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THREE’S A CROWD
All Scripture references are to the Anglicised New International
Version (NIV-UK) unless stated otherwise
‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.’
Genesis 1: 28
THE TIGER features prominently in oriental astrology and mythology. In Chinese culture this strong and fearless animal embodies power and agility. A century ago, few would have foreseen China’s overtaking Britain and Europe to become the second largest economy in the world. In the last thirty years the population of this eastern nation has boomed, and so has its national wealth. China by strength of numbers has become a modern economic tiger.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Europe and China each had a population of around 400 million. Today, with almost three times that number, China is the most populous nation. Its growth was a fundamental part of the Communist Party’s vision for prosperity. Chinese couples needed no incentive to have children, rather the reverse was true. In 1979, fearing famine and an overheated economy, Deng Xiaoping introduced the ‘One Child Policy’, a law which restricted families of the ethnic Han majority to a single offspring.
Less Is More
While Xiaoping rationed the family and braced China for austerity, Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy created food surpluses in staples such as beef, butter and milk. Today, Europe’s population is half the size of China’s. Limits on births did not stifle China’s growth, they simply moderated it.
Environmental groups in the West also feared the consequences of a high birth rate. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich, an American biologist, published The Population Bomb. Ehrlich concluded that the earth’s resources could not sustain the increasing numbers. He predicted an imminent global catastrophe and recommended birth control as a global policy, urging the developed nations to promote contraception, abortion and sterilisation in poor countries with high birth rates.
While Ehrlich’s prediction of a wasted earth remains unrealised, the population of the planet has swelled. The present generation of environmentalists still push for curbs on population, but add more science to their arguments. Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the first Earth Summit, held in Brazil in 1992, declared that either ‘we reduce our numbers voluntarily, or Nature will do it for us brutally’.[fn1]
Apocalyptic visions of the end of the world are not confined to ecologists. In the book of Revelation, St. John describes events of the last days:- ‘The time has come . . . for destroying those who destroy the earth’ (Revelation 11: 18). Though some interpret it as such, the vision given to John on Patmos was not intended as a warning of Divine wrath upon the environmentally unfriendly. Rather, the forecast destruction of the earth’s enemies seems to predict a change in dispensation, a period when God will actively prevent sin and its agencies from bringing final ruin on the human race.
In the Gospel of Matthew (24: 7) Jesus speaks plainly of the last days, warning His disciples of a coming time of trouble – the worst the world would ever experience:-
Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.
Some Christians expect these events to occur in a narrow space of time, a sudden cataclysm enveloping the world, and consider the change in climate as a sign of its imminence. The threatened disaster adds highly-charged emotion to the debate. Whether over-population, earthquakes or rising sea-levels, the allegorical end of the world prophesied by St. John has permeated and influenced Western thought outside of the church.
The first Europeans arrived in Greenland around A.D. 1000. A century later, Einar Sokkason made gifts of walrus ivory, hides and a polar bear to the King of Norway, and the settlement received its first bishop. By 1300 the colony was thriving and the Norse Greenlanders had established a system of agriculture and dairy farming much like the one they had left behind.
It is impossible to know definite numbers, but the scale and spread of buildings suggest a population of about 5,000. The greatest testimony to the vitality of this outpost of Christendom is found on the south-west tip of Greenland. The cathedral at Gardar was one of many church buildings in the Norse settlements. It was particularly grand, with an adjacent bell tower and ceremonial hall.[fn2] Growth of the settlement waned two hundred years after its heyday. By 1410, maritime trade between Greenland and Norway had ceased.
The English explorers, Martin Frobisher and John Davis, made several visits to Greenland between 1576 and 1587. When they went ashore there were no tall and fair Scandinavians to greet them. Instead they met only the native Inuit. The few remaining traces of the Vikings who had sailed to Greenland six centuries before were the deserted stone buildings of two settlements.
The name of Greenland implies a verdant and vital continent – a stark contrast to the reality of the country’s ice-capped interior. The land was named so, after early sailors spied stretches of wooded meadows on Greenland’s southern coast. These oases of green give a clue to the disappearance of the settlers.
The grassy bays where the Norse settled belied the frozen hinterland, giving an illusion of abundant natural resources. The remains of turf buildings at the Greenland settlements indicate a scarcity of trees. After the few remaining trees were removed, the cutting of turf for houses exposed the soil to erosion, reducing pasturage for livestock, and condemning the settlement to terminal decline. In hindsight, this outcome should have been expected.
Living on the edge of an icy wasteland, beyond their resources, European life on the Greenland coast was unsustainable. The final cause of the collapse is unknown, but the trends are clear – failure to adapt to the environment, worsening climate and an end of European trade. As the winters grew colder and harvests failed, with no ships bringing vital supplies to Greenland’s shores, the families and settlers would have become tense and fearful. Archaeological finds among the Norse dwellings suggest the last few families starved to death. Did the congregations in these far northern churches see their fate in the prophesied end times? (Matthew 24: 7-21.)
A handful of similar tales from different ages exemplify how man lives and dies by his relation to the environment. Long before Ehrlich, the economist and clergyman, Thomas Malthus, published in 1878 his Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus predicted that the human race would reproduce at a rate faster than could be supported by increases in food production. For a time his theory seemed to be vindicated by the loss of life during the Irish potato famine of 1845-1849.
The conclusion common to Malthus, Ehrlich and the modern ‘green’ movement is widely accepted – that should mankind continue to exploit the earth’s resources, disaster will follow. Business leaders and politicians strive to balance the consumption of oil, coal and timber with the drive of the free market, which demands ever more supplies.
In mankind’s happy dawn, God issued a mandate to fill the earth (Genesis 1: 28): -
God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’
In October 2011, the child-rights group, Plan International, marked the (nominal) seven billionth birth.[fn3] A joyous day for the parents, perhaps, but an occasion that troubled the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. Remarking on the global situation he said: ‘Plenty of food but one billion people go hungry. Lavish lifestyles for a few but poverty for too many others.’
Not everyone can be rich. The high standard of living in the West, to which poorer people aspire, is made possible by the essential price difference between the rich and the poor nations. Inequality is inherent in the market – global corporations make their profits buying in cheap markets and selling in dear ones. To balance the earth’s resources and to feed every mouth, is a colossal – and impossible – task.
Some put their faith in economic and regulatory forces to adjust matters, but the Christian can only depend on Divine intervention to avert global disaster. God has promised to make His ‘footstool’ glorious (Isaiah 60: 13). He will not allow life to perish off the face of the earth, but has promised a time of refreshing, of restitution, a return of the earth to Edenic prosperity (Acts 3: 19-21).
Citations to Web pages are correct as of the dates retrieved, but sites may expire or be moved.
fn1] Representatives of member governments attended the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), in Rio de Janeiro, June 1992. Sustainable development was high on the agenda. The 2012 UN conference promotes population control as a means of securing world economic stability. An overview of the conference is available here:
< http://www.uncsd2012.org/rio20/index.php?page=view&type=510&nr=141&menu=20 > (retrieved 22 July 2012) (Link Broken) 2013
[fn2] Jared Diamond, Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive
(London: Penguin, 2006), p. 244.
[fn3] Several studies put the world’s population at seven billion in 2011. No method can calculate the figure accurately, as the real number may be tens of millions either side of this. The total world population is very often asserted to make a political statement – that there is an organisation with global reach monitoring the trend and that, having measured it, desires some influence over it.
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