Every now and then, in an unguarded moment, a politician makes the blunder of revealing the truth about a position they hold.
In a presidential townhall forum on September 5th, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was asked by Martha Readyhoff, a teacher from New Milford, CT, if he would advocate “empowering women, and educating everyone on the need to curb population growth,” by making it a part of his campaign. Readyhoff’s expressed concern was “climate catastrophe.” Sanders answered in the affirmative, offering the hackneyed platitude that “women have a right to control their own bodies,” and then explained,
I think especially in poor countries around the world where women do not necessarily want to have large numbers of babies and where they can have the opportunity through birth control to control the number of kids they have, it’s something I very, very strongly support.
Readyhoff rightly called the topic of curbing population growth “politically poisonous,” but in progressive and environmentally-conscious circles, it remains a hot topic. Even those with a limited knowledge of global affairs understand that preserving our planet’s natural environment while accommodating a population that is projected by some to reach 10 billion by 2050 is a legitimate challenge. However, Sanders’ plan to provide increased global access to abortion and contraception is an inadequate solution to a subject that is irreducibly complex. Additionally, it raises innumerable questions and serious ethical objections.
In all fairness to Readyhoff’s question, I want to make two propositions:
1. The existence of any and all human beings must be understood positively.
2. The relationship between population growth and environmental sustainability is asymmetrical.
From a Christian perspective, it is a fundamental mistake to treat the existence of humans as the principle problem in our world. Sanders claims to advocate for women in “poor countries around the world” who presumably, “do not necessarily want to have large numbers of babies.” Unfortunately, Sanders gives no evidence to support this. Nor does he say how many children constitutes a “large number.” Readyhoff and Sanders imply that “empowered” women in such countries would want less children than they currently have. But is this the case?
As God’s image bearers, humans are the crowning work of His creation. This status requires responsible stewardship of the earth. For this reason, climate change and pollution are, and should be, issues of existential importance. The fact that the poorest countries in the world have been hit hardest by natural disasters, such as drought, is overlooked by many in the west. To care about the environment is an eminently Christian duty, and some evangelicals have explicitly cited their faith as reason for their work to combat climate change.
Sanders’ response suggests that bigger families are the main problem exacerbating climate change. Yet history has proven that human renovation comes at critical times to avert disaster. As Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post notes, solutions to climate change have more to do with energy sources and policies, than curbing populations. We should not forget that our growing population is a result of modern medicine’s ability to significantly reduce mortality among mothers and infants. In the late 18th century, Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) claimed that England could not support a growing population because of the nation’s agricultural limitations. Technological improvements—the work of human agents—however, proved equal to the task for feeding the nation’s populace. Later generations who’ve accepted modified versions of Malthus’ views have proposed dubious schemes such as forced sterilization. Alexandra Desanctis highlights America’s history of overpopulation scares that included forced sterilizations in the 20th century and Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 sensational work, Population Bomb, which claimed apocalyptic scenarios if radical measures to limit human population were not enforced. Ehrlich’s predictions were off by a long shot and demographers note an unprecedently low proportion of global deaths from starvation today, most of which are due to mismanagement of resources.
Though the United States did not apply Ehrlich’s vision, the Chinese Communist China did from 1979–2015. The one-child policy led to an estimated 400 million abortions—a majority of which were baby girls. It remains one of the one of the darkest demonstrations of tyranny in human history.
As to the issue of climate change and pollution in general, it is not unreasonable to believe that scientific innovation by future generations of men and women will help to avert ecological disaster. To reiterate, people as people are not the primary problem. As to the second principle, that the relationship between population growth and environmental sustainability is asymmetrical, it is virtually impossible to make direct correspondence between these two issues. Consider the following options for curbing world population:
A. Governments sterilize its citizens and/or force women into abortions who violate state policy.
B. Citizens voluntarily have few or no children based on personal beliefs, education etc.
Choice A is simply disastrous on several levels. In China it has produced a disproportionate ratio of males to females, leaving tens of millions without the possibility of marriage, an aging populace and a depressed economy. The one-child policy, egregious for its blatant infringement of human rights, is powerfully portrayed in One Child Nation, a 2019 documentary by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang.
Choice B describes most western nations and several Asia ones. A negative birthrate is not economically sustainable without immigration. The question then arises: where are the immigrants going to come from? Ostensibly, from the countries with a population surplus. We find inescapable irony in Martha Readyhoff’s dilemma: Aren’t these the places where Sanders’ is now proposing we offer birth control?
Returning to Bernie Sanders’ advocacy of abortion and contraception in developing nations. Explicit racism was not likely the Senator’s motivation, though a cursory examination shows that countries with population growth are in Africa, South Asia and Latin America. Sanders cannot escape the charge of a kind of reproductive imperialism that has not gone unnoticed.
Is there a point where planet earth cannot mathematically sustain human beings? Theoretically, yes. Yet time and time again, humanity finds a way to accommodate growth and to flourish. Countries are either growing or they are declining. They are never static. Declining nations need men and women from growing ones. Some experts have recently noted that population decline is a more plausible global problem in the next century. The Chinese government is itself encouraging families to have two or more children but is finding its citizens uncompliant.
Readyhoff’s question and Sanders’ answer should alert us to the fact that population control measures are invariably applied to the poor and powerless. From Pharaoh to Hua Guofeng, the boys and girls of peasants will be sacrificed, not the children of the rich and powerful. It is curious that influential leaders in of our nation have large families: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is mother of five children. California Governor Gavin Newsome has four. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk who has made it his mission to colonize Mars has five kids. High-raking Communist Party members had up to seven children while the one-child policy was enforced. Mao Zedong had ten.
Maybe Bernie Sanders simply made a gaffe, Martha Readyhoff was dead earnest. Climate change will need to be addressed whether global population increases or plateaus, but let’s not deceive ourselves by giving governments power to reduce and kill Earth’s most valuable resource in the purported crusade of saving it.