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Good News and Bad News

A recent CDC report has shown that the U.S. birth rate has reached its lowest point in a century. That’s the good news. The bad news, according to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is that not even a global catastrophe killing billions of people would do much to halt the environmental devastation wrought by a burgeoning human population.

Good news? Bad news? You may be wondering on whose side these scientists are, anyway. For centuries it was believed that the role of science was to further the interests in mankind. Advances in medicine, sanitation and agriculture have led to astonishing improvements in lifespan and quality of life for people around the globe. Fewer women are dying in childbirth. More children are surviving infancy and childhood. Fewer people are dying of starvation and disease.

The above all sounds like news to be applauded, not lamented. However, now scientists are discovering that there is a downside to improved human survival. Turns out that these technological advancements exact a high environmental price. The growth of the human population is driven by a generous supply of fossil fuels—which are non-renewable and contribute to pollution and global warming. Furthermore, the rapidly expanding population encroaches on animal territory and disrupts fragile ecosystems.

So, what is the answer? Forget a massive human die-off. As horrific as it is to even entertain the thought as a possible “solution” to a greater problem, scientists themselves have concluded that it is unlikely to solve the problem. Voluntary curbing of reproduction, limiting ourselves to one or two children at the most? Or worse—forced limits on family size, a la China’s one-child policy? Neither seems to be the answer, considering that the United States is one of the least densely populated countries and one of the world’s leading consumers of fossil fuels. Only in the U.S. do we find families of two or three living in homes that could comfortably house 15. A large family living in a modest apartment, where children share clothes, toys and other belongings, may well cost the environment less than a two-child family that lives in a huge suburban home and buys only brand-new clothing.

From a Jewish perspective, where do we find the balance? Is our responsibility to the human population or to the ecosystem as a whole? The survival of the planet is not dependent on reducing the human population. Indeed, we are looking forward for the era of Moshiach, when, according to Maimonides (Mishneh Torah 12:8) “There will be no hunger, no war, no jealousy and no competition. All good things will be abundant, and all delicacies will be as freely available as dust. The sole occupation of the world will be to know G-d.” G-d will provide us with all the good things we need in abundance, and our values will shift from materialistic ones to spiritual—enabling us to settle peaceably on earth and enjoy both spiritual and physical well being.



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