According to this fun statistical calculator, when I was born I was the 3,693,152,001st person alive on planet earth. (It’s quite nice to be an ‘and first’ – makes me feel special!) This week the total number of people alive on planet earth is thought to have nearly doubled that number, and now stands at 7 billion. (Although there is a significant margin of error in the calculation.)
A rapidly rising population does not depress or worry me as it seems to many people. I have enough confidence in God’s covenant with the earth (Genesis 9:9-17) and in the ingenuity of man, to believe that the potential is there to feed every mouth and clothe every back, without resultant planetary catastrophe. I don’t believe we have resource problems – just sin problems. In a number of developed countries the more likely problem is now actually insufficient population growth, as fertility rates (the number of children a woman has) drop below replacement rates (the number of births required to maintain a stable population) and an ageing population becomes increasingly dependent on a shrinking number of economically active younger people.
The UK population is growing still, though this is largely driven by immigration (as our own fertility rates – Hosiers excepted – are below the replacement rate). But one of the interesting things about being in South Africa is seeing the incredible pace of development. Here the fertility rate still outpaces the replacement rate and this coupled with the need to improve the living conditions of the majority population means vast swathes of land which were previously empty are now covered in housing.
Parts of the Cape and Johannesburg look more like Dubai now than the South Africa of old. Yet the inequalities and needs of millions of people are still painfully obvious – flying into Cape Town or Johannesburg the visitor will be struck by the scale of the townships surrounding the city. On Sunday I drove through a township outside Cape Town, which was a very desperate place. This is where not only poor South Africans but many refugees and economic migrants from other African nations first land when they reach the Cape. Many of them subsequently escape though, making the economic journey from leaking shack to solidly built hut to – perhaps, one day – what you and I might recognize as proper housing.
In the end what most of the worlds 7 billion people want is simply a decent roof over their heads, and enough food to eat and clothes to wear.
This desire is reflected at the heart of the Christian faith. Jesus told his disciples that he was going ahead of them to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house (John 14:1-4); and the end of the story tells of the day when a numberless crowd will stand in worship before Jesus (Rev 7:9-10). On that day maybe there will be even more than 7 billion people standing on this earth (it will be this earth, and I hope there are more than 7 billion people) and not one of them will be naked, or homeless or hungry.
That’s the Christian message – an expectation that we have been given sufficient resources to lift people out of poverty now, and a great hope for an eternity in which there is no poverty.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.