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Population explosion.

Nuclear physicist says the good news is that the human community can be brought into balance; the bad news is that it has to begin right away

ARLINGTON, Va.- Good created the heavens and the earth., But then what? What did the creator have in mind for the future of the planet? Was the heavenly directive to the first humans, "be fruitful and multiply," open-ended, or were there limits in case the dry land became overpopulated and the firmament choked with smog.?

Dr. Gerald Barney has been trying for more than a decade to find the answers to these weighty questions. Barney, 55, a nuclear physicist who has studied population explosions, recently said there is no doubt in his mind that if humans continue to double and redouble their population on earth, the planet is headed for an environmental disaster.

Yet the Bible and most other sacred texts of the world are virtually silent on these issues.

"I think there have to be questions raised at this point as to whether the sacred texts have got all the wisdom, all the guidance that we need," Barney said.

"You find in Revelations the passage that says the time has come to destroy those who destroy the earth. That's not a passage that you hear preached on very often.

"Another says it's not a good idea to muddy the waters that God has given us to drink. But the Bible's not a strong document on taking care of the earth.

"I'm just asking: Is there a possibility that God is still talking to us? And are we able to hear? Is there a possibility of further revelation?"

Barney, from Oregon City, Ore., a suburb of Portland, is listening probably harder than anyone for divine guidance. He worked as a defense analyst before taking positions for various government nonprofit concerns looking at population issues.

As founder and director of the Institute for 21st Century Studies, he has written a report for one of the most important religious gatherings of the century: the Parliament of World Religions, to be held Aug. 28 through Sept. 5 in Chicago.

It will be the 100th anniversary for a similar world meeting at the Columbian Exposition, the 1893 World's Fair, in that city. Then the focus was interfaith dialogue. Now it is a wide range of critical issues, including population and the environment.

Barney said he hopes that religious leaders will examine the question, How are we going to take care of the needs of people who will be here in the 21st century? Barney's Global 2000 Revisited: What Shall We Do? is an update of Global 2000, a report he wrote for the Carter administration in 1980 on the economic, demographic and environmental future of all the countries of the world.

His new report presents a rather disturbing picture of the world in the first part of the next century, when expected population levels and the earth's limited resources are likely to collide.

If current fertility and death rates remain unchanged, the report says, children born today will in their lifetimes see the world's population - now approaching 6 billion - exceed 25 billion and more than double the earth's maximum ability to sustain its people.

The extinction of species will be up in the hundreds per day. About 20 years from now, the report says, a third of the species present today will be gone. The result would be an unthinkable environmental catastrophe. And as Barney puts it bluntly, one of two things will occur. the fertility rate will go down or the death rate will go up.

The good news is that if the human community can be brought into balance - two children per couple - the population would peak at 12 billion. That might be sustainable if agricultural yields increase and if energy demands decrease.

The bad news is that the process has to begin right away. Barney's prescription is, within five years:

* Create the social, economic, political, religious and legal conditions necessary to reduce human fertility to replacement levels everywhere.

* Reduce significantly the per capita use of resources by the wealthiest individuals and nations.

* Create an economy capable of providing education and services for a more than doubled human population.

Within 10 years:

* Modify the agricultural, forestry and urbanization practices across the planet to preserve arable soils, with a limit of 15 percent loss from current usage.

* Double agricultural yields while reducing the dependence of agricultural systems on fossil fuels and contamination of earth and water with chemicals. Barney said this probably will not happen unless the world's religions, which in part got us into this mess, take an active role.

"The key issue has to do with what I call the stewardship of the gift of human fertility," Barney said. "Gifts are things that we don't earn, that come to us, and fertility is certainly one of those things that comes to us from God."

Other than the suggestion that humans and other creatures produce offspring for an unspecified length of time, there is little guidance and, within the church today, little leadership on questions of planetary destruction. Barney said he was discouraged by the results of last year's Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Although President Clinton on April 21 agreed to sign both the biodiversity and emission-reduction treaties, which his predecessor opposed, the summit completely ignored the issue of world population. It was widely believed that the Vatican, with tacit support from the United States, succeeded in killing the issue.

"It is disappointing that at a meeting of that importance, it wasn't even on the agenda," Barney said.

The Catholic church has historically opposed population control measures, preferring, as the U.S. bishops' conference put it in December 1991, "policies which promote natural family planning and true responsible parenthood." The real environmental evil, the bishops said, is not population growth in the Third World but "voracious consumerism in the developed world."

Barney said he is not about to pick a fight with the church or other faiths that oppose birth control. Instead, he asks questions. For instance, his report asks: "What does your faith tradition teach concerning the proper - and God-pleasing - relationship between the whole human community and the rest of the community of life?"

And: "Is it the teaching of your faith tradition that human numbers are to increase forever?"

Barney said getting religious leaders to answer these questions may lead to a reexamination of their policies.

One of Catholicism's leading environmentalists would appear to be Pope John Paul II, who has called the ecological crisis a moral issue. But for Barney, a practicing Lutheran, religions do not go far enough.

Friends in the environmental movement challenge him over his loyalty to the church, he said. They tell him that religion is the main cause of most of the world's social and economic problems - and much of its violence.

But Barney said the God he knows cares a great deal about the earth and is not pleased with what humans are doing to it. The problem with Christianity, he said, is that "the primary concern is about the relationship between humans and other humans and between humans and God, and not about the relationship of humans with the whole earth.

"I think one of the reasons 23 years after Earth Day in the United States Christians haven't become more involved in this is that they really don't see this as their issue - in part I think because there's a sense that there is a Second Coming and our ultimate concern is with a world that's not this one," he said.

If the church fails to make the realworld connection, Barney said, it will be harder and harder to get people to take it seriously. "I have to say that if Christians are going to continue to appeal as a strong religion, whether Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox, I think we're going to have to find ways of being relevant to issues that people in their hearts are really worried about."

Barney formed the Institute for 21st Century Studies in 1983 to begin looking at "sustainable" policies for the next century. He hopes religions will search for "sustainable faiths."

In his report, Barney asks a series of questions about the central orthodox teachings and the range of other opinions within each "faith tradition" on how to meet the legitimate needs of the growing human community without destroying the ability of Earth to support the community of all life; the meaning of progress" and how it is to be achieved; a proper relationship with those who differ in race, gender, culture, politics or faith; and the possibility of new revelation, understanding, wisdom and truth concerning human activity affecting the future of the earth.

In his report, Barney quotes Catholic theologian Thomas Berry: "Our best procedure might be to consider that we need not a human answer to an earth problem, but an earth answer to an earth problem. The earth will solve its problems, and possibly our own, if we will let the earth function in its own ways. We need only listen to what the earth is telling us."

In his report, Barney adds: "Let us allow ourselves to be guided by creative energy that shaped and lighted the universe."
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Title Annotation:physicist/author Dr. Gerald Barney
Author:Clancy, Paul
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 7, 1993
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