The People Problem

The life work of Norman Borlaug, who died shortly before Rosh Hashana at the age of 95, should give deep pause to those who see humans as a threat to the planet.

Those, that is, like Dr. Borlaug’s fellow scientist Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 book “The Population Bomb” predicted worldwide famine within twenty years as a result of rising birth rates and limited resources. Hundreds of thousands of people, Dr. Ehrlich soberly prophesied, would starve to death by 1988. He compared the “population explosion” –he coined the phrase – to the uncontrolled growth of cancer cells in a body, and advocated the “radical surgery” of compulsory birth control, in the form of spiking the world water supply with sterilizing chemicals.

Over ensuing years, Dr. Ehrlich’s prediction was embraced by legions of scientists, intellectuals and population-control advocates across the United States and Europe.

All the while, Dr. Borlaug, a plant scientist, quietly continued his work of decades experimenting with grain varieties, eventually developing strains of wheat and rice that raised food yields by as much as 600%.

That achievement revolutionized modern agriculture, allowing a country like India, for example, whose population grew from 500 million in the 1960s to 1.16 billion today, to achieve food self-sufficiency. Largely as a result of Borlaug’s “Green Revolution,” our world today experiences famines as, in the Wall Street Journal’s words, “politically induced events, not true natural disasters.”

Strangely, when it comes to the growth of the human population, the sky, in one way or another, seems always to be falling. Ehrlich was the 1960s’ Chicken Little. Today’s panicked poultry point to the planet’s rising temperature to indict the human race anew.
A recent London School of Economics study, for instance, projected that increased “family planning” would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 34 gigatons over the next 40 years, inspiring a New York Times environmental-issues weblog to propose, as a “thought experiment,” the notion of “baby avoidance carbon credits.”

I’m not qualified to take a side in the debate over global warming. Many scientists foresee worldwide disaster if carbon emissions are not greatly reduced; others deny that any human effort can stave off the inevitable; and others still consider the entire doomsday scenario an example of mass hysteria, contending that global warming is either unaffected by human activity or that it will have no dire consequences.

But amid all the claims and – forgive me – overheated rhetoric, it is worthwhile to keep Norman Borlaug and his accomplishments in mind. To remember, that is, that human ingenuity (assisted, surely, by inspiration from Above) often can overcome even seemingly intractable challenges. (We might also mull the notion that, had “The Population Bomb” been published a few decades before it was, Dr. Borlaug’s parents might have been persuaded not to have him.)

Jews the world over have now begun the yearly cycle of synagogue Torah-reading anew. In the first portion of Genesis, the world is created, the first man formed, and the former is entrusted by G-d to the latter. To be sure, Adam, and we, his descendants, are forbidden to wantonly destroy nature. But we are also mandated, as per G-d’s command to the first man and woman, to “subjugate… all the land,” to press the earth’s natural resources into the service of the human race. Current cultural correctness about the environment – what the late author Michael Crichton called “the religion of choice for urban atheists” – sees the earth as fragile, and endangered by one of its species: the human. From an authentic Jewish perspective, though, while the biosphere’s complexity and beauty are sources of powerful inspiration, humans are no mere parts of Creation, but its pinnacle. Genesis, as understood by every authoritative commentary, describes the world as created for human beings to develop and use.

And to populate. Codified Jewish law very clearly favors human procreation. It is a theme not ignored by the Jewish Prophets either. Isaiah (45:18) declares that G-d “did not create it [the world] for emptiness” but rather “to be settled [by human beings] did He form it.” The Talmud, for its part, predicates the Messianic era on the births of “all the souls” destined to occupy human bodies (Yevamot 63b). The renowned Sefer HaChinuch considers the mitzvah, or commandment, to procreate as “the one that allows for [observance of] all the mitzvot in the world, for they are given to people, not angels.”

To be sure, were some humanity-threatening catastrophe both clear and present – and not merely distantly predicted by some – we would be required to take steps to meet the challenge. But forecasts of disaster like Dr. Ehrlich’s have come and gone countless times. Some turned out to have been based on error; in other cases, looming disasters were successfully averted by human creativity and Divine guidance.

Is global warming a clear and present danger or a pipe-nightmare? Is reducing our carbon footprints pointless or imperative? I don’t claim to know. What I do know, though, is that when would-be parents and their potential progeny are fingered as threats to the planet, the truly Jewish response is to recall that the Creator not only presented the world to Adam for his use but commanded and blessed him and Eve, in no uncertain terms, to be fruitful, multiply and “fill the earth.”


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.

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18 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Rabbi Shafran said, “Genesis, as understood by every authoritative commentary, describes the world as created for human beings to develop and use.”

    This includes the concept of proper stewardship of the earth by human beings.

    See, for example,

  2. Bob Miller says:

    However, I do not endorse the editorial comments that address “global warming” in the link I gave above. I included the link only for its collection of sources on the historical Jewish attitude toward the environment.

  3. tzippi says:

    Maybe there should be a link to a thoughtful article that appeared in Jewish Women’s Outlook some years ago called “Never Too Many.”

  4. yitznewton says:

    To balance out the notion of filling the earth and being “kovesh” it, we should also keep in mind Koheles Rabbah 7: “At the time when HKBH created the first man, He took him round all the trees of Gan Eden, and told him, “See My works, how beautiful and splendid they are; and everything I have created was on your account. Take care that you do not ruin and destroy My world; for if you destroy it, there will be no one to fix it after you…”

  5. another Nathan says:

    According to a very well accepted social science paradigm, it was the pressure of growing populations that led man to innovate, to design new ways of feeding himself. We used to hunt in the forests, then we herded animals, then raised crops, invented machines, urbanized…
    We were kicked out of Gan Eden not just as punishment, but to allow us to grow, to continue the work of creation.
    Dr. Borlaug epitomized the proper human response to problems.

  6. Albie says:

    Bob Miller and YitzNewton,

    When the Torah was read in shul this week, I noticed that Hashem’s commandment to Adam to guard the earth is not referring to the earth but to the Garden of Eden. There isn’t any such command after they were expelled from the garden. I think the Midrash you mention might also be referring to the garden.

    I don’t mean to say that we don’t have to take care of the earth. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. I only want to point out that your quotes may not have anything to do with the world we have.

  7. Phil says:

    Some might not know that Ehrlich’s dire predictions continued into the ’70, when he co-authored a book with John Holdren, who is President Obama’s “Science Czar.” Try john holdren ecoscience at Google.

  8. Bob Miller says:


    How can the earth ever become like the Garden if we don’t take care of it properly?

  9. Albie says:

    Bob Miller:

    With all due respect to Crosby, Stills, etc., there is only one Jewish way back to the garden — and it lies in our Torah and mitzvos, not (at least I don’ think) in ecology-awareness.

  10. Bob Miller says:


    Haven’t you noticed that there are mitzvos not to destroy, etc.? The only sound basis for ecology awareness is the Torah.

  11. Albie says:

    Bob Miller,

    I know it’s a sin to destroy a fruit tree but I don’t think we can generalize from that to say we can’t do things that might impact the environment. The Talmud, I think, talks about not annoying your neighbor with your oven’s smoke, but it doesn’t talk about any problem with discharging smoke into the air where it doesn’t hurt someone then and there. We might not realize how resilient the earth really is to our actions.

    And if you mean the general sin of “bal tashchit,” I was taught that the sin is to not “waste”, in other words to not destroy something for no reason. But destruction for a human use is not forbidden by Judaism, at least as I understand things. I’m not a scholar to know sources in halacha that talk about ecological impact, but I’ve never heard of any. If you have one, please help educate me.

  12. Bob Miller says:


    Check the Jewish sources referenced in the link I included in Comment 1 above.

  13. Albie says:

    Bob Miller,

    I did that, before I first posted. I didn’t find anything there really pertinent to the topic we’re dealing with. And the author at that link, while clearly a good and knowledgeable man, is not a posek. Without a clear halacha decision about ecological things, I think all we are doing is speculating about a Torah approach. All I’m saying is that we should be careful not to assume that we can generalize about what attitude Jews should take to things like global warming or saving the whales or whatever.

    But thank you for pointing us to that link, whether or not it gives us real direction on this topic.

  14. Bob Miller says:


    Looks like your own research is not ended yet. And if you want a posek’s take, ask some pertinent halachic questions to those most expert in this area.

  15. Albie says:


    If you mean halachic experts (who can discern whether laws in the Torah require changes in our lifestyles in light of predictions of ecological doom), then I’m with you. We should all ask.

    But if you mean experts in climate, they can make predictions but only a posek — not you or me — can take them into account and decide. Just like in medicine. A posek can get the facts (and even the opinions about a prognosis) from a doctor, but only the posek can give a halachic opinion with authority.

  16. Bob Miller says:

    Albie, I meant a posek with knowledge of the issues and access to specialists in the field.

  17. Miriam says:

    Albie: “When the Torah was read in shul this week, I noticed that Hashem’s commandment to Adam to guard the earth is not referring to the earth but to the Garden of Eden. There isn’t any such command after they were expelled from the garden.”

    But the language is about the “earth” not the “garden” – so if that’s your proof that we have no general environmental responsibility….

    A better proof is simply that all the ecological warnings are only guesses, as Rabbi Shafran says above.

    I wonder how much the ecological anti-procreation stance is a repeat of the Tower of Babel: G-d told Noah to procreate and fill the earth, yet the generation of the tower says they want to prevent their dispersion across the earth and instead give spiritual stature to mankind (“build a name”).

  18. Charlie Hall says:


    Thank you for that great link. And I agree with you that “excessive consumption…is…the chief cause of the warming of the atmosphere” is simplistic at best. But there is no doubt that the earth *has* gotten warmer.

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