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7 Billion Is Not Enough

7 Billion Is Not Enough

World population may have hit seven billion people, but here’s why we need more.


I may be a rabbi who lives and works in the heart of New York City -- in fact, I was just voted one of Gotham’s “hippest” -- but believe it or not, I occasionally catch a glimpse of an endangered species.

I’m talking, of course, about young married couples.

The endangered species I am talking about are of course young married couples.

They seem to hibernate all year, coming to the synagogue only on the High Holidays. That’s okay. I’m still thrilled to meet them.

This year, I got an interesting reaction after I said something that pretty much guarantees I won’t see these couples again for another year:

“So... isn’t it time?”

The wife blushed. The husband cringed. One of them blurted out their well-rehearsed response:

“Rabbi, we’d love to have kids. Someday. But right now, we’re not ready.”

That scenario plays itself out all over the world, every day. There’s an entire generation of Jewish grandmothers-in-waiting, praying impatiently for their own little bundle of joy (or two or three) to kvell over. But their daughters and sons aren’t cooperating. According to a 2002 study by the Jewish Agency, "the number of Jews in the world is declining at an average of 50,000 per year."

And this isn’t just a Jewish problem, either. Throughout the Western world, men and women in their prime reproductive years are doing everything but reproducing.

If you’ve been following the news of late, you may be questioning my wisdom, or sanity. It’s being reported that on Sunday night, the Philippines welcomed the world’s seven billionth baby, Danica May Camacho. In fact, despite being officially awarded the title by the United Nations, other countries are also claiming their newly-born babies are the seventh billion newborn on the planet. Still, the UN even had flown in the world’s six billionth baby, Lorrize Mae Guevarra (now 12 years old) to be there to wish a mazel tov.

As the result of this milestone, we’ve been hearing a lot this week about the “population boom.” However, if you crunch the numbers, a slightly different picture emerges: that “population boom” is more like a “health boom.” Medical advances are improving longevity, which is what is really driving up the world’s population numbers.

In reality, the problem isn’t overpopulation, but sub-replacement fertility and aging populations that will ultimately lead to massive population declines.

In places like Japan and Western Europe, low fertility has increased the incidence of voluntary childlessness, which in turn will have a far reaching impact on economic and social policy. Nations like Greece are already struggling to support their graying citizens (a message that few in that country seem willing to hear.)

China’s extreme sub-replacement fertility rate is creating a hitherto unknown family structure: children with no siblings. That is: family trees with no branches.

The U.S. is clinging to a healthy replenishment rate just of above 2.1 children, but only due to high immigration rates, which are now petering off, given the economic downturn.

As a rabbi, I can’t help but recall that Bible’s first instruction to humankind is, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the land and subdue it.” (Gen. 1:28). Note that the emphasis is not just on having a family, but a large one.

Some might ask: why was it necessary to command people to do something that not only guarantees the continued survival of the human race, but which comes so naturally? I’m beginning to think that the long ago command “to be fruitful and multiply” was actually meant for us modern people, thousands of years in the future – a kind of message in a (baby) bottle that would wash ashore in our post-modern, post-parenting era. Whether or not we will heed that message remains to be seen.

November 6, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 19

(12) Anonymous, December 16, 2013 6:39 PM

15% of couples are subfertile

15% of couples have issues with fertility. How do you know that this couple hadn't gone through a gauntlet of invasive testing and saving their money to afford in vitro fertilization? Not being ready yet can take many forms.

(11) Duarte Oliveira Joaquim, November 11, 2011 1:21 PM

not enough?

the people that thinks that 7 billion is not enough, just breed.. because I'm not willing to breed in a world where there are a lot of people starving and unemployed.. I think 7 billion is more than enough

(10) Anonymous, November 11, 2011 8:27 AM

Do we really want to be the cause of the next mass extinction??

The day of seven billion arrived this year on October 31, according to the United Nations Population Division. We are barely under 12 years into the 21st century and Earth has grown by another billion living human beings. Without having a major planetary catastrophe to blame — like the Earth-crashing meteor some 65 million years ago that brought the dinosaurs and nearly 80 percent of the world’s living species to extinction. Do we want to be the cause of the next mass extinction? The most inescapable questions about human population growth today are: Can we sustain such incredible upward growth? Nearly every ecological and environmental concern stems from population growth over the last two centuries. Essential elements for life, such as food supply and consumption, fresh air, potable water, health and energy, are all directly and significantly affected by the sheer number of humans living on this planet. Human production and other activity have required land, energy, water and forest products, while the use of such products and activity result in wastes, pollutants, loss of natural resources such as forests and fertile, productive land and vast species of animals and plants. The Day of Seven Billion is a harbinger of our future, not a cause for celebration. At the current growth rate the Earth will see eight billion people in 2025, nine billion in 2043 and even ten billion in 2083. There is no room for perpetual growth. It is a foregone conclusion that we will not survive it. If it grows unabated, the human population will reach the point where all its life-sustaining systems will simply breakdown and begin to succumb to disease, malnourishment, starvation or toxic pollution, ensuring its own demise. Unlike a meteor causing a mass extinction of biodiversity, this generation has the power and responsibility to abate the next one. Therefore to cite the Torah and say ‘go forth and multiply and subdue the earth’ is an irresponsible message.

(9) Steve Skeete, November 10, 2011 12:14 AM

Seven Billion and counting?

I am no scientist but I have always been of the view that the problem with the world has never been population, simply distribution. There is no lack of land, food, water, clothing or anything that people need. I heard recently that in Britain one third of all the vegetables that people buy spoil in their refrigerators, and that people in North America routinely eat three to four meals daily in between snacks. If a way could be found to adequately distribute the world's resources there is no telling how many people planet earth could support. I stand firmly with the Rabbi. Seven billion people are not the problem!

tova saul, November 10, 2011 9:47 PM

The issue is not how many people the earth can support

The issue is how the planet's ecosystems that support the rest of the species are collapsing from humans consuming all habitats with cities and farms.

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