Numbers Greater Than This Planet Can Sustain

In the 40’s my best friend’s family and my family attended a very conservative “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it for me” church. You were expected not to ask questions like, “What kind of whale was it?” (See Frederick Buechner below.)

My great and good old friend is still of that mind set. At age 80 he still thinks everything in the scriptures must be taken literally or none of it is true. 

I guess that still works for some religious folks today. But many detail oriented people drift away from religion because the religion they know requires them to unplug the left side of their brain. 

I’ll always remember the day I learned there was a place for me in the church. My father pastored a small Congregational church in Penngrove California during his seminary years. One Sunday in December of 1954 he quoted William Barclay who said something very similar to what Buechner is saying.

From that point on I rejoiced in the knowledge that much of the Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, etc. is metaphor and allegory. That meant I could embrace the message and the messengers with all my heart and, most importantly, my mind. I remember coming back to Spokane for Christmas that year and telling my friend he didn’t have to take the Jonah story, the Garden of Eden story and others like them literally. To this day he still calls me one of his best friends but will not discuss xenophobia, homophobia, climate change, racism or abortion with me.

My point? There is a place for people like him in mega churches and on TV; but at least 75% of the population are left with atheism or worse yet, no religious opinion at all. And that bodes ill for the future of humankind who’ve never known the challenges of being greater in number than this planet can sustain. 



Frederick Buechner

IF IT WAS ACTUALLY A WHALE that swallowed Jonah on his voyage to Tarshish, it couldn’t have been the kind of right whale you find in those waters because their gullets aren’t big enough. Maybe it was a sperm whale, because they can handle something the size of a prophet without batting an eye. Or maybe, since the Hebrew word means only “great fish,” it wasn’t a whale at all, but a people-eating shark, some of whom attain lengths as great as thirty feet. But whatever it was, this much is certain.
No matter how deep it dove and no matter how dark the inside of its belly, no depth or darkness was enough to drown out the sound of Jonah’s prayer. “I am cast out from thy presence. How shall I again look upon thy holy temple?” (Jonah 2:4), the intractable and waterlogged old man called out from sixty fathoms, and Yahweh heard him, and answered him, and Jonah’s relief at being delivered from the whale can hardly have been any greater than the whale’s at being delivered of Jonah.
Jonah 1:17-2:10


  1. I’ve often pondered that if one believes unquestioningly what they are told, do they in some small way cease to exist?

    • John Hickox says

      Great question Scott! There’s no question in my mind that people who accept without question everything they read (or hear) are not existing in the sense of what it means to be fully human, fully alive. We are, so far as we know, the only species with the ability to discern good from bad, right from wrong and act on it.

  2. I just read your piece. Loved the whale commentary. I’m confused by your 75% number, though. It seems to leave out the vast number of people who believe in God, but are more liberal in their thinking or claim “spiritual, but not religious.”

    • John Hickox says

      [Spoiler alert. What follows is not light reading. But after all, the piece does suggest our planet might not be capable of sustaining 8 billion human lives.]

      Thank you Raz Mason. I should have known better than to throw percentages at one trained in economics as you are. But I didn’t mean for that 70% to be a “statistically valid” number. Here’s what I think. I think, except for Christmas and Easter you’ll find fewer than 3% of Oregonians in church, synagogue, mosque, or other places where people gather to worship. In Arizona the numbers would be a bit higher; and in Texas higher still. Again, I haven’t done a study to support those numbers.

      But for me, the much bigger issue is, how many of even those fervent worshipers ‘follow their leader’ so to speak. Let’s take Christians for example. Jesus said (my paraphrase of John 14:12:) “I have to go now but that’s ok. Don’t worry. You can do the things I’ve done. As a matter of fact you can do even greater things!”

      Very importantly, please note that nowhere here am I suggesting one has to be religious to do the right thing. One could make the case that Oregonians might be better at neighbor loving than, say, Texans.

      Back to Jesus. Did he really say we can model our lives after his? Did he really mean it? I think he did. But did the men and women with him say “OK. Got it. Will do.” No they did not. They responded with something like: “You don’t really mean that, right? We’re just everyday folks!” No doubt Jesus likely responded with: “C’mon guys. You’ve been with me for almost three years! You’ve watched how I do it. You. Can. Do.This.”

      Now, to be clear, acting as Jesus did is risky, to say the least. Think Gandhi, Abe, and MLK. But all I’m saying in the piece is that we can, as Jesus suggested, first love ourselves enough to then go out and love our neighbors. When/if we do that, we will have what it takes to get through the next 50 to 100 years. But it will be hard. The population has doubled in my children’s lifetime. The planet is, very simply, unable to support these numbers. To survive, the number of humans is going to have to come down. With enough love, humankind can do what needs to be done.

      Right now you’re probably saying “Yeah right! Like who can love that much?

      Truly empathic people can. Michael Moore is a good example. Listen to a couple of his podcasts this week about minority progressives living in heavily red communities getting together to bring on the changes necessary.

      Bottom line, some of us must carry a heavy load if we are to make it through the next 50 to 100 years with more people here than the planet can sustain.

Speak Your Mind