Once, as my wife and I were walking down the aisle at a Whole Foods grocery store with our five kids, a lady scowled at us. I’ve acclimated a bit to this, since that many children seems to many to be not just freakish to some but selfish, a critical using up of the earth’s resources. I just shrugged and whispered, “We use organic birth control,” and walked on. I was joking, of course, but my quip wouldn’t have ended the conversation for some ethicists and scientists who argue that we should have fewer, if any, children, to save the earth.
A recent National Public Radio feature highlighted a growing movement to encourage people to have fewer or no children, as a move to protect the ecosystem. This is, as one put it, a “moral obligation.” As one professor told NPR, “Maybe we should protect our children by not having them.”
This idea is hardly new. The twentieth century was filled with warnings that the earth was populating at such a pace that we would be out of food and water by 1970 or 1990 or 2010 or pick your date for apocalyptic destruction. And those of us who care about environmental protection are often frustrated by finding a lack of allies, due to many parts of the movement insisting on population control. We’ve seen, over the years, the ways that depopulation has been just as hazardous for communities and landscapes as “overpopulation.”
For some, this sort of call to limit children would be easily dismissed, along with the rest of the project of caring for the earth. These people would simply laugh at the entire project of stewarding the earth. That’s not an option for people who believe that the universe is not an accidental fluke but a creation deemed by God to be “good.” I am not a “quiver-full” type who insists on the maximum number of children possible per family. Still, we should see how an aversion to children isn’t the answer to stewarding the earth.
For Christians, the material creation around us is not some temporary staging ground for heaven, despite what caricatures from our critics might say. All of the creation around us signals the glory of God (Rom. 1:20), and is encoded with something the Apostle Paul calls “the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3:4). All things are to be “summed up” in Christ; that is, he will unite everything on heaven and earth in him (Eph. 1:10). The physical creation, then, is to be, like our bodies, ultimately a temple of the Holy spirit and a dwelling place for the reigning Christ Jesus. The original mandate of our ancestors to care for and to cultivate the earth does not just point us to the past (Gen. 1-2) but also to the future (Rev. 21-22).
In a Christian view of the world, the creation is to be safeguarded by human beings, the image-bearers of God. We are not trespassers or parasites on the earth. The call to “dominion” is not, biblically, a call to exploit the creation, but, just the contrary, to cultivate it safely for the future. This is a responsibility uniquely given to human beings.
At some level, we all recognize this. We do not hold dogs or coyotes or eagles morally accountable for their eco-systems. We do hold human beings morally accountable, and rightly so.
The rearing of children is, at the most primal level, the same impulse that should drive humanity to check a reckless, selfish form of “dominion.” Our connection to future generations, cultivated in a love for children, is one that is to spark an other-directed, future-directed domino, one that preserves and protects eco-systems for generations to come. Procreation is pro-creation.
The principle is made clear in God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28), and in the command to steward the earth. The care of creation is motivated, at least in part, by our concern for future generations. Mistreating the land or the waters or the air is to assert that one is the alpha and omega of one’s own existence. That is a denial of the future. When we welcome children among us, we are reminded that we are not self-creating gods, and that our generation is not the only one that matters.
That’s why one of the most important concepts for caring for the creation, biblically, is that of inheritance. I don’t overrun my plot of land or my part of the water system or the air around me, due to my devotion both to God and to neighbor, including neighbors who will walk the earth long after I’m gone.
It’s true that many are dismissive of the challenges we face in safeguarding the eco-systems around us. But the answer is not turning against the blessing of children and future generations. To do so would harm not only the family, but the earth too.