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Resymbolizing Life: Religion on Population and Environment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 September 2014

Christine E. Gudorf
Florida International University
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The environmental crisis has transformed the debate over the appropriate size of the human population, presenting humans with a choice of reducing population, redistributing resource use, and restraining consumption or inflicting severe, perhaps fatal, damage to the earth's capacity to sustain life. Having surveyed gross evidence supporting this choice, this article argues that Christianity must reinterpret its tradition, resymbolizing respect for life from an exclusive focus on birth and fertility toward the sustaining of life and life's habitat, earth.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2001


1 United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 1994 Revision (New York: United Nations, 1994).Google Scholar

2 See archeologist Gimbutas, Mariya, The Language of the Goddess (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1989), 213–21.Google Scholar

3 “The Six Billion Mark,” New York Times, 13 October 1999, A24:1. The population predictions quoted in this editorial are not documented, and include only the low, not the medium or high, U.N. estimates.

4 Ryan Johansson, S., “The Moral Imperatives of Christian Marriage,” in Coleman, John S., ed., One Hundred Years of Catholic Social Teaching (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 139, 149.Google Scholar

5 In The Structures of Everyday Life, the first volume of his three volume Civilization and Capitalism, Fernand Braudel writes about famines in the fifteenth-eighteenth centuries. He cites ten general—not local—famines in the agriculturally rich nation of France in the tenth century, twenty-six in the eleventh, two in the twelfth, four in the fourteenth, seven in the fifteenth, thirteen in the sixteenth, eleven in the seventeenth and sixteen in the eighteenth centuries. Florence, he says, had 111 years of famine between 1371 and 1791. In the midst of famines, towns, afraid of food riots, lured the hungry poor to the gates with promises of bread and then expelled them, barring the gates against them. Death rates due to famines were high; between a quarter and a half of the Finnish population died in the famine of 1696–97. In 1662 the Electors of Burgundy sent a letter to the king charging that the famine had killed ten thousand families there and forced a third of the inhabitants to live on grass. Another chronicler of that same famine reported incidents of cannibalism. See Braudel, Fernand, The Structures of Everyday Life. trans. Reynolds, Sian (New York: Harper and Row, 1981), 7178.Google Scholar

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7 The population numbers I will use come from the Population Reference Bureau's 2000 World Population Data Sheet, available at The Population Reference Bureau Homepage, I use them for two reasons; they offer the most complete set of population information for every nation of the world, and their figures for total fertility rates and rate of population growth are the lowest, and therefore the most optimistic, I could find. I do not want to aid those who would dismiss this argument by claiming that I have used alarmist statistics. In fact I think some of PRB's total fertility rates are impossibly low. The PRB figure of total fertility rate for the U.S., for example, is 2.0 children per woman, while the Census Bureau shows a U.S. population increase of 2 million a year, with 1, 450,000 from natural increase and 550,000 from immigration, legal and illegal. With the population bump of baby boomers largely past reproduction, we should not have any population growth with a 2.0 rate; 2.1 is usually used as the replacement rate at which point there is no growth.

8 Sherbinin, Alex De, Population and Consumption Issues for Environmentalists (New York: Population Reference Bureau/Pew Global Stewardship Initiative, October 1993), 9.Google Scholar

9 The Population Reference Bureau Homepage (PRB), 1 March 2001; United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 1994 Revision (New York: United Nations, 1994).Google Scholar

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19 This was repeated again by Germain, Adrienne and Kyte, Rachel, The Cairo Consensus: The Right Agenda for the Right Time (New York: International Women's Health Coalition, 1995), 6.Google Scholar

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21 “New Perspectives on Population,” 28–29.

22 Fertility has been found to be highest among those women who have had less than four years of schooling. See Böckle, Franz, Hemmer, Hans-Rimbert and Kotter, Herbert, Poverty and Demographic Trends in the Third World (Bonn: German Bishop's Conference, 1991), 16.Google Scholar

23 Heyzer, Noeleen, “Strengthening Women's Livelihoods,” Earth Ethics (Spring/Summer 1996): 2930.Google Scholar Heyzer points out that women are not only especially disadvantaged economically around the globe, but their employment and their health are both more dependent upon the health of the local environment than those of men.

24 United Nations, Report of the ICPD, 6.4; “New Perspectives on Population,” 18–19.

25 Lewis, Paul, “Rift in Effort to Curb Births With Rights for Women,” The New York Times, 11 April 1999, p. 1.Google Scholar

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27 This includes only biological children, and neither the dozen adopted children nor the six stepchildren.

28 The PRB Homepage, 1 March 2001.

29 Shelton, A.M., Tang, J.D., Roush, R.T., Metz, T.D., and Earle, E.D., “Field Tests on Managing Resistance to Bt-Engineered Plants,” Nature Biotechnology 18/3 (March 2000): 339442CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Judelson, H.S. and Roberts, S., “Multiple Loci Determining Insensitivity to Phenylamide Fungicides in Phytohthora Infestans,” Phytopathology 89/9 (September 1999): 754–60CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Rossi, E. and Rainaldi, G., “Induction of Malathion Resistance in CCE/CCI28 Cell Line of Mediterranean Fruit Fly,” Cytotechnology 34/1–2 (October 2000): 1115.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

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34 National Geographic Society, Population and Resources Supplement (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1998).Google Scholar

36 Regarding limitations on the IPAT formula, see Orians, Carolyn E. and Skumanich, Marina. The Population–Environment Connection (Seattle: The Batelle Seattle Research Center, 1993), 22.Google Scholar

37 Other sources say over fifty billion tons, but this figure is an aggregate of continents' emissions rates times population from the Population and Resources figures from National Geographic.

38 The study of ancient ice cores of Antartica illustrates the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere as well as the Global Mean Annual Temperature for each of the last 160,000 years. The finding was that fluctuations in one mirror fluctuations in the other. Levels of CO2 and temperature have been increasing steadily since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. But the present rates are much greater than ever before, and accelerating. Since 1850, the average concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased from 280 to 360 parts per billion. Thus the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change formed by the U.N. in 1987 had decided by 1995 that there is discernible human influence on global climate. Based on this, the nations of the world gathered in Japan in 1997 and negotiated the Kyoto Protocol, which would oblige every developed nation to reduce its CO2 output to below 1990 levels by 2008–12 (the U.S. to 7% below, the E.U. to 8% below, and Japan to 6% below the 1990 levels.) Thus far, seventy three nations have signed, including the U.S. But to take effect, at least 55% of the nations (in present polluter percents) must ratify, and the only nations to ratify have been Fiji, Tuvalu, and Trinidad and Tobago. See The Woods Hole Research Center, “The Warming of the Earth,” 1 March 2001 warming; also see Sherbinin, De, Population and Consumption, 7Google Scholar and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Report to the Fifth Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework on Climate Change,” presented by IPCC, New York, 20 February 1992 (updated from 1990); Kerr, Richard A., “Greenhouse Science Survives Sceptics,” Science 256 (May 1992): 1138–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar The March 2001 decision of the Bush administration to renege on his campaign promise to regulate CO2 emissions makes Kyoto a dead letter.

39 Bongaarts, John P., “Population Growth and Global Warming,” Population Council Working Paper 37 (1992).Google Scholar

40 Union of Concerned Scientists, Stratospheric Ozone Depletion (Cambridge: Union of Concerned Scientists, 1991), 1.Google Scholar

41 World Resources Institute, 1992, quoted by Sherbinin, De, Population and Consumption, 4.Google Scholar

42 Sherbinin, De, Population and Consumption, 12Google Scholar; Ryan, John C., Life Support: Conserving Biological Diversity, (Washington, D.C.: Worldwatch Insititute, 1992).Google Scholar

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45 Harrison, Paul, The Third Revolution: Environment, Population and a Sustainable World (New York: I.B. Tauris, 1992).Google Scholar

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49 Werner Fornos, “Foreign Operations, Export Financing… Appropriations for 1994” (Part 3). Hearing. U.S. House. Committee on Appropriations (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1993) FactSearch/FirstSearch.

50 Kolsrud, Gretchen and Torrey, Barbara Boyle, “The Importance of Population Growth in Future Commercial Energy Consumption,” in White, J.C., ed., Global Climate Change (New York: Plenum Press, 1992).Google Scholar

51 Sherbinin, De, Population and Consumption, 18.Google Scholar

52 “People Count” (video), Pew Global Stewardship Initiative/Koch TV, 1993.

53 Global Tomorrow Coalition, “Oceans and Coastal Resources,” in The Global Ecology Handbook (Boston: Beacon, 1990), 135–44.Google Scholar

54 Sherbinin, De, Population and Consumption, 22.Google Scholar

55 Firestone, David, “Lingering Hazards Cover Carolina's Sea of Trouble,” New York Times, 22 September 1999, p. A22Google Scholar; Dean, Cornelia, “Hurricane Floyd: Growth and Govt Collude in Creating a Hazard,” New York Times, 16 September 1999, p. A27.Google Scholar

56 National Public Radio, Morning Edition, 22 October 1999.

57 This does not mean that deaf or deafmute people cannot be good parents; virtually all have language and teach it to their children.

58 All scripture references are to the New Revised Standard Version.

59 Paul VI, “Populorum Progressio,” and Paul, John II, “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,” in O'Brien, David J. and Shannon, Thomas A., eds., Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1992): 240–62, 395–436.Google Scholar

60 See Hartmann, Betsy, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control (Boston: South End, 1995).Google Scholar

61 For further treatment of reproductive coercion in terms of Christian ethics, see Bratton, Susan Power, Six Billion and More: Human Population Regulation and Christian Ethics (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).Google Scholar

62 See chapter 3 of my Victimization: Examining Christian Complicity (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992).

63 Boswell, John, The Kindness of Strangers;The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from LateAntiquity to the Renaissance (New York: Vintage, 1988).Google Scholar

64 Kertzer, David I., Sacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control (Boston: Beacon, 1993), 10.Google Scholar

65 Clark, Elizabeth and Richardson, Herbert, Women and Religion: A Feminist Source-book of Christian Thought (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 79.Google Scholar

66 Leo I, Sermon 22, in Schaff, Philip, ed., A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church Vol. 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 131.Google Scholar

67 Innocent, III, De Miseria Humanae Conditionis, ed. Howard, D.R. (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969), 89.Google Scholar

68 Jerome, , Epistles 54:4Google Scholar; Adv. Jovinian 1:41–47. On the other hand, while religious such as Jerome paint the most dismal picture of children and married life in general, dismissing any reasons for desiring children, they assume that parents do love their children when they praise the sacrifice of parents who have left children to pursue the religious life. E.g., when Jerome praised his friend, the Roman matron Paula, who followed him to Jerusalem where she founded a monastery for women, he admiringly described how, as her ship departed from Ostia, her infant son, Toxinius, stretches out his arms for her, and her older daughter Rufina sobs at his side while Paula, “overcoming her love for her children with her love of God” sails out to sea with never a backward glance. See Ruether, Rosemary R., “Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church,” in Ruether, Rosemary R., ed., Religion and Sexism (New York: Simon and Schuster: 1974), 174–76.Google Scholar

69 In sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s it remains high—one in every ten children dies in its first year. See United Nations, Report of the ICPD, #8, 12.

70 Johanssen, , “The Moral Imperatives of Christian Marriage,” 135–54.Google Scholar

71 Dally, Ann, Inventing Motherhood: The Consequences of an Ideal (New York: Schocken, 1982), 41.Google Scholar

72 Individual pastors did not invent this understanding of this world as a place of suffering and testing for the better world to come. Leo XIII, for example, wrote in “Rerum Novarum,” “As regards bodily labor, even had man never fallen from the state of innocence, he would not have been wholly unoccupied; but that which would have been then his free choice, his delight, became afterwards compulsory, and the painful expiation of his sin. ‘Cursed be the earth in thy work, in thy labor thou shalt eat of it all the days of thy life’ (Gn 3:17) In like manner, the other pains and hardships of life will have no end or cessation on this earth; for the consequences of sin are bitter and hard to bear, and they must be with man as long as life lasts. To suffer and endure, therefore, is the lot of humanity; let men try as they may, no strength and no artifice will ever succeed in banishing from human life the ills and troubles which beset it.” (Leo XIII, “Rerum Novarum,” # 14, in O'Brien, and Shannon, , eds., Catholic Social Thought, 20Google Scholar).

73 See Chapter 11 on Luther and the Protestant Reformation in Clark, and Richardson, , Women and Religion, 131–48.Google Scholar

74 Kertzer, Religion, Sacrificed for Honor, 173–74.Google Scholar Note that the primary method of birth control was withdrawal, with condoms, herbal potions and abortion much less widespread.

75 Harrison, Beverly W., “The Effects of Industrialization on the Role of Women in Society,” in her Making the Connections, ed. Robb, Carol (Boston: Beacon, 1985), 4253.Google Scholar

77 See Dally, Inventing Motherhood, chapter 1.

78 Most of contemporary concern for linguistic and symbolic change deals with this situation, where the language or ritual has lost symbolic power, as e.g., in O'Leary's, JosephOvercoming the Nicene Creed,” Cross Currents 34/4 (1984): 405–13.Google Scholar With birth/fertility the problem is not the loss of symbolic or ritual power, but the consequences of that power.

79 See Merchant, Carolyn, The Death of Nature (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980)Google Scholar, chapters 7–8. Note that the Christian justification for understanding nature as soulless—contrary to earlier Christian and pre-Christian views—was that it had been corrupted by the sin of Adam, and had in sin become hostile to humans and now must be coerced (by machines) to surrender its riches for the nurture of humans.

80 There is a justice problem in that one only has to look at which AIDS patients get drug treatments and which persons with organ failure get transplants on our earth to know that the poor peoples of the earth will not have equal access to gene surgery to extend their lives. This technology would resemble the currently discussed “opportunity” for space travel via NASA rockets which is being offered to the “civilian public”—those who can pay $7–8 million per ride.

81 See 1 Cor 6:19: “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit”; and 1 Cor 6:13: “the body is meant not for fornication, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”