Exploding the Myth of Overpopulation

Last Wednesday, James J. Lee’s concern about overpopulation cost him his life. Police snipers killed him to save the lives of three hostages he was holding. He was demanding that the Discovery Channel air messages “curbing the planet’s population growth, finding solutions for global warming and dismantling ‘the dangerous US world economy.’”

Lee’s manifesto speaks of “parasitic human infants.” He views humans as “the most destructive, filthy, pollutive creatures around and are wrecking what’s left of the planet with their false morals and breeding culture.” He demanded that Discovery produce programs “that mention the Malthusian sciences about how food production leads to the overpopulation of the Human race. Talk about Evolution. Talk about Malthus and Darwin until it sinks into the stupid people’s brains until they get it!!”

Granted, James Lee is on the far extreme, yet I believe his basic conviction is quite popular among many in the United States and around the world, including many in the church.

Of course, most Christians would disagree that people are “destructive, filthy creatures,” but many may quietly or subconsciously agree that “overpopulation” leads to a scarcity of resources as well as more poverty and environmental degradation.

In setting forth the cultural commission in Genesis (1:28) God makes his will clear: “Be fruitful and multiply…fill the earth.” This is reinforced after the fall (see Gen. 9:1). Yet in many evangelical churches, having more than three or four children is seen as a bit extreme (I speak here from personal experience. My wife Kim and I have five kids). Two or three is much more reasonable. Why? Well, for one, children are costly. They infringe on our lifestyle choices, and yes, too many people in the world can lead to the problems identified by James Lee.

For the past 50 years or more, secular thought-leaders have championed the idea of “overpopulation.” The great modern champion is Paul Erlich, who wrote his bestselling and deeply influential book, The Population Bomb back in 1968. When Erlich wrote his book, the main concern was poverty. Today, it is environmental destruction and global warming.

What most people don’t realize, is that today, we actually are facing a severe population problem, but it’s just the opposite of what people like Erlich would have us believe. Rather than having too many people, entire cultures are becoming extinct because they are failing to reproduce themselves! Countries at the top of this list include nearly all the nations of Western Europe, Russia, and Japan, and the United States is not far behind.

If you haven’t seen these powerful, well documented videos on this tragic problem, I urge you to watch them and share them with others.

The overpopulation theory is a myth that deserves to be cast in the dustbin of history. Many of the most densely populated countries in the world are among the most developed and the most environmentally sensitive—nations like Hong Kong, Singapore, Holland, and many others. Some of the poorest and most polluted are relatively sparsely populated. Where the overpopulation myth goes wrong is primarily in its understanding of human nature.

The theory of overpopulation is rooted in a secular, materialistic worldview, and is closely tied to Darwinism. Its first and arguably greatest champion, Thomas Malthus, was a contemporary of Charles Darwin and was heavily influenced by his work. Secularism and Darwinism view humanity as fundamentally no different from other animal species. We are products of a blind, purposeless process of evolution. Like other animals, we are primarily consumers, “red in tooth and claw,” or in the vernacular of overpopulation proponents, “mouths to feed.”

The Bible has a very different perspective on humanity. Man is not fundamentally a consuming mouth or a destroyer of earth’s resources. Rather, he is made in the image of a creative God. He was given a mind, will, hands and language with which to create. More than a consumer of resources, man is a creator of resources. Rather than a destroyer of the environment, man was given the task of caring for and conserving creation. Because he is also a fallen and sinful, mankind has failed to live up to this high calling, but his fundamental nature remains intact.

Photo by Francesco Marino at Freedigitalphotos.net

Darwinism and secularism are profoundly anti-human philosophies. Wherever they take root in a culture, humanity pays the price. Today, the greatest price is being paid by the unborn, who are being aborted in record numbers, or, as is now the case in many countries, are not being conceived at all.

Ideas have consequences. People, including many Christians, who have been influenced by the myth of overpopulation, have only one solution to the problem. To borrow Charles Dickens’ famous phrase from his classic, A Christmas Carol, that solution is to “decrease the surplus population.” How is this done? By creating cultures where having no more than one or two children becomes normative (even if that means those cultures eventually go extinct, as we are seeing today in Europe), or if that fails, through government policies that limit childbirth, such as exist in China. If these fail, then forced abortion, forced sterilization, and even in some cases infanticide are resorted to. Make no mistake; the real-world consequences of the overpopulation myth continue to be tragic and deadly. Here’s how Darrow Miller puts it in a forthcoming book:

We are in a battle between stories, a conflict of moral vision and worldview. … But only one story reflects reality. It begins in Genesis in the Garden of Eden and ends in Revelation in the City of God. It begins with royal vice regents receiving a mandate to create culture (Genesis 1:26-28). It ends with their descendents bringing culture’s fruits—the glory and honor of the nations—to the wedding of the Lamb (Revelation 21:23-26).

The concept of overpopulation and its attendant strategies to restrict the birthrate (including that of Planned Parent founder Margaret Sanger, “The most merciful thing a large family can do for one of its infant members is to kill it”) have no place in a Christian worldview.

God views man as a co-creator. The secularist sees man as a consumer, a mouth. If man is a consumer, too many mouths equals overconsumption of limited supplies which leads to disaster. That view has been proven false and deadly.

– Scott Allen


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6 Responses to Exploding the Myth of Overpopulation

  1. Steven Johnson says:

    I have great respect for DNA and its work in equipping churches to be healing forces in their communities. Precisely because of its positive past and potential future contibution, I am deeply concerned that it is seeking to defend what I consider to be an untenable stance concerning population control. Humane population control is no more “anti-human” than are fire codes which stipulate maximum occupancy in buildings. And taking prudent, just, and humane steps to reduce human population in order to prevent otherwise inevitable catastrophic population reductions through famine, disease, war, and the erosion of natural resources, far from being anti-biblical, exemplifies the biblical motif of humans, who are made in God’s image, taking dominion over the earth rather than being dominated themselves by chaos. Rather than seek to shoot down the need for population control, I think it would be a far more valuable contribution of a Christian think tank like DNA to contribute to the debate over what means of population control are acceptable and preferable. It is certainly true that the vast majority of people in favor of population control are also in favor of abortion, just as the majority (though not as complete a majority) of those who oppose abortion tend to dismiss the reality of the need to humanely reduce human population. But in both cases I believe this is due more to the intellectual convenience of running with the pack than intellectual rigor.

    It remains to be seen whether Darrow Miller’s forthcoming book on the topic will offer more in the way of reasoned arguments and evidence to support the thesis that overpopulation is a “myth.” It is to be noted that Scott Allen’s recent posts have merely made the assertion without even attempting to support it. And to merely note the economic and logistical challenges of coping with higher ratios of old to young on the way down the population descent ladder is no substitute for genuinely reckoning with the immeasurably more catastrophic consequences of not taking proactive steps to humanely curb human population and rapacious consumption of natural resources.

    Here’s hoping that DNA’s emerging anti-anti-population thrust does not become such a dominant motif that it eclipses its other significant contributions and destroys its credibility.

  2. Dear Stephen,

    Thanks for taking time to share your comment. We truly appreciate your respect and concern for the ministry of the DNA.

    This topic (population control and poverty) is one I care deeply about and have invested a good deal of time studying. My interest comes from my 20+ years of experience in international relief and development work with Food for the Hungry. It is a truism that you design poverty-fighting programs based on your beliefs about what causes poverty. For many years, the reigning paradigm in elite development circles in the West was that defined by Thomas Malthus, Paul Ehrlich and others. Their main thrust: the greatest cause of poverty is “overpopulation,” and thus the most effective way of combating poverty was through “population control.” I’ve seen firsthand what population control means in impoverished communities, and it is certainly not humane.

    Most of the people on the receiving side of such programs perceive them in extremely negative ways. They are seen as a form of neo-colonialism, western secular elites imposing their values on family and children. How many children a couple should have is a deeply personal question. When governments subscribe to this view and establish population control policies, they inevitably become inhumane and coercive. Why? Because targets are set, government bureaucrats are held accountable for meeting quotas and punished if they fail. It isn’t a pretty picture. For a recent example, see this report from Amnesty International.

    Steven, it may help to put the shoe on the other foot. How might you respond if you were the recipient of a program designed to influence or coerce the decisions you (and your wife) made about how many children to have, particularly if that program were designed by experts from another culture with different values?

    Allow me to challenge what I perceive is your basic assumption. You said Christians need to take steps to “prevent otherwise inevitable catastrophic population reductions through famine, disease, war, and the erosion of natural resources.” You describe a fair summary of Thomas Malthus’s theory of overpopulation. Are you aware that this theory has been proven false? Malthus predicted that human population would grow exponentially until people outstripped the ability of earth’s resources to sustain them, at which time, there would be widespread starvation and anarchy as a result of scarcity. Wars would ensue and millions would die, until population and resources came back into balance. This calamity is the “Population Bomb” of Paul Ehrlich fame. He predicted that the bomb would explode in the 1980s. When it didn’t, he conveniently pushed the prediction further and further into the future. Are we approaching this point of overpopulation calamity today? Far from it! What is actually happening is precisely the opposite. We are witnessing a dramatic reduction in fertility rates all over the world.

    When Ehrlich wrote his book in 1968, women around the world were having, on average, 5.5 children. Today, they are having 2.6. In short, fertility rates have halved since 1968. This is widely available demographic data, and as near as I can tell, incontrovertible. This unforeseen and dramatic decrease in global fertility is beginning to raise alarm bells. It only takes a few generations for entire cultures to become extinct. If there is a global population calamity that Christians should be concerned about, this is it. Why this precipitous decline? I again, urge you to watch the Demographic Winter videos. A host of new books are coming out that deal with this alarming trend, including The Coming Population Crash by Fred Pearce and The Empty Cradle by Philip Longman. Neither makes a Christian argument. They are simply looking at the demographic facts.

    Where did Malthus and Ehrlich go so wrong? As I suggested in the blog, it primarily had to do with their starting point: a secular and Darwinist view of human nature. If people are fundamentally no different than animals (say, rabbits or elk) the theory may have held up. But, in fact, people are very different. In the real world, if a resource becomes scarce, incentive exists to create new alternatives at a lower cost. You may wish to read the famous bet offered by economist Julian Simon and accepted by Ehrlich, in 1980. Simon wagered $1,000 that any five basic metals, Erlich could choose which, would all be cheaper in ten years. Erlich chose copper, chrome, nickel, tin and tungsten. Based on Malthusian theory, Ehrlich proposed that as population increased, these resources would become scarcer, and their cost would rise. Simon proposed just the opposite. Resources becoming scarcer would spur innovation, new resources would be developed, demand for the original resource would drop, and the price would follow. After ten years, the prices of every one of them had fallen and Simon was $1,000 richer. You can read about it here.

    When copper ore increased in price, it spurred the innovation of fiber optics to replace copper wiring. As fiber optics went mainstream, demand for copper plummeted, as did the price. Innovating and creating new resources is what people (as opposed to animals) naturally do. It is part of our very nature! My colleague, Darrow Miller has written on this extensively in his book Discipling Nations. (Please see chapter 7, “Creation’s Open System: Expanding the Boundaries,” and chapter 11, “Stewardship: Creating and Managing Bounty.”) You may want to check out this resource.

    As a Christian who holds to a biblical view of humanity, this outcome isn’t surprising. People are not fundamentally consuming mouths and destroyers of resources facing an eminent collapse. No, we are fundamentally image-bearers of a creative, innovative God equipped to steward creation. This is why overpopulation theory is a myth. While it is certainly consistent with a secular worldview, such a worldview is false, for it fails to reflect the world, and human beings, as they actually exist.

    – Scott Allen

  3. smilingtim says:


    I appreciated your response. You may want to consider publishing it as a Part 2. I think that others have honest thoughts and concerns like those that Stephen shared and may be interested to hear you expand on your ideas in a second post.

    Grace & peace,


  4. Steven Johnson says:

    One of the things I appreciate most about DNA and affiliated ministries comes out in your response to my comments: Your on-the-ground experience enables you to bring indispensable insights to the table, not the least of which is the observation that corrupt, uncaring elitists and bureaucrats will NEVER achieve the kind of results that God-driven, loving fellowships of Jesus followers will.

    But, as touching the population issue, and speaking as one who USED to think along the lines of Julian Simon, I find that the case presented in both your response and in Darrow Miller’s chapter on “Creation’s Open System” in Discipling Nations to be fatally flawed by overly vague categories, a relatively facile analysis of the environmental and economic issues, and an abundance of logical flaws. I’m tempted to present a lengthy and detailed dissection right here in the comments section, but perhaps this is not the proper time or place.

    Which leads me to suggest what may be a better way…. Have either you or Darrow Miller tackled the population issue in anything approximating an academic seminar context? Ideally, this might be done along something like the following lines: 1) Participants of varying views certify that they have digested materials on a required reading list (much of which most participants will have read long ago), and pass a qualifying exam ensuring an accurate and reasonably thorough understanding of the views represented in the readings. 2)The participants read each others’ seminar papers presenting their own respective views. 3) Each participant critiques each paper via email to an online forum. 4) Participants post a response to each critique to the online seminar. 5) Participants gather for a face-to-face meeting or Skype conference. Participants could include someone from your “camp” such as Darrow Miller or yourself; an environmentalist Christian such as Luke Gascho of the Mennonite Creation Care Network or Bill McKibben; someone sympathetic to more radical primitivist/deep ecology perspectives such as Wes Howard-Brook; someone in economics who carries the torch of the late Julian Simon; a representative from another relief and development organization such as World Neighbors; an ecological economist such as Herman Daly (IMHO no one who has not thoroughly digested and reckoned with his most important contributions has ANY business publishing a book on this issue); etc. The ideal might be to pair up an experienced development practitioner with an academic to represent each of a small handful of perspectives. Maybe also invite Richard Horsley, author of Covenant Economics, who, though I don’t agree with him at every point, poses what I think is a formidable challenge to the biblical exegesis underlying your views. At the very least, such a process might better sensitize you to the objections that instantly occur to even largely sympathetic readers like myself who are outside your closest inner circle. The papers and interactions could also be published for the benefit of the public, and the whole process might serve to greatly strengthen Darrow Miller’s upcoming book. The very best popular writers, e.g. C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright, are those who have first honed their theses in the most rigorous of environments and only then translated them for popular consumption. Notwithstanding the weaknesses of your material on this subject as I perceive them, certainly your years of experience in relief and development would greatly enrich such a forum. Does an issue as important as population really deserve less than this serious a treatment by development/worldview professionals?

  5. Steven Johnson says:

    By the way, a good rundown of the history of Malthus/Ehrlich v. Julian Simon, from a viewpoint that is critical of the latter, is found in a 1998 article by Bill McKibben, “A Special Moment in History,” found here:

    Part 1: http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/98may/special1.htm

    Part 2: http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/98may/special2.htm

    Part 3: http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/98may/special3.htm

    This article contains SOME of what I would want to say in response to Scott Allen and Darrow Miller on population.

  6. Steven

    We thank you for your continued dialog with us and your taking us to task. It is appreciated.

    Thank you for your suggestions. If I were a different person, I would probably be doing the kinds of things that you are suggesting. But, I have never claimed or sought to be an academic. My calling has been as a social activist who has come to see the power of ideas.

    My heart was broken for the poor and hungry when I was a university student and spent six weeks living and working in an orphanage in Mexico City. A few years later, while studying under Francis Schaeffer, I came to see the power of ideas and the importance of a Biblical worldview. It was when I came to Food for the Hungry in 1981 that I began to bring my broken heart for the poor and my understanding of the power of story together.

    My work over the years has not been as a scholar, but as a popularizer. My heart has been to speak to mission and development professionals who work with and among the poor. While I have read extensively academics working in the fields of my interest (my wife tells me that I need to lighten up and read more novels), my role has been to process what I have read and then engage in dialog, not with academics but with professionals who work among the poor and with the poor themselves. It has been exciting to see the impact that DNA “school of thought” around the world. While I am not an academic, most of the people who have shaped my thinking certainly are. As an example the people who produced Demographic Winter are PhDs and professors of Sociology from universities all over the country.

    While I know this may not be the response you were desiring, it does reflect my heart and background.


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