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.”
© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]
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