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What's it going to be: food or fuel? The law of unintended consequences strikes again. Around the globe, food prices are rising, in part because of the increased diversion of corn and other potential food resources to produce biofuels. Most of us who live in the West and Israel remain fortunate, however. We can still purchase enough nourishing food to feed our families, even if it's costing us somewhat more. That's not the case for many in places such as Haiti, Egypt, Mozambique and Bangladesh.
Biofuels are just a part of the problem. Sharply rising production and transportation prices, financial speculation and climate change, including drought in key producing areas, are also factors. So is the ballooning demand for food in China, India and similar nations with rapidly expanding markets, rising expectations and large populations - large being the operative word.
That's because the root cause of the growing food shortage is human overpopulation. Too many mouths to feed have led to the rapid depletion of natural resources, leading, in turn, to the unprecedented despoiling of the environment. But the worst is likely still to come if, as expected, climate change further stresses the food supply, triggering increased human conflict over dwindling resources.
The United Nations estimates the global population at about 6.7 billion. China and India account for more than a third of the total. As for Jews, the best guess is we number around 15 million worldwide - less than a quarter of 1 percent of the global total (I'll return to the role of Jews in this issue below).
WHAT CAN be done? The obvious answer is to slow or, better yet - though this seems impossible - reverse population growth. But which nation, which people, will do that voluntarily?
Totalitarian China instituted compulsory birth control with some success. But China's gains appear about to be undone by today's massive number of Chinese of child-producing age, compounded by their increased wealth and better - that is, life extending - health care. China's glacial move toward political liberalization threatens to further erode the government's ability to control family planning; it takes draconian measures unacceptable in even the most limited of democracies to offset biology's natural impulses.
At the same time there seems little possibility that voluntary population control will take hold in the world's most traditional and religiously conservative societies - sub-Sahara Africa, South Asia, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority for example - in which a large number of offspring remains the primary social safety net and a source of cultural pride. This means nations that can least afford unrestrained population growth can expect the greatest growth.
So what about Jews?
A DECADE ago, while a reporter in Washington, I covered a news conference at which various liberal religious groups called for voluntary controls on population in response to the environmental concerns that are now even more evident. I asked a leading Reform Jewish spokesman who was there whether Jews should voluntarily limit their numbers as others were being asked to do.
No, he replied, not after the Holocaust and certainly not in an age of growing Jewish assimilation (today, I'm sure he would add Iran's threats to wipe out Israel's Jewish population). Were Jews to limit their growth, he reasoned, we would soon disappear. Mind you, this was a liberal Jew speaking, not a representative of the Orthodox community, in which large families are de rigueur and the biblical command to be fruitful and multiply is taken literally.
My heart agreed but my head wanted to scream hypocrite. Why an exception for Jews - because we're the chosen people? Just what does that mean in the context of overpopulation, and who in the world besides traditional Jews will accept that as a reason for letting us off the hook?
Why not exceptions for Navajos, Mormons, Albanians, Salvadorans, Gambians, Laotians and other groups with relatively small populations? Who decides who should and should not procreate at will?
Frankly, I don't expect many committed Jews to agree to limit Jewish population growth (and certainly not Israeli Jews locked in a demographic struggle with the Palestinians) any more than I expect committed Navajos, Mormons or anybody else to put universal needs ahead of the perceived needs of their particular community. I'm conflicted on the subject myself; my self-identity is tied to Jewish survival even as I fear the world is becoming a human ant hill.
I have little doubt that my all-too-common attitude is just what got us into this predicament in the first place. To survive this bit of conceit is going to take a superhuman change in perspective for all people. If things keep going in the direction they appear unalterably headed, it won't be all that long before the moment of reckoning is upon us.
The writer is an author, editor and journalist living in Annapolis, Maryland.