The United Nations estimated that the earth’s population surpassed seven billion on Monday (the U.S. Census Bureau thinks it will be a few days yet). The number is alarming, but not surprising. When I was in college, the world population had just topped four billion, and experts accurately predicted that it would surpass six billion by the end of the century. By 2050, the number is expected to easily exceed 10 billion.

For at least 40 years, environmentalists have been crying that we need to do something about population growth lest resources become scarce and chaos ensue, and the problem has only grown larger. Though birth rates have declined in developed countries, they continue at high levels in the most impoverished lands. This presents a conundrum, of course: those who are least able to provide for children are the ones who have the most.

While it’s easy for Westerners to go “tsk, tsk” and condemn people in places like Africa, India, and some Arab countries for having too many children, we have to understand the cultural and economic situations that drive their behavior. In some places, birth control may be in short supply, or patriarchal husbands may forbid wives from using it. Where infant mortality is high, there is pressure to have more children so some will survive. Greater access to medical care means that far more children are living to produce more children of their own, but the cultural imperative has yet to fade away. And, in areas where tribal influences remain important, families seek to strengthen their tribes — or their position in the tribe — by producing more offspring.

One would hope that further economic development, educational efforts, greater access to birth control, and shifting cultural pressures might lead to more reasonable birth rates, but the end to that goal is not in sight.

The earth’s resources are vast, but they are also finite. The world can support more people, but not an infinite number of people. Poverty is already endemic in many overpopulated lands, and climate change brought about by global warming is compounding the problem. The oceans are already overfished, rich farmlands are growing more depleted, and forest lands crucial to atmospheric balance and biodiversity are being leveled for crops. It’s not hard to envision a day when the poor masses of the world rise up and revolt against those countries that have more goods and fewer people.

The answer is not for the wealthy to start having more children so they can compete, but for those of us who are blessed with resources and knowledge to do our part in providing education and resources for birth control while also helping impoverished populations achieve food security so there’s less pressure to produce more children. A number of U.S. programs and international organizations are working hard to those ends, and we must pray that budget hawks don’t slice those important funds.

There are no easy answers to the challenges of world population growth, but the ostrich approach is not an option: the problem, like the population, is growing.

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