Have We Filled the Earth?

(Gen 1:28 "Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth.")

During my trip to Peru (Nov 1997) questions about "overpopulation" were on my mind. I had come for my annual visit to the Mary Bloom Center which teaches Natural Family Planning (NFP) to medical professionals and married couples. If used correctly, it can be as reliable as artificial methods, but couples following NFP usually do have larger families. To me that is not a negative. In fact, for those who had only one or two children, I was prepared to encourage them to give their child the best gift--a new little brother or sister.

Still, the question was on my mind: Is such advice irresponsible? If every couple had three, four or more children would we not soon be squeezed together like sardines? It is true that the first commandment God gave us states, "Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth," but isn't the earth already full?

These doubts were in my mind as the plane took off from north of Lima for the two hour trip to Puno in southern Peru. Within five minutes we were beyond Lima--a city of seven million. In that short space of time the plane had flown over one quarter of Peru's twenty-five million people. Beyond Lima you do see an occasional small city or town, but for most of the flite you pass above wide-open spaces. The Peruvians have not "filled" their own country.

In comparison to other nations, you could argue that Peru is underpopulated. It has twice the territory of Fance and less than half the population. It is true that Peru is a poor country, one of the poorest in Latin America, but its poverty is not caused by population density. (It has only 49 people per square mile giving it more elbow room that the U.S. which has 74 people per square mile.)

Peru does have a low population density, but the next question is: How much of its land is actually inhabitable? The coast is an arid desert hemmed in by the high Andes mountains. Beyond that range lies a steamy jungle which makes up two thirds of the nation's territory. Yet people have adapted to all three environments. The city I was headed for, Puno, is 12,500 feet above sea level. The fact that people for millenia have lived at that altitude indicates there are few places on the planet we could not inhabit. It does take the body a few days to adjust to the thin air, but with its cold nites and sunny days, Puno is a lovely place to live.

I think some of our fears about overpopulation are based on a picture of dividing up a pie: the more people with fork in hand, the smaller slice we each get. Two things need to be said about that picture. First of all, the pie is enormous. If we we were somehow able to divide up the planet among its six billion inhabitants, each would receive over one trillion tons of water, air, land, minerals, plants, animals, etc. All of these resources are potentially recyclable, including the tiny bits that make up our human bodies. Second, it takes human ingenuity and labor to utilize any of those resources. We have in fact figured out how to use the earth better. Today a much smaller percentage than ever work in agriculture (in the U.S. only 3% of our total population) yet we have a huge world-wide surplus of food.

Compare Peru with its huge territory and great resources to tiny Hong Kong. That former British colony has 316 times the population density of Peru. Yet in forty years Hong Kong has gone from desperate poverty to incredible prosperity. People are not the problem; they are the solution. Or to put it more exactly: We do cause many problems for each other, but given the right chance we provide solutions as well.

There is a beautiful Peruvian novel titled: El Mundo es Ancho y Ajeno (The World is Wide and Strange). We still have a long ways to go before we fill this wide and wondrous world we have been entrusted.

Fr. Phil Bloom


See also: An Eternally Unbridgeable Chasm

The Fiery Furnace

Jesus Teaching Concerning Heaven

Other Homilies


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