Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Be Fruitful and Multiply

The Holy Bible, in the King James version, quotes the Lord God as saying “be fruitful and multiply” seven times (always in Genesis).  He speaks to the animals (Genesis 1:22), to the first male and female human beings even before they are named (Genesis 1:28), to Noah about animals (Genesis 8:17), to Noah and his sons (Genesis 9:1 & 9:7), to Abraham about Ishmael (Genesis 17:20), and finally to Jacob (Genesis 35:11).  God urges His line to “be fruitful and multiply;” but He is done urging it even before Moses rescues the children of Israel from Egypt.  Maybe He meant it as an eternal commandment (for everyone, for Jews), and maybe He didn’t.

Jonathan Swift believes that the poor, at least, should be fruitful and multiply.  In his “A Modest Proposal,” he advises the poor that their children can help them climb out of poverty – by selling them to the highest bidder, as servants or as meat (sic!).  But of course this is Swift at his bitterest and most satiric; he doesn’t really mean it.

Finally, in order to have a successful national retirement system, where able-bodied men and women all contribute a part of their wages into the retirement system for the elderly, the greater the number of young people there are, the easier it will be to help the large number of elderly to live with some dignity.  So, for the sake of Social Security, they should “be fruitful and multiply.”

But wait a minute!  Maybe we should examine the consequences of being so fruitful and multiplying so fast.  The world’s human population has been growing at 1.13% / year (not very fast at all) recently and there is no reason to suppose that that rate will fall.  At this rate, in 100 years, our population would be 21 billion, in 500 years it would be nearly 2 trillion, and in 1000 years 76 trillion humans.  Lest these numbers mean nothing to you non-mathematicians, our population density today is roughly 35 persons / square mile (of land mass, of course) or 800,000 square feet / person.

Time (years)
Total Population
Persons / square mile
Square feet / person
100 years @ 1.13%
500 years @ 1.13%
1000 years @ 1.13%

We should, of course, keep in mind that not all the land mass of the world is habitable by humans.  We need land for forests, for wild animals, for grazing, for agriculture, for public and private lawns; and, let’s face it, a lot of land is good for nothing.  Yes, we can pack 50,000 people into a 50 story building, but that is office space, not living space.  So, maybe 20% of the total land mass of planet Earth can be used for human habitation.  Which means: tough as those persons / square mile and square feet / person numbers are, reality is at least five times as tough!  For those of you who think that 500 years is a long time, consider that it is less than 1/100th of 1% as long as humans have walked on planet Earth (even for you Young Earth folks, it is still only 5% of our journey here).

An ever-increasing human population places increasing demands on all the planet’s finite resources.  It puts pressure on the finite land that we would build our homes on, pasture our cattle on, and grow our wheat on.  It puts pressure on the finite forests that supply us with wood to build our homes, paper to print our books and newspapers on, and oxygen to breath.  It puts pressure on the finite undeveloped wilderness that our wild animal cousins need to survive. It puts pressure on our finite supply of petroleum and natural gas and nuclear fuel, which we need for our automobiles, our air conditioning, and as reasons to go to war.  It puts pressure, finally, on our notions of elbow-room, and on our compassion, and on our patience with one another.

And scientists tell us that already we humans – most of whom are abysmally poor – are using 5 times as much of planetary resources as is replaced with annual growth.

Some scientists have suggested that humankind is traveling a path to its own extinction.  Unchecked population growth and technology are essential factors of all our environmental challenges.  We can’t stop using technology; we can only use it more wisely.  We can, however, control our population growth; whether we will is another question.

In a world where not Cancer, not Heart Disease, not War and not Famine, but Starvation is the biggest destroyer of innocent souls, we must seriously ask ourselves who God intended to be fruitful and multiply: those generations that He actually spoke to – more than 3,000 years ago – or all humanity to the end of time, or The End of Times.

* * * * *
“So, what does any of this have to do with politics or governance?”  Our national policy, as the policy of most industrial nations world-wide, encourages people to have children.  It does this by subsidizing them.  For example, our federal income tax gives the taxpayer an “exemption” for every family “dependent” (spouse, each child); the more children, the greater the total exemption.  This exemption ($4,000 per dependent in 2015) reduces your taxable income by that amount.  Welfare is similar: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) does grant a family an amount that varies with family size, but payouts are determined by each state.  I am not so irrational as to suggest that a $4000 exemption would be a major factor in a family’s decision to have another child.  But an exemption from tax does amount to encouragement, no matter how slight it is.  I do not even want the government of the people to be totally neutral in this question; I want them to actively discourage families from having more than one child.

My suggestion is simple enough for taxation or for welfare: a first child earns the family a full exemption (federal tax) per dependent child and a full stipend (TANF) per dependent child; the second child would wipe out the first exemption or stipend amount, resulting in no benefit at all; each successive child would cost the family one extra exemption or stipend per child (i.e., it would add to the family’s taxable income, thereby creating a higher tax bill).  Needless to say, this measure would not apply to families already begun, it would only apply to new families that are starting out with no children.  And the plan would be put off for five years to give folks a chance to get used to it.  The goal is to reduce the total human population slowly over time without imposing a real burden anywhere.

The biggest burden will be on those with religious scruples.  “Be fruitful and multiply.”  “Prevention and contraception are wrong.”  “Abortion is wrong.”  I offer no balm for these people; the goal of this program flies in the face of their religious beliefs, and there is no getting around it.  Except perhaps to say that they have no right to be subsidized for their larger family size by those who refrain from the same.  The fact that we have subsidized families until now is beside the point; until now, we had no sense that we needed to cut back on family size, but now we do, at a world-wide level.

And maybe we need to create an extra incentive for childless families.  In the world of the 21st century, “be fruitful and multiply” no longer applies.  I think God has spoken; we’re just not listening.

Please do not comment on this post.  I expect that 99+% of you will be horrified by this unusual idea whose time has not yet come and will not come for maybe more than a generation.  And do not debate me on the idea as there is nothing that you can tell me that I haven’t considered, and regretted.  The goal of this idea is not to make you a happier couple; the goal of this idea is to make our collective home – planet Earth – habitable for a million more years, while we still can.