(Over)population. Is there a problem?
You may have heard the phrase, or even said it out loud, “There are just too many people” when someone is discussing having children, or perhaps the state of the world and environment being so dire. Sometimes, you’re walking along a crowded city street and you think to yourself: ‘there really are enough of us already’?
As climate change worsens, the idea of overpopulation is often referred to as one of the (or even the key) reasons why the Earth’s resources are being depleted so rapidly… recently, even Sir David Attenborough brought up the topic on his newly released ‘A Life On Our Planet’ Netflix documentary. But this comment has been met with severe criticism from many - with accusations of racism. Fewer people, fewer problems? Well, it’s not that simple, and this article explores the issue further...
Firstly, let’s examine the situation today. You may be surprised that whilst fertility levels and birth rates are generally dropping globally - there is still continued population growth. If you want an idea of the world population, just watch the world population counter tick up on Worldometers. Lots of children are being born every day. The last I looked (and it’s changed since then of course) 313,762 children were born just today, with a growth in population of around 62 million this year. The current total figure stands at around 7.8 billion and is projected to become 9.8 billion by 2050, according to the UN.
While it remains true that global fertility levels are declining, fertility in the world’s 47 least developed countries is still relatively high at 4.3 births per woman between 2010 and 2015 - meaning rapid growth of these countries at 2.4% per year.
Whilst our electricity and power still relies on fossil fuels, it is safe to assume that more people mean more damage - more cars, garbage, emissions, housing and infrastructure built, more mouths to feed with food that requires more water and energy to be produced. More people means that, with the systems currently in place, the world’s finite resources are stretched thin(er).
However, scientists are still unsure of the Earth’s “carrying capacity” - that’s the maximum number of people it can support indefinitely - with estimates ranging widely between 500 million and more than one trillion.
Here’s where it gets a little tricky. It seems very easy to point the finger at overpopulation - having too many people on Earth means that the Earth will pay the price, right? The reality is: It’s not that simple. There are two sides to this coin.
Everyone, depending on where they live and how much money they make, has a different environmental impact. The fact of the matter is, individuals in wealthier countries produce more emissions. “An average middle-class American consumes 3.3 times the subsistence level of food and almost 250 times the subsistence level of clean water,” according to Professors Stephen Dovers and Colin Butler in their paper, Population and Environment: A Global Challenge.
“So if everyone on Earth lived like a middle-class American, then the planet might have a carrying capacity of around 2 billion. However, if people only consumed what they actually needed, then the Earth could potentially support a much higher figure.”
Although populations are growing faster in developing countries, carbon footprints of people in those countries are not growing at the same rate. However, according to research, according to research, between 1980 and 2005, many of the nations with the fastest population growth rates had the slowest increases in carbon emissions.
The concept of overpopulation was popularized when Stanford University entomologist Paul Ehrlich released the paperback The Population Bomb, which would go on to sell millions of copies and turn the author into a celebrity. It would end up being one of the most influential books of the 20th century and introduce the idea that overpopulation was one of the contributing factors to blame when it came to climate change.
The first sentence of the book sets the tone: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” And humanity had lost. In the 1970s, the book promised, “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” No matter what people do, “nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”
In the book, Ehrlich made the argument that much of the social and political upheaval in the world in the 70s had a single, underlying cause: Too many people were packed into small spaces, sucking the Earth dry of its resources. His solution? Humanity would have to cut down on its numbers, the sooner the better, or the human race would face “mass starvation” on a “dying planet.”
There would be many reactions to this argument, not all of them positive, with many critics citing his shifting the blame to countries in the Global South, where populations are growing quickest.
He would refer to a taxi ride he took in Delhi, India, where he recalls realizing the feeling of overpopulation from seeing a “crowded slum area.” He writes that “the streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window begging. People defecating and urinating…”
His statements would go on to cause a wave of anti-population growth or “population alarm’ to sweep the world. According to the Smithsonian’s coverage of the book:
“The International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Population Council, the World Bank, the United Nations Population Fund, the Hugh Moore-backed Association for Voluntary Sterilization and other organizations promoted and funded programs to reduce fertility in poor places. Some population-control programs pressured women to use only certain officially mandated contraceptives. In Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan, health workers’ salaries were, in a system that invited abuse, dictated by the number of IUDs they inserted into women. In the Philippines, birth-control pills were literally pitched out of helicopters hovering over remote villages. Millions of people were sterilized, often coercively, sometimes illegally, frequently in unsafe conditions, in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia and Bangladesh.”
Sir David Attenborough agrees. In an interview for BBC Newsnight in 2018, the 92-year-old British broadcaster said: “In the long run, population growth has to come to an end. There are some reasons for thinking that will happen almost inevitably.”
“But it is very alarming at the rate we’re going, and although people will say, ‘In the long run, we are going to stabilize’, they’re going to stabilize - as far as I can see - at a rather higher level than the Earth can really accommodate.”
This has come to several critics’ attention, who have highlighted Oxfam International’s latest research findings: The wealthiest 1% of the world’s population is responsible for more than double the emissions of the poorest 50%. The argument can be made that the problem of climate change is less about population growth, but more about what different populations are consuming. It is a fact that wealthier communities consume more, and participate in more carbon heavy activities (flying, driving long distances).
However, there is research that indicates that those of us who are in the top 10% wealthiest (with net income over US$38,000), with lifestyles accounting for around ⅓ of the world’s total emissions, having one fewer child does make a difference.
No matter what way we look at it - it is important to focus on the task at hand, and remember that we are in the midst of a climate crisis. Overpopulation or not, the world’s priority should be to work to implement better systems - renewable energies, reusable materials, less meat-based products, and electric transportation - in order to consume less resources on Earth. Instead of placing blame on the concept of overpopulation as a whole, our best bet may be to figure out how to create a hospitable planet for the billions of humans who are here to stay.
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