Stewardship and Population Control

Stewardship is a concept that deals with man’s responsibility of properly utilizing and maintaining the Earth’s resources, including the environment. According to Block in his book, Stewardship, the idea of stewardship “begins with the willingness to be accountable for some larger body than ourselves” (qtd. in Maynard and Poole 243). A steward then is someone who works towards the greater good, for a society that aims to live harmoniously with its environment. In this context, stewardship also touches on the issue of ethical decision-making regarding ways of carrying out this human obligation.

For this paper, the innate connection between stewardship and population as it relates with sustainability is the main focus for analysis. The interaction between various moral and ethical agents that govern social relationships is also one of the major concerns in this field. How one can become a good steward while taking all these into account is a challenge, and is a good point of discussion.

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A steward is given the task of overseeing the sustainability of the man’s collective home, Earth, for the benefit of its inhabitants and for posterity. A steward should be committed to the planet’s future, as well as it’s present circumstances. According to John Elder in an article in Orion, “we must conceive of stewardship not simply as one individual’s practice, but rather as the mutual and intimate relationship, extending across the generations, between a human community and its place on earth” (qtd. in Mitchell and Diamant). This underscores the need for maintaining the planet’s sustainability, as well as conserving its current resources.

The Tri-Cities, Tennessee, consists of the region surrounding the cities of Kingsport, Johnson City, and Bristol. It’s been dubbed as an all-American city, one that espouses the typical, even ideal, setting that we expect for an American community. The area’s population was approximately 480,000 in 2000, hardly overpopulated in worldwide terms (U.S. Census Bureau). It’s easy to dismiss overpopulation as being an irrelevant facet of one’s existence, especially when one lives in one of the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. When the issue of overpopulation is raised, the first thing that comes to mind are poor, third world countries. After all, 90 percent of all humans being born every minute comes from there (Mckibben 55).

However, in terms of resource and energy consumption, the United States can be considered as the “most populous nation on Earth” (Mckibben 56). The US has also the highest growth rate in terms of consumption—one person in a developed country will “consume, waste and pollute“ more throughout his lifetime than 50 people in poor nations (Motavalli 24). An American, in particular, will use 70 times more energy than a Bangladeshi (Mckibben 56).   As such, the greatest responsibility of assuring the world’s sustainability rests on the hands of wealthier nations, such as the US.

The link between of population and sustainability is undeniable. The single greatest cause of the environment’s demise is the ever-rising demand for resources for supporting the growing human population (Hardaway 1187). Today, one child is born every one-third of a second (Hardaway 1188). The present population’s startling rate of growth and expansion means that the standard of living is increasing at a rate that many people, including future generations, may not keep up with.

According to environmental attorney Donald Brown in Daedalus, notwithstanding the environmental effects such as global warming and extreme weather conditions, the greatest consequence of the ever-increasing consumption of the world’s expanding population is the adverse impact on the health, food supplies and well-being of the world’s poorest people (Motavalli 26). About one-tenth of the world’s people are already suffering from malnutrition or starvation, still the rate population expansion is expected to increase over the next fifty years (Hardaway 1188). On this account, former US president Bill Clinton said on a speech to the United Nations, that “we humans are changing the global climate. . . . no nation can escape this danger. None can evade its responsibility to confront it, and we must all do our part” (qtd. in Mckibben 75).

In today’s context, the issues governing sustainability, population, and Earth’s resources are not strictly “environmental” issues. There is a great level of complexity when it comes to the connections between people and the beliefs/principles they hold. While most can agree that something must be done to curb the ever-expanding population there is a debate as to how this should be done.

The Catholic Church in particular, while recognizing that humans are contributing greatly to the adverse changes in the Earth’s environment and that necessary steps must be taken to limit the these negative effects (Motavalli 29), still does not allow any means of birth control other than abstinence. For them, contraception is considered unnatural, even immoral. Thirty years ago, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae, where he condemned all forms of artificial birth control and asserted that sexual intercourse is meant only for procreation. (Although it is interesting that Pope Paul’s encyclical itself affirmed the very human aspect of sex by its encouragement of using the rhythms of the menstrual cycle in birth control (Brown 25)). It shocked liberal Catholics and concerned others who desired for the Church to become “modernized” in its stand on contraception (Hardaway 1200). Protestants who advocated contraception did so under the restriction that it should only be done in marriage, and to plan but not to avoid children altogether. However, because of its popular advocation, contraception would extend beyond these restrictions and become part of every sector of the population (Brown 26). The Church’s rationale for its condemnation of artificial birth control smacks not of logical truth nor of coherence, but of old, tired, dogma.

Although, in its original context, the permissibility of artificial birth control did not include abortion, against which is argued the evil of murder, the sexual revolution that resulted in part due to the popularity of contraceptives made abortion less morally unpalatable to the population, where even a judge (Justice Harry A. Blackman) five years after this proposed that “population pressure” might be a good reason for permitting abortion (Brown 20). The Church’s failure to curb this “onslaught” of contraception is understandable in the face of the many advances in medicine, the sexual revolution, and of course the unwillingness of human will to “give itself up”. It has resulted in what is now common fare: high abortion rates, single mothers, STD’s, aging population of developed countries  (Brown 30).

On the local front, TRL Executive Director Brian Brian Harris, claims that the most Senate Democratic Caucus have radical pro-abortion votes and that “the majority of Tennesseans are pro-life” (qtd. in Hayes). In the state of Virginia, a debate is ensuing in the state’s family life education curriculum when state delegates wanted  the curriculum to describe abstinence as the “accepted norm” and “the only guarantee against unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases” (qtd. in Hopkins). These abstinence-based sex education classes coming from the Tennessee Department of Education are also being used in Kingsport (Tipton).

In the issue of population control, population expansion could be stabilized if governments supplied contraceptives and family planning services to every woman of child-bearing age, and any person who asks for it, for that matter (Hardaway 1205). Proper sex-education that deals with birth control methods and contraceptive use is also timely and appropriate. Teaching about contraceptives would not necessarily encourage sexual activity and one can only go so far by advocating abstinence because in reality, this is just not happening.

Today, given the link between population and environment sustainability, most environmental policies lack a population component (Hardaway 1201). Integrating the population in to current environmental policies with issues that encompass the areas of birth control, family planning, abortion, and the like should be considered as viable solutions for developing a long-range population control plan. Fostering public education and awareness of the issue is also a big factor in determining how this fight for sustainability turns out.

As a new millennium starts, there is an ever-increasing emphasis on building a solid, long-term plan for population control. If population expansion can be kept under control, the damage to world that all men were born into can be limited. Ultimately this agenda has to be advanced by the community at the grassroots level. How certain issues such as contraception and birth control are regarded and analyzed will also be relevant on how the problem can be solved. In the quest for stewardship and sustainability, mankind, as a society, is challenged to resolve conflicts and contra-dictions on many different levels—how the balance between ethical concerns and what will work best is attained will be a real challenge. But through hard work and a deeper awareness of the issue, man can be able to fulfill his duty as a responsible steward of the Earth.