The Myth of Overpopulation
by Drutakarma Dasa
“According to the Vedas, population experts are wrong in their crucial assumption that earth cannot supply the needs of a large population. If people are God conscious, there is virtually no limit to the population the earth can comfortably support.”
One of the myths most strongly entrenched in the modern mind is that birth control is necessary because of the threat of overpopulation. But His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada has stated: “There is no scarcity for maintenance in the material world.” According to Srila Prabhupada, human society’s leadership “is disturbed about the food situation and, to cover up the real fact of administrative mismanagement, takes shelter in the plea that the population is excessively increasing” (Bhag. 3.5.5, purport).
The world is far from being overpopulated. A simple calculation shows that all five billion men, women, and children on earth could be placed within the 267,339 square miles of the state of Texas, with each person occupying about fifteen hundred square feet of space.
But what about food? A study by the University of California’s Division of Agricultural Science shows that by practicing the best agricultural methods now in use, the world’s farmers could raise enough food to provide an American style diet for ten times the present population. And if people would be satisfied with an equally nourishing but mostly vegetarian diet, we could feed thirty times the present population.
Studies of an African famine in the early 1970’srevealed that every country affected had within its borders the agricultural resources to feed its people. As Frances Moore Lappe points out in her well-researched book Food First, much of the best land was being misused for production of exportable cash crops.
Srila Prabhupada also noted this fact. During a visit to Mauritius in 1975, in a lecture attended by some of the nation’s leading citizens, he stated, “So I see in your Mauritius island you have got enough land to produce food grains.” He then challenged, “I understand that instead of growing food grains you are growing sugarcane for exporting. Why? You first of all grow your own eatables, and if there is time and if your population has sufficient food grains, then you can try to grow other fruits and vegetables for exporting.”
Srila Prabhupada went on to say, “I have traveled to Africa, Australia, and America, and everywhere there is so much land vacant. If we use it to produce food grains, then we can feed ten times as much population as at the present moment. There is no question of scarcity. The whole creation is so made by Krishna that everything is purnam, complete.”
Food resources are also wasted by improper diets. During his lecture in Mauritius, Srila Prabhupada said, “I have seen in the Western countries that they are growing food grains for the animals, and the food grains are eaten by the animals, and the animal is eaten by the man.... What are the statistics? The animals are eating food grains, but the same amount of food grains can be eaten by so many men.”
Such statistics do exist. Government figures show that about ninety percent of the edible grains harvested in the United States are fed to animals that are later killed for meat. But for every sixteen pounds of grain fed to beef cattle, only one pound of meat is produced.
Srila Prabhupada concluded, “If there were one government on the surface of the earth to handle the distribution of grain, there would be no question of scarcity, no necessity to open slaughterhouses, and no need to present false theories about overpopulation” (Bhag. 4.17.25, purport).
The first person to sound the overpopulation alarm was the English economist Malthus (1766-1834), who calculated that population tends to increase much faster than the earth’s limited food supply. New farmland, of which there is only so much, said Malthus, can be brought into production only slowly and with great labor and careful planning, whereas—because of the constant pressure of sex desire—people will have as many children as they are able, unless they are checked. Therefore the population is almost always pushing the limit of available food, and suffering results. Malthus summarized this with his maxim that food production increases arithmetically, while population increases geometrically.
“That population has this constant tendency to increase beyond the means of subsistence,” states Malthus “… will sufficiently appear from a review of the different states of society in which man has existed.” But according to the Vedic viewpoint, the earth can produce an almost unlimited amount of life’s necessities. Restriction occurs not from overpopulation but from some other cause, namely the self-destructive attitudes and actions of the planet’s population.
The science of ecology has awakened us to a greater appreciation of how different organisms and natural resources are linked in complex interdependency, and how easily this interdependency can be disturbed—as in the case of acid rain, for example. While doing research for NASA, scientist Jim Lovelock concluded that the “earth’s living matter, air, oceans, and land surface form a complex system which can be seen as a single organism and which has the capacity to keep our planet a fit place for life.” He calls his hypothesis the “Gaia principle,” after the Greek goddess of the earth.
Lovelock himself, adhering to the principles of materialistic science, does not believe in a personified earth deity. But he does point out, “The concept of Mother Earth, or, as the Greeks called her long ago, Gaia, has been widely held throughout history and has been the basis of a belief which still coexists with the great religions.” The Vedic scriptures clearly state that the earth is the visible form of the goddess Bhumi, who restricts or increases her production according to the population’s level of spiritual consciousness.
“Therefore,” states Srila Prabhupada, “although there may be a great increase in population on the surface of the earth, if the people are exactly in line with God consciousness and are not miscreants, such a burden on the earth is a source of pleasure for her” (Bhag. 3.3.14, purport).
So according to the Vedas, Malthus and later population experts are wrong in n their crucial assumption that earth cannot supply the needs of a large population. If people are God conscious, there is virtually no limit to the population the earth can comfortably support.
Nevertheless, Malthus did have some valuable points to make about population control. He believed that the best solution was voluntary restraint from marriage—without “vice,” by which he meant any kind. of illicit sex whatsoever. Malthus specifically opposed free sex, which relies on abortion and contraception for population control. “A promiscuous intercourse to such a degree as to prevent the birth of children,” he warned, “seems to lower, in the most marked manner, the dignity of human nature.... When a general corruption of morals, with regard to the sex, pervades all classes of society, its effects must necessarily be to poison the springs of domestic happiness, to weaken conjugal and parental affection, and to lessen the united exertions and ardour of parents in the care and education of their children.”
The dangers Malthus warned of have come to pass. Divorce, teenage suicide, child abuse, sex crimes—all are on the rise. Neglected children from broken homes fill the courts. In the face of the dangers from herpes, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases, many people—often out of fear for their lives—are limiting their promiscuity. In Africa, where in some countries promiscuity is rampant, far more people face death from AIDS than from starvation.
In his study of population in different parts of the world, Malthus took special note of India, where the process of moral restraint is recommended in the Vedic scriptures such as the Manu-samhita, the laws compiled by Manu, the forefather of mankind. Malthus noted, “In almost every part of the ordinances of Manu, sensuality of all kinds is strongly reprobated, and chastity inculcated as a religious duty.” Srila Prabhupada states, “We do not find in Vedic literatures that they ever used contraceptive methods.... The contraceptive method should be restraint in sex life.... If one is fortunate enough to have a good, conscientious wife, he can decide by mutual consultation that human life is meant for advancing in Krishna consciousness and not for begetting a large number of children” (Bhag. 4.27.6, purport).
Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), a principal organizer of the modern birth control movement, once visited Gandhi in India and tried to persuade him to support a birth control program for his country. “He agreed,” wrote Sanger, “that no more than three or four children should be born to a family, but insisted that intercourse, therefore, should be restricted for the entire married life of the couple to three or four occasions.”
Sanger and her followers had more success with people of other religious backgrounds. The wives of some American Episcopal bishops once asked Sanger to convince their husbands about the necessity for legalized birth control. Sanger complied, and soon thereafter the bishops reversed their previous opposition. Although most Protestant and Jewish denominations approve birth control, the Catholic Church continues to oppose it. Despite much opposition from the laity—and some clergymen as well—the pope has maintained that sex other than for conception is sinful. Nevertheless, the Church still allows sex during the socalled safe period, as well as after menopause and for sterile persons. That contradiction is not present in the Krishna consciousness movement—non-procreative sex is against the Vedic principles.
Sanger had strong emotional reasons for her birth control crusade. She once saw a woman die in childbirth and resolved “to do something to change the destiny of mothers whose miseries were as vast as the sky.” That is certainly a noble aspiration, but the means chosen by Sanger will not give the result she desired. They can only insure more suffering.
Sanger believed that “women should free themselves from biological slavery, which could best be accomplished through birth control.” The Vedas, however, reveal our actual enslavement: every one of us—male or female—is caught up in the endless cycle of birth and death. Our real identity is that we are eternal spirit souls, now encaged in temporary material bodies subject to various miseries and the destructive influence of time. We are transmigrating from one material body to another, lifetime after painful lifetime.
Is reincarnation just a belief? According to the Vedas, it is a fact each of us must face. Even Western science has turned up evidence (in research into out- of-body experiences and memories of past lives) that strongly suggests there is a conscious part of us that survives the death experience. We return, the Vedas explain, to suffer the reactions to the activities we performed in our previous life.
Srila Prabhupada therefore warns, “Illicit sex creates pregnancies, and these unwanted pregnancies lead to abortion. Those involved become implicated in these sins, so much so that they are punished in the same way the nextlife. Thus in the next life they also enter the womb of a mother and are killed in the same way” (Bhag. 5.4.9, purport).
Because the soul is eternal, the soul denied birth by contraception and abortion does not die; he simply enters into another womb. Birth control is thus a total failure because it doesn’t prevent birth. It only brings suffering for everyone involved. To protect ourselves from the harsh reactions to illicit sex, the Vedic literature proposes sexual restraint.
Margaret Sanger, and others who have followed her in the population control movement, believed that such voluntary restraint is impossible. In her autobiography Sanger quotes Baron Dawson of Penn, the court physician of Edward VII and George V, who in a speech at a congress of the Anglican Church answered the proposition by the Anglican bishops that sexual activity should be restricted to that necessary for procreation. “Imagine a young married couple in love with each other,” said Dawson, “being expected to occupy the same room and to abstain for two years. The thing is preposterous. You might as well put water by the side of a man suffering from thirst and tell him not to drink it.”
But what if, besides the waterpot, there were a pot of divine nectar? By drinking the nectar, the man could abstain from drinking the water and yet become relieved not only of his thirst but of all his suffering and experience a superior pleasure. In other words, if one experiences the superior pleasure of spiritual life, one can forego the lower pleasure of sex.
Commenting on a Srimad-Bhagavatam description of the spiritual world, Srila Prabhupada points out: “The men are so absorbed in Krishna consciousness that the beautiful bodies of the women cannot attract them. In other words, there is enjoyment of the association of the opposite sex, but there is no sexual relationship. The residents of Vaikuntha have a better standard of pleasure, so there is no need of sex pleasure” (Bhag. 3.15.20, purport).
Because people have generally not experienced such higher pleasure, they must be attached to sexual pleasure, especially since we live in a culture where everyone is exposed to intense sexual propaganda. The Vedic civilization, however, strongly emphasizes brahmacarya, or celibacy, and formerly every child was expected to spend the first twenty or so years of life as a celibate student of the spiritual science of God consciousness.
This celibacy was not, however, a denial of the individual’s innate desire for pleasure. Rather, giving up the lower pleasures of the sexual urge was merely a precondition for experiencing the higher, transcendental pleasures of the soul’s spiritual love for God, who is known as Krishna, the reservoir of all pleasure.
In an atmosphere of sexual license, pregnancy is often regarded as an unwanted by-product that greatly decreases the value of sexual pleasure. The remedy that Sanger and her followers favored was contraception, rather than abortion. Sanger felt that abortion is violent, whereas contraception is somehow different. But contraception is simply a less obvious act of violence. Most contraceptive methods work on the principle of making the womb uninhabitable, by physical or chemical means, for the fertilized egg. This is actually another type of murder, operating at an earlier stage than abortion, because even at this very early stage, according to the Vedas, the soul has already been introduced into the egg.
Other methods of contraception aim at stopping either the sperm or egg from reaching the point of conception. But whether the method involves obstruction or destruction, the result is the same. “Contraception deteriorates the womb so that it no longer is a good place for the soul,” warns Srila Prabhupada.
“That is against the order of God. By the order of God, a soul is sent to a particular womb, but by this contraceptive he is denied that womb and has to be placed in another. That is disobedience to the Supreme. For example, take a man who is supposed to live in a particular apartment. If the situation there is so disturbed that he cannot enter the apartment, then he is put at a great disadvantage. That is illegal interference and is punishable” (The Science of Self-Realization, pp. 49-50).
Such methods of birth control are now prominent all over the world. Reversing this situation is going to be a difficult battle, but important skirmishes are already being won. All around the world, thousands of married couples have adopted the Krishna conscious principle of voluntarily restraining from sex except for procreation, and many more thousands of single men and women have opted for total celibacy, either permanently or until they marry.
The Vedic system of birth control does not mean no sex and fewer people, but sex according to spiritual principles—and better people, be they few or many. In this regard, Malthus made a point worth noting: “I have never considered any possible increase of population as an evil, except as far as it might increase the proportion of vice and misery.” If the increasing population is of good character, there will naturally be a desirable decrease in vice and misery.
But how do we insure good population? According to the Vedas, the consciousness of the parents at the time of conception determines the quality of the child. Srila Prabhupada advises, “The birth of a human being is a great science, and therefore reformation of the act of impregnation according to the Vedic ritual called garbhadhana-samskara is very important for generating good population. The problem is not to check the growth of the population, but to generate good population.... So-called birth control is not only vicious but also useless” (Bhag. 3.5.19, purport).
Srila Prabhupada further states, “This material world is created to give the conditioned souls a chance ... for going back home, back to Godhead, and therefore generation of the living being is necessary, … and as such one can even serve the Lord in the act of such sexual pleasure. The service is counted when the children born of such sexual pleasure are properly trained in God consciousness” (Bhag. 2.10.26, purport).
If the people are good, then no matter how numerous they are, they will be able to cooperate peacefully and, with the blessings of God, receive ample resources from Mother Earth. On the other hand, even a very limited population of bad character can make the planet into a hell. Selfish sex, aided by abortion, pills, condoms, and so on, is not going to make this world a happier place for anyone. People will continue in the cycle of birth and death, and the world will be a chaos of greed, anger, envy, and violence.
Srila Prabhupada therefore advises, “Those who are sincere souls … should refrain from such child-killing and should atone for their sinful activities by taking to Krishna consciousness very seriously. If one chants the Hare Krishna maha-mantra without offenses, all of one’s sinful actions are surely atoned for immediately, but one should not commit such deeds again…. (Bhag. 6.16.14, purport).