Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future

October 1 st 1990

Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1990, 282 pp., $14.78.

It is to the credit of the environmental movement that the deteriorating condition of the created order has been brought forcefully to our attention. The problem now is that environmentalism has become its own religion. It worships the idea of a pristine world in which man's effect on its purity is not evident. In working toward this goal, environmentalism has generally encouraged an anti-growth, sometimes anti-human, ethic. What we live in now is a time of diminished social and economic expectations in which environmentalism and the politics of social engineering carp unendingly about the dying earth and social problems which apparently can be solved only through strong and coercive state intervention in private affairs. Man is the author of his own salvation.

Calvin Beisner sets himself against the gloom and doom of these times. His goal is to remind us that God is sovereign over his creation and that he has given his regent, man, an inexhaustible abundance of everything he will need.

To encourage Christians not to be fainthearted, Beisner debunks a number of myths which currently provide the basic assumptions for environmentalists and social engineers, assumptions which have achieved wide-spread public acceptance without critical evaluation. One such informing myth is that the earth is overpopulated, that there are too many mouths to feed, too many unwanted children, and too many people who pollute the environment with their comings and goings. Those who accept this myth usually are the ones who also support population control through enforced limitations in family size (as China did with its unofficial infanticide) and abortion.

The author, in contrast, asserts that the earth is far from overpopulated. His contention, supported by extensive documentation and in agreement with a number of other responsible authors, is that the earth can support many multiples of its current population. He goes even further by saying that large and growing populations are indicators of health and small and diminishing populations the reverse. A diminishing population enriches the diminished remnant over the short term. Extended over the long haul, however, a decreasing supply of productive people merely impoverishes everybody.

In "Maithus Undone," Beisner notes that although Malthus's theories have been discredited thoroughly by events, his supporters remain. In a point-by-point critique of the cleric's dismal theories, Beisner shows that Malthus had underestimated man's astonishing ability to contribute to increasing the abundance around him so that, as his numbers grew, his food and other production would increase even more. Along with him, Malthus's current disciples are ignorant of the dynamics of economic growth and dismissive of the marvelous ingenuity and sheer creativeness of God's image bearers. We should all remember these characteristics of man as we contemplate our pollution problems. We too easily cry "Armageddon!"

The environmentalist fervently warns of almost-depleted resources. He would have us live increasingly rustic lives so that "mother earth" is not disturbed. Beisner, on the other hand, demonstrates that this myth too is not based on fact. Resources are not fixed and exhaustible. Rather "raw materials become resources only by the application of human ingenuity to them." This is a simple and profound truth frequently overlooked. Resources are not found; they are, in effect, created by man's creativity and ingenuity. As one resource becomes too expensive to extract or manufacture, another takes its place. When we forget this, we hasten to embrace a doomsday scenario that will do us more harm than good.

Beisner's treatment of these and other related topics neutralizes the acid of so much negative Malthusian posturing today that fancies itself thoughtful and prophetic. However, in fairness it can be said that Beisner misses the opportunity to show himself aware of the environmental movement's valid criticisms. Pollution certainly is a serious problem; and some parts of the world are overpopulated indeed when consideration is given to the region's ability to support them. Although he does not address himself to developing practical solutions to these problems, Beisner's Prospects for Growth establishes a thoroughly Christian understanding of creation and God's creation mandate to us. It is a welcome antidote to the unchristian theories that parade as truth and have captured so many Christians in their snares.


W. J. Douglas Ball is the secretary of the national board of the Christian Labour Association of Canada.