From the macro to the micro last week, population experts got just about everything wrong.
Let's concede that sometime this year, the world's population is probably passing the 6 billion mark. Nobody knows that for sure, of course, since the experts also tell us they don't even know how to produce an accurate count of the people in a typical American city. And in any case, the population mark wasn't reached nearly as soon as the doomsday prophets like Paul Ehrlich said it was going to happen. For the last generation, he's been predicting this would happen early in the 1990s, not in the last quarter of 1999.
And they missed on the little stuff as well. In their zeal to dramatize the milestone, the experts and their media hacks repeatedly referred to a baby boy born at 12:02 a.m. on Oct. 12 in Sarajevo as the "official" 6 billionth person on the earth. What they really meant, of course, was that he was the "symbolic" 6 billionth person-precisely the opposite of "official." So they got that wrong too.
But that's exactly what ails these experts. They regularly act as if they know so much more than they really do.
The biggest surprise for many coming out of October's big turn of the population clock was the almost ho-hum announcement that a frighteningly uncontrollable world population is now miraculously almost under control. It took from the beginning of the human race until 1804 for the world's population to reach
1 billion. The second billion took another 123 years. Then we reached the third billion in 1960, the fourth in 1974, and the fifth just 13 years later in 1987. The sixth billion has taken only 12 years.
So aren't we about to sink the planet with people? Not so, say the experts. For now, they claim, the curve is turning around. The seventh billion, they think, will take 14 years to be born, the eighth billion 15 years more, the ninth 26 years after that, and the 10th billion a full 129 years after that! Some scenarios actually project a shrinking world population-a pattern right now in effect in modern countries like Germany, Greece, and Italy. Indeed, on a worldwide basis, a typical mother right now is bearing only three children during her lifetime as opposed to a figure of six less than a generation ago. Demographers tend to agree that between two and three children per mother is the figure close to that which will ultimately produce a stable population.
But the fact is, the experts really don't know for sure even what that basic statistic is. So many variables affect population that even the most sophisticated and complex models barely touch on future reality. The AIDS epidemic, for example, was a totally unknown factor less than a generation ago; now it has a profound impact.
In the face of such confusion, a biblical worldview brings to the population discussion three important perspectives:
First, God-centered thinking brings a cautious modesty and reverence to all projections. It is God who raises people up and sets nations down. His scheme is so much bigger than anything we could possibly reduce to a computer model. Nor dare we ultimately worry that He may have thoughtlessly built a home too small for the human race He planned to inhabit Planet Earth. Yes, our sinfulness has terribly skewed that plan. But God's people should be characterized by confidence that He has a blueprint that works over the long haul.
Second, God-centered thinking always sees children as a blessing rather than a problem. To be sure, an increasing population-whether within a nation or an individual family-produces new challenges. But in God's scheme of things, those challenges are always better than the alternative. A few dour grouches may see a no-growth world as a better place to live, but the only viable economic models known to the human mind are those that include a growing population. It's part of who we are.
Third, God-centered thinking takes into account the key role of biblical morality even in such a coldly analytical science as population projection. Some beginning-of-life and end-of-life issues tend to find evangelical Christians speaking with a single voice; they include abortion, AIDS, and euthanasia. The issue of contraception, however, remains perhaps the single biggest moral issue not to be seriously debated among evangelical Christians in our time. That is too bad, since contraception is almost certainly the most influential variable of all in the population equation. (Evangelical Christians shy away from the contraception discussion for at least two reasons: The issue is intensely private, and the stakes are very high. On the one hand, few of us want to give offense to our friends. On the other hand, while a majority of evangelical Christians have clearly become part of the modern contraceptive culture, few relish defending themselves against charges that they have joined a movement that sets aside lives God intended to populate His creation. So evangelicals apparently, even on so basic an issue, seem simply to agree to disagree.)
Two bits of popular wisdom seemed in order after last week's population milestone: Don't count your chickens until they've hatched. And remember not to holler "Wolf!" too often.