contrast between orderly and disorderly reproduction. The Old Testament writers noticed that some species misbehave more than others. Moses prophesied that “the river will teem (shrtz) with frogs” (Exodus 8:3). Back in the creation story, the same verb shrtz featured positively: “let the water teem with living creatures” (Genesis 1:20, NIV), but when the frogs shrtz, it has a negative connotation and is identified as a “plague” (Exodus 1:19). One difference between the two texts is that whereas in Genesis all kinds of water creatures teem together (which is good), in Exodus one species teems disproportionately in the waters.196 So the frogs burst out from their normal habitat and invade the houses of the Egyptians. When locusts multiply, that also is a plague. “They covered all the ground until it was black … They devoured … everything growing in the fields and the fruit on the trees” (Exodus 10:15, NIV). Many texts lament the damage caused by swarms of locusts (Joel 1:4; Amos 7:1; Deuteronomy 28:38, 42; 2 Chronicles 7:13; Psalms 105:35). The ultimate result is mass death of the species with disorderly reproduction. The locusts are blown into the sea (Exodus 10:19). The frogs die in heaps and the land reeks of their death (8:13).

People are often pictured in the Bible using metaphors from nonhuman creatures, including locusts. This can refer to behavior: “your plunder, O nations, is harvested as by young locusts; like a swarm of locusts people pounce on it” (Isaiah 33:4). It can also refer to human numbers: “the children of the east lay along in the valley like grasshoppers for multitude” (Judges 7:12, KJV). A longer comparison of humans with locusts features in a prophetic oracle against the Ninevites. Nahum taunts the men of Nineveh:

Look at your troops, they are all weaklings ... Draw water for the siege, strengthen your defenses! ... There the fire will consume you; the sword will cut you down – they will devour you like a swarm of locusts. Multiply like grasshoppers, multiply like locusts! You have increased the number of your merchants till they are more numerous than the stars in the sky, but like locusts they strip the land and then fly away. Your guards are like locusts, your officials like swarms of locusts ... (Nahum 3:13-17, NIV)

Nahum prophesies that Nineveh will be besieged. His taunt is that even if the number of Ninevite soldiers multiply, it will not help them but only magnify the number slain by God’s wrath as embodied in the attacking army: “the fire will devour you … and like grasshoppers consume you,” so go ahead and “multiply like locusts” (3:15, ESV), it will not help. The locust-like swarming of Ninevites also features in another way, as a magnifier of their rapacious greed and the damage they have caused. “You have increased the number of your merchants till they are more than the stars of the sky, but like locusts they strip the land and then fly away” (Nahum 3:16, NIV). The allusion is to one of the fruitful verses, in which offspring number like the stars (e.g. Genesis 26:4), but here it has a negative connotation of excess. The problem of greed is compounded by the number of greedy people.

In an early narrative, the problem perceived by the Israelites was large numbers of other peoples intruding and consuming the produce of the land. “Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel ... They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count them” (Judges 6:3-5, NIV). The sheer number of people and their livestock generated a detrimental consumption so that “Israel was greatly impoverished because of the Midianites” (6:6, KJV). In the next chapter an allusion to a fruitful verse is added to the account of this intrusion: “the other eastern peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore” (Judges 7:12, NIV). This last metaphor is the same as in the promise to Abraham of “descendants as numerous ... as the sand on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17, NIV), but here multitude has a negative connotation. The people settle in the valley “thick as locusts”: the density of population causes detriment.

Myths of abundance and scarcity

Some theologians claim that a worldview imagining unlimited abundance is more helpful than worrying about not having enough for everyone. Regina Schwartz in The Curse of Cain sees in the Old Testament and its modern reception197 a “tragic principle of scarcity,” because in the text most people do “not receive divine blessings … as though there were a cosmic shortage of prosperity” (xi). Her focus is national identity, expressed in the biblical text through sibling rivalry for divine favor, but in her chapter on “land” she also suggests that our perception of material scarcity or limits is an illusion. One reviewer, Catherine Madsen, agrees that “nature, in good health, is lavish and wasteful,” but she rejects Schwartz’s idea that scarcity is an illusion, because people do “need to live on and use land” (147).198

Walter Brueggemann in a review of The Curse of Cain confessed that “no other book in my field has instructed me as much” (535). Schwartz found a “myth of scarcity” dominating the Old Testament, and only briefly observed “glimpses” of “plenitude” there (Schwartz xi). In his 1998 review, Brueggemann agreed with that assessment, but one year later he reversed his view and chose to present a “liturgy of abundance” as the biblical norm (“Liturgy” 342). In later work he extends his claim: “the root of reality is a limitless generosity that intends an extravagant abundance. This claim is exposited in Israel’s creation texts, sapiential traditions, and … flies in the face of the theory of scarcity” (Unsettling 171). These two different perceptions suggest that abundance and scarcity both exist as motifs in the Old Testament. To evade the inconvenient truth of this reality is misguided.

Brueggemannn, unlike Schwartz, focuses on applying the abundance paradigm to material resources. He speculates that if today we “trust abundance” then this “causes the earth to produce more,” and though he admits this sounds “absurd,” he suggests that our reactions may “signify nothing more than the totalising power of the ideology of scarcity” (Unsettling 171). Brueggemann claims that Genesis 1 “denies scarcity” and that the idea first appears only when “Pharaoh dreams that there will be a famine in the land. Pharaoh introduces the principle of scarcity” (“Liturgy” 342). But in the biblical narrative Pharaoh’s dream is presented as a true message from God, and the predicted famine really happens, though its effect is mitigated by wise precautions after Joseph interprets the dream.

Brueggemann also extends the paradigm to fecundity, writing that Genesis begins “with a liturgy of abundance … In an orgy of fruitfulness, everything in its kind is to multiply” (342). He also perceives “the contest between the liturgy of abundance and the myth of scarcity” recurring four hundred years after Joseph, when the Israelites multiply and a different “Pharaoh decides that they have become so numerous that he doesn’t want any more Hebrew babies” (343). However, the narrator tell us what Pharaoh’s motive is: “let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply and if war breaks out they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land” (Exodus 1:10, ESV). The issue was not scarcity but the political fear that a large Israelite population might turn against Pharaoh. He is not worrying about them overpopulating Egypt: rather, he fears that these useful laborers may become strong enough to escape and leave Egypt.

Brueggemann’s declared aim was to rebuke consumerism, to persuade his readers that the U.S. need not compete with rival nations for resources, and to encourage international justice. Those motives are good but his denial of limits is unhelpful, and results in language that is almost cornucopian. Brueggemann’s dichotomy of “abundance and scarcity” could be reformulated as “generosity and greed,” and that would serve his purpose better. It is precisely because material limits do exist that neighborliness is needed, and one aspect of this virtue is self-restraint of fecundity by individuals and nation-states.

Vocation informs reproduction

Though all species are blessed with fertility, for humankind the words of that blessing are given in the context of a unique vocation for the government of other species and the land: the same verse says “be fruitful” and also “have dominion” (Genesis 1:28). Jeremy Cohen advises that the syntax of this verse warns against any “neat division” between procreation and dominion (13), therefore the exercise of human fecundity should be guided by this vocation. Even if human dominion over nonhuman creatures were intended to be tyrannical, a king must have subjects to be a king, so a fecundity that leads to the extinction of the subjects cannot be intended. Further, the scope of biblical dominion is “every living thing” (1:28), so a fullness of dominion requires that no kind of creature should be exterminated.

Many biblical scholars contend that rdh (rule) here is not meant to be tyranny. Elsewhere rdh is used only of relationships between humans, but in Genesis 1:28 it is applied to relations between humans and animals. Leviticus 25:43 uses rdh prk to express “rule harshly,” but rdh alone simply means “rule” with the context indicating its character. Most instances of rdh refer to rulers’ actions, such as extracting forced labor (1 Kings 5:16), but the word can also be used neutrally (Psalm 68:27). The context of Genesis 1:28 indicates the character of human rule. First, since God says the creatures are good, dominion is unlikely to be a licence to destroy. Second, they are given this responsibility because they are made in the image of God to reflect His character. To many modern readers kingship has negative connotations, but theologically the concept needs to be put into the context of the rule of God. God’s rule is sustaining and nurturing (Psalm 104:10-26; Psalm 145:9, 16), therefore to rule in his image is to do likewise (Bauckham 31). The ideal king is a shepherd (Ezekiel 34:2-5; Lohfink 12) and a servant (1 Kings 12:7). The word rdh appears in messianic texts (Psalm 72:8), and Jesus the anointed one (i.e. king) is central to a Christian understanding of rdh, connecting the “suffering servant” with kingship.

Reinforcing the universal human vocation, a special responsibility carried by the chosen people can be derived from the call of Abraham. God foretells that “in you all the clans of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).199 Clearly the primary reference is to other peoples, but the word clan gives room for a wider ecological interpretation. This word mishpachah is not the usual term for family households and is often translated as “clan,” as for example in “clans of Levi” (Numbers 26:58) where it denotes all the branches descending from the named progenitor. Therefore “clans of earth” can be read as all creatures that God created from the earth. The idea of earth as progenitor comes from the text, “these are the generations of the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 2:4). This is the first of a series of verses using the word toledot (descendants), which derives from a verb meaning “to give birth,” and that function as headings to structure Genesis (Hamilton 5). There are ten toledot verses: the second is “these are the generations of Adam” (5:1), and the third is “these are the generations of Noah” (6:9). Since the first toledot (2:4) introduces the “generations” from the earth200 as all kinds of living creatures which God commanded the land and sea to bring forth (Genesis 1:20, 24), the “clans of the earth” to be blessed can be understood to encompass every species. This is an adventurous ecological reading reinforced by the usage of mishpachah (clan) at Genesis 8:19 with a generic sense that refers to nonhuman creatures.

Responding to natalist arguments

Perpetuating humankind

Most patristic writers consider the preservation of the species the only valid justification for procreation. For example, John of Damascus in the 8th century discerns that “to prevent the wearing out and destruction of the race by death, marriage was devised that the race of men may be preserved through procreation of children” (Exposition of Orthodox Faith 4.24, tr. NPNF2 9:97). Patristic writers suggested that reproduction had over time become a less pressing necessity. Cyprian contrasts earlier times with his own time (the 4th century AD): “While yet the world was uncultivated and empty … we increased for the extension of the human race … Now when the earth is filled and the world is peopled, they who can, receive continence” (ANF 5.436). This could imply that if the number of humans dwindled toward extinction then reproduction would become more necessary. Thomas Aquinas is unusual in making this idea explicit, and concedes a collective duty to perpetuate the human species, though not any individual obligation, for “the precept given concerning procreation pertains to the entire collective of human beings … It therefore suffices … if only certain people meet the needs of bodily reproduction while others abstain” (Cohen 291).

Figure 8. World population from 1950-2010 and UN medium projection to 2050. Data source: World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision (New York: United Nations, 2013).

Figure 9. The four UN projections of future population size, 2010 to 2100. Data source: World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision (New York: United Nations, 2013).

There is in reality no prospect that, due to insufficient reproduction, Homo sapiens will decline to anything like the number (less than 1 million) that would make our species vulnerable to extinction. The human population in Cyprian’s time was under 200 million. Today it is over 7 billion and still growing. The UN produces forecasts (projections) of population with different scenarios based on what might happen to birth rates. The medium scenario (the unbroken line on the graph above) is what the UN considers most likely and is based on fertility (TFR) in the “Less Developed Regions” diminishing from 2.63 (the 2010 average) to 2.25 by 2050. Even with that decline in birth rate, the global population grows to more than 9.5 billion.The high and low variant forecasts are based on TFRs being slightly higher or lower than the medium variant. Furthermore, if birth rates stay the same as they are now in each nation, this will lead to the “Constant Fertility” scenario and a population of 28 billion by 2100. Thankfully it is unlikely, but it serves to illustrate that all other U.N. scenarios already have anticipated falls in birth rates built-in. Only in other, fantastically long-range projections can serious global shrinkage of population be seen. One study extrapolated to 2300 simulating with different rates of global fertility and different levels of maximum life expectancy (Basten, Lutz, and Scherbov). They found that a global average TFR of 2.0 leads to a 10.17 billion population in 2300. If instead TFR slowly converges to 1.5 everywhere, then nearly 300 years from now the global population will be 870 million. Even if that far-fetched scenario occurred, the population in 2300 would still be four times greater than it was when Cyprian was bishop of Carthage.

Since the human footprint exceeds global biocapacity, population shrinkage is desirable; but if the rate of change were too rapid it could arguably be detrimental to human welfare. An earlier long-range projection (UN, 2003) gives predicted rates of population change up to 2300. In this, the fastest rate of annual decrease is 0.15%, and it happens between 2100 and 2125. The UN long-range forecast includes a low fertility variant which has a 0.46% rate of shrinkage in the quarter century to 2075 and then 0.75% until 2125. For comparison, Russia has experienced 0.5% annual decrease since 1991. Whether such rates are too fast is hard to assess as they are a new phenomenon. Lower population density would raise average welfare through reducing land prices (Turner, “Population” 3016).201

One effect of shrinkage would be to increase the structural ageing already caused by lengthening life expectancy, which for men in the UK has risen 8 years in the last 25 years (ONS). Adair Turner, the former Chair of the UK Pensions Commission, explains how this could be ameliorated by changes in tax and pension rules, and by raising the retirement age so some of the added years of lifespan are shifted into working years. It is viable because “health at any given age is increasing rapidly”; for example, in the 1990s an average French woman of 75 was as fit as a woman aged 62 was in 1900 (Turner, “Population” 3011). Much can be done to ameliorate the effects of structural ageing through reducing avoidable causes of infirmity, so rapid population shrinkage need not be so detrimental to welfare.

There is a chronological mismatch in the argument that a hypothetical future decrease of population warrants high birth rates now. Today, population is not only too high but still rising. Even in the low variant scenario, rapid decrease (greater than 0.5% annually) would not happen until after 2075. Birth rates can change rapidly, for example in the UK child tax credits stimulated a 15% rise in fertility among recipient couples within one year of their introduction (Brewer, Ratcliffe, and Smith). In the U.S., fertility rose from 2.1 to 3.7 between 1937 and 1957. So there is no need to promote natalism a half-century or more in advance of a situation that might perhaps justify it. The only remaining argument is that nations whose TFR is below 1.5 are stuck in a “low fertility trap” that causes fertility to keep falling due to momentum and cultural transmission of a low ideal family size (Lutz and Skirbekk, 701). The trap theory was challenged after 2000 by rising fertility in such nations (Goldstein, Sabotka, and Jasilioniene 644). In any case, this argument was never relevant to the U.S. or UK. The time to debate whether local social natalism might be helpful would be much nearer to 2075, and even then only if the UN low variant scenario seemed to be happening. So far, the gap between numbers of births and deaths which generates population growth has (as shown by the figure below) not diminished much. There are still more than twice as many births as deaths each year globally. We are a long way away from needing to worry about too few births.

Figure 10. Births and deaths in all nations, five-year total from 1950-2010. Data source: World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision (New York: United Nations, 2013).

National welfare

The question of whether local circumstances can justify encouragement of higher local fertility cannot be ignored. Karl Barth suggests “there may even be times and situations in which it will be the duty of the Christian community to awaken either a people or section of a people … that to avoid arbitrary decay they should make use of this merciful divine permission and seriously try to maintain the race. But a general necessity … cannot be maintained on a Christian basis” (268).202 This is not for the sake of nationhood per se, but for human welfare. Some natalists claim this circumstance applies today, so high fertility is now a patriotic duty as a means of avoiding national suicide. Allan Carlson claims: “Europe is dying … America is not far behind” (65). However the median projection (including net migration) is that the U.S. population will grow to 439 million by 2050 (Census Bureau).

Figure 11. Census of U.S. Population, 1790-2010. Data source: http://www.census.gov/population/censusdata/table-16.pdf (Census Bureau).

The case of Europe must be considered, not least because natalist outreach is often targeted at European Christians. The population of the EU is rising slowly and is projected to peak in 2035 (EuroStat). But though it seems that remedial local natalism cannot be justified at present, one can imagine some counter-arguments.

Nativists may complain that the population projections cited above include immigration continuing at present levels. Nativism is a fantasy: in European states, and even more so in the U.S., a large part of the so-called old-stock people descend from immigrants if their families are traced back a few centuries.203 However, even if, for the sake of argument, one allows nativists to focus on “natural increase” without including migration data, the U.S. has more births than deaths: for example 4.25 million births and 2.47 million deaths in 2008 (Census Bureau).

Al Mohler laments a “disastrous fall in European birthrates” (“Birthrates”), but in fact Europe currently has slightly more births than deaths. That is especially so in the UK which in 2009 had 790,000 births and 491,000 deaths (ONS).204 Granted, some nations, notably Russia, Italy, and Germany, do have fewer births than deaths, but natalists exaggerate their shrinkage. Carlson and Mero claim that by 2050, Italy’s population (currently 59 million) will fall to 41 million (65), but Italy’s statistics agency predicts it will rise to 61.7 million by that date (ISTAT). Even if migration were excluded, the natural decrease would only reduce Italy’s “native” population to 53.5 million by 2050. That was the total in 1968 and it was not regarded as being too low then. Further, since Italy’s total footprint is now 290 gha, whereas its national biocapacity is only 60 gha (GFN), some decrease in Italy’s population would be a step toward sustainability.

Figure 12. Forecast of U.S. births and deaths from 2015 to 2060. Data source: http://www.census.gov/population/projections/data/national/2012.html (Census Bureau).

Some point to the more distant future. It is projected that by 2070 Europe will return to the population total it had in 2010. Since the ecological footprint of Europe is already running at over 200% of its biocapacity, that scenario would be beneficial for sustainability. Nations do fear a diminution relative to other global regions; for example, the European Parliament in 1984 expressed concern about “the declining share of Europe’s population in the world total, and ensuing effects on Europe’s standing and influence in the world,” and so it resolved to promote fertility (Demeny 169). Such motives are unworthy for Christians.

Building the church

Continuous numerical growth on a finite planet is not sustainable. Many religions and denominations have become accustomed to numerical growth in their membership that is partly just a product of background population growth. But when global population peaks, as it will sooner or later, those who want to see numerical growth will have to focus on conversions. Church increase by conversion has no impact on total population size, whereas endogenous growth by sexual reproduction is ecologically unsustainable. One natalist writer argues that better-reared Christian children who are less addicted to consumerism are also better for the environment (Pride, 62-63). That may be true, but any benefit would be outweighed by the rise in total numbers inherent in the endogenous approach. For example, given a national population (of any size) which is 10% Christian, and assuming no natural increase among the non-Christians, to make the nation 20% Christian by using the endogenous method would increase the overall national population by 11.25%. To make the nation 50% Christian would require an 80% increase in the total national population.205 If the ecological footprint of our hypothetical nation has already overshot its biocapacity, as most countries have, endogenous church growth would be harmful to human welfare. For those wanting a numerically larger church, growth by conversion is the better way.206

Relying on endogenous growth predictably changes the character of a religion or denomination. There are many cases in religious history of groups that began as open movements attracting outsiders but which turned inward decades or centuries later and started relying on their children to perpetuate the institution.207 For example, few outsiders join the Amish or Hutterites today. It is a recurring temptation for churches to transform themselves into ethnic groups. This is not really easier – in fact it is hard labor (pun intended) – but the new natalists appear to regard it as a dependable human strategy. They thus seem to “put confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:4-5), but they should instead consider that the Holy Spirit reaches out to whomever He will, regardless of ancestry and parentage, and that high birth rates are incompatible with increasing longevity and maintaining quality of life within ecological limits.

Populating heaven

Natalists look at temporal fluctuations of membership numbers, but tradition points to a cumulative number that includes not just those currently walking the earth, but all Christians who ever lived and share in resurrection: the “communion of saints.” The stars in heaven are a metaphor for saints and suggest characteristics for their reproduction. Genesis 1 depicts spaces created on days 1-3 and then filled with creatures on days 4-6. Stars are created on day 4 and this is the only case where God creates each one directly and individually, rather than creating pairs to reproduce. “He determines the number of the stars, and calls them each by name” (Psalm 147:4, NIV). Ancient observers regarded the stars as numbering about three thousand, not increasing but immortal.208 Patristic writers favored stars as a more suitable metaphor for Christians than dust, sand, or grass, the other Old Testament metaphors of fecundity and far more numerous than stars. Dust and grass have connotations of mortality, but stars are fixed in number like the elect. Christians are compared to stars: “become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky” (Philippians 2:15, NIV). And even today, from a scientific viewpoint, stars are very long-lived, and new stars are born from the debris of past dead stars, which is like reproduction. So stars can still be a good metaphor for a stable population with a very low rate of mortality and a very low rate of fertility.

Created order

The pattern of early marriage and frequent reproduction favored by natalists is commended as natural, and some look to lessons from nature. Watters (35) advises readers to “Ask the animals and they will teach you” (Job 12:7). The normative order of creation is depicted as all individuals forming couple bonds that produce many offspring, but some features of the prescribed pattern are not universal. Examples supporting the pattern natalists advocate can be found, but nature encompasses a variety of reproductive strategies, and contrary examples also exist. In some species few adult males ever reproduce; for example, only 1% of male elephant seals gain a harem and become fathers. This is presumably not a model for human emulation. The created order is more diverse than natalists imagine.

Natalists regard any downward change in birth rates as unnatural, but such changes can be found in nature in those species which have a density-dependent fertility that declines when population density approaches a certain level (Rockwood 42). High fertility with low mortality causes a population to grow rapidly. The norm in human history until recently was both high fertility and high mortality. Natalists praising the former as “natural” should realize it is inseparable from the latter. In a limited biosphere, higher fertility will eventually produce higher mortality (which means a lower life expectancy).

Science has a valuable ancillary function. Knowledge about earth systems, biodiversity, and ecological sustainability provides feedback on global and local scales which informs us about the consequences of different levels of human population size, and whether they are beneficial (that is, a blessing) or not. Science does not, however, provide moral values. For example, where population density is reducing average individual human welfare but increasing the total number of human beings, we may ask if that is good or bad. An eco-biblical hermeneutic suggests an answer. If the size of a nation’s ecological footprint exceeds a fair share of global biocapacity and so exacerbates global ecological overshoot, then it is too high because it is causing extinctions among other species and detrimentally affecting welfare in other nations.


174 The term eco-Bible appeared in 1993 in the title of an article by Walter Wink (465).

175 In defence of practitioners of unsophisticated eco-Bible, one should note that, first, their approach is similar to much other devotional use of the Bible, and that, second, popular literature disseminating such interpretations not only encouraged some who were already convinced environmentalists, but also persuaded some conservative Christians to engage with ecological issues and change their lives (Maier; and my experiences working for Evangelical environmental groups).

176 Barth adds that only the incarnation reveals nature’s meaning.

179 I=PAT stands for Impact = Population x Affluence x Technological efficiency.

180 John Harte argues that elasticity may worsen as population rises due to a host of nonlinear thresholds; for example, given a ceiling on annual production of natural gas, extra demand by a rising population may result in greater use of coal (234).

181 Or at least, following the UN Millennium Development Goals, to raise everyone’s HDI (human development index). Reducing inequality within a nation provides more HDI per unit of affluence.

182 Alongside examples of mutualism or symbiosis (Vandermeer and Goldberg 221).

183 Likely causes of the mass extinction episodes include meteor impact, volcanic eruptions, and solar disruptions, mostly affecting life through climate changes.

184 Obviously, fertility regulation is harder to observe and measure than mortality, but even so it has been detected in many species.

185 Most water-dwelling animals are not “fish” and not all flying species are “birds.” Most commentators use those terms, but the Hebrew is more generic, referring to “every living creature that moves” in the waters and “every winged flying creature” (1:21). Finding short English terms for the categories of Genesis 1 is difficult. The attributes of moving and flying feature in the text, so we might use the words swimmer and flyer. However, no distinctive locomotion spans all of the 6th day’s species. Some translations (following the KJV) have “creeping” things, but the word ramas just means “moving.” A designation based on the spatial zones of sea, sky, and land works for sea-creatures and land-animals, but sky-animals is inadequate because these are also linked to the land (1:22).

186 A possible upper limit is the 500 described by Aristotle, the father of zoology.

187 A wide diversity of species is essential for ecosystem functions, but even if a form of human existence accompanied only by a small subset of the currently living species of fish, birds, reptiles, and mammals were possible, while it might be designated “sustainable,” it would contradict this creative word.

188 The NLT paraphrase, “the seeds will then produce the kinds of plants and trees from which they came” (1:11), expresses the meaning clearly.

189 Even if Beisner’s argument were accurate, overfishing that damages species’ health in the domain of the sea would still contradict Genesis 1:22 as he construes it.

190 The Septuagint translators inserted the latter, “missing” clause.

191 The narratives of chapter 1 and chapters 2-3 are different in style, and biblical scholars usually call them the Priestly and Yahwistic creation stories.

192 Christian tradition assumes a pair of each kind in Genesis 2.

193 Seven pairs for “clean” kinds of animal and one pair from each of every other kind of animal (Genesis 7:2).

194 The historical reality of the land allotment is disputed, but in any case the ideal suggests awareness of the issues discussed.

195 Alternative verbal maps of the ideal boundaries of the Israelite nation appear elsewhere in the Old Testament, including in Joshua.

196 Commentators looking for realistic explanations of the plagues have speculated that the frogs temporarily exceed predator control.

197 Schwartz finds a principle of scarcity in biblical scholarship, which was formatively influenced, in her view, by 19th-century German nationalism (11).

198 Schwartz and Madsen both mention Israel/Palestine, and that conflict seems to be an important context for their discussions of scarcity and land.

199 The translation is notoriously difficult and controversial. Westermann sees here a promise that Abraham’s descendants will be famously blessed, admired so others will wish “that I might be blessed like them.” Or, in other words, “The nations will not be blessed by Abraham (and his family) – the patriarchs will not function as the agents of blessing – but the nations will bless themselves in him (them) – the patriarchs will serve as examples of blessing(Biddle 603). However, tradition (based on Acts 3:25) insists that Abraham’s (spiritual) progeny, Christ and the church, will bless others.

200 The phrase “the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 2:4) is a merism that encompasses the sky, land, and sea: the whole world, the biosphere.

201 Low fertility and population shrinkage also increase the average inheritance of capital, which raises average welfare.

202 This is a proviso within a long section in which Barth demolishes the notion that there is any Christian obligation to reproduce.

203 U.S. natalist writers with recent European ancestors should be aware of this.

204 UK population growth was and is more a result of natural increase (births) than of net migration, except in the years between 2000 and 2007 (ONS).

205 Also, the nation would never become fully Christian if only the endogenous mode applied, for there would also be some descendants of the non-Christian people.

206 Denominations and missions should report the numerical progress of Christianity in percentage terms rather than by counting heads. In contexts of population growth the latter may look good, but if population shrinks (as it will, preferably sooner, but otherwise later) the reporting of progress as percentage share of the nation will be more encouraging.

207 Or alternatively disappearing. Shakers are often cited (by evolutionary biologists) as an example of what happens to religious groups that do not reproduce biologically. But that misrepresents history: the early Shakers were open and evangelistic and despite being celibate from the 1750s, they continued growing in number for almost a hundred years by attracting adults from outside. Only after turning inward and recruiting fewer converts did they begin to decline. Those who apply evolutionary theory to religion need to be aware that many religious groups began as voluntary affiliations, even though some might look like ethnic groups today.

208 Modern astronomy identifies about 3,000 stars visible from any one location on the spherical earth under perfect viewing conditions.