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Debunking the Myth of Overpopulation

We are contacted all the time by people asking for how they can refute the arguments of those who believe that the world is overpopulated. So we have decided to create a short primer called “How to Debunk the Myth of Overpopulation in Three Easy Steps.”

Before we start, however, let’s define overpopulation. Overpopulation describes a situation where the number of people exhausts the resources in a closed environment such that it can no longer support that population.

Let’s imagine that our PRI offices were to suddenly become a closed environment, with nothing allowed in our out. Obviously, I and my colleagues would exhaust the available resources very quickly:  The water cooler would be drained dry, the refrigerator would be emptied out, and the oxygen would be all used up.  

Obviously, my office has too many people for its natural resources, but I haven’t started trying to eliminate my co-workers to ensure my own survival.  I haven’t launched a sterilization campaign against my younger colleagues or encouraged my older colleagues to jump out of the windows.  Why?

Well, of course I am constrained by Catholic moral teaching.  But aside from that, I know that my office is not a closed environment. Neither are most instances cited by overpopulation zealots, such as crowded cities or poor countries.  None of these are closed environments.

Other instances of phony overpopulation occur when humans create artificially closed environments. If someone locked me in my office, most people wouldn’t blame my resulting demise on “the overpopulation of the office” but on the cruel person who locked me in. Similarly, if government policies prevent food from being transported to where it is needed, or distributed to those who are hungry, “overpopulation” is not to blame.  It’s the policy, stupid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition, overpopulation is defined as a problem created by the numbers of people, not their behaviors.  If every person demanded his or her own continent or island, the world would seem “overpopulated” very quickly.

Let’s keep these things in mind as we consider the argument that the earth, as a closed environment, is overpopulated. Is Spaceship Earth (as they like to call it), running out of resources? Let’s evaluate:

 

1) “Food: there isn’t enough!” Since the time of Thomas Malthus, who lived in the early 1800s, doomsayers have gloomily predicted that mankind would outbreed its food supply, resulting in catastrophic famines.  Yet the world currently produces enough food to feed 10 billion people, and there are only 7 billion of us. That is, with 7 billion human minds at work, we produce enough food for 10 billion human bodies.[1] Imagine how much food we can produce with 10 billion minds!

“But there are still hungry people in the world!” Yes, hunger remains a problem in some parts of the world, but it is not caused by the number of people. Commenting on the recent Somali famine, Oxfam, an international humanitarian organization, stated, “Famines are not natural phenomena, they are catastrophic political failures.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

“Well, we got lucky with the Green Revolution, and food production shot up, but we can’t count on something like that to occur again!” Why not? There is no reason to think that we are running out of human ingenuity.  If anything, a larger population means more opportunities for the kind of scientific collaboration and increased specialization that results in such scientific leaps forward.

“Ok, but humans now eat higher up the food chain that we used to.  We can’t keep that up and still have enough for everyone!”  Sure, people in the developed nations eat more meat, which require much more energy input per calorie eaten than if we ate grains and plant proteins.  But that doesn’t mean that we will run out of food. We are eating higher energy foods because they are relatively cheaper than they used to be—and prices don’t fall when goods are scarce. The falling price of high energy foods indicates that they are becoming more plentiful, not less so.  According to the World Education Service, “world agriculture produces 17% more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago...This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day.”
 

2) “We are running out of water!” The earth is awash in water.  Oceans cover 70 percent of the planet’s surface to an average depth of 6,000 feet.  That’s why the earth looks blue from space.  You cannot use up or destroy water; you can only change its state (from liquid to solid or gas) or contaminate it so that it is undrinkable.

“That’s a great theory, but if I’m thirsty, theory doesn’t mean much to me. There is not enough fresh water for everyone!”  There is! Since 1900, freshwater withdrawals (i.e. production of usable water) have increased much faster than the human population has increased. Freshwater withdrawals have increased seven-fold since 1900 while the world population has increased only four-fold.[2] This suggests our ability to access usable water increases faster than population growth.

“Tell that to the people living in the Sahel!”  You’re correct, lack of water is a serious humanitarian issue. But it is not an overpopulation issue. Water, although plentiful, can be difficult to move to those who need it, hence local water scarcity. As Karen Bakker (2003) states: "Water is one of the heaviest substances mobilized by human beings in their daily search for subsistence....Water is expensive to transport relative to value per unit volume, requiring large-scale capital investments in infrastructure networks which act as an effective barrier.”  In other words, we need more dams, canals, and pipelines, not more abortion, contraception and sterilizations.

 

3) “But we’re growing exponentially!”  Um,...No. We’re not. We are growing, but definitely not at an exponential rate. In fact, our rates of growth are declining. Between 1950 and 2000, the world population grew at a rate of 1.76%. Between 2000 and 2050, it is expected to grow by 0.77 percent.[3] So yes, because 0.77 is greater than zero, it is a positive growth rate, and the world population will continue to grow.

Most of this growth will come from developing countries—their life expectancies are expected to shoot up in the next 50 years, contributing to their population growth. Africa’s growth is not something to worry about.

Europe’s decline, however, is something to worry about. A UN report titled “World Population to 2300” paints a picture of Europe’s future if European fertility rates don’t rise above current levels: “The European Union, which has recently expanded to encompass 452-455 million people (according to 2000-2005 figures) would fall by 2300 to only 59 million. About half the countries of Europe would lose 95 per cent or more of their population, and such countries as the Russian Federation and Italy would have only 1 per cent of their population left.”  In other words, the French, German, Italians and British will virtually cease to exist.  Arrivederci, Roma!

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

 

Other fun thoughts:

- Human knowledge can be passed on through the written and spoken word in ways that evolutionary or biological advantages can’t be.

- Demographers estimate that at least 20 billion people lived on earth between the years 8000 B.C. and 0 A.D. (That’s right, the idea that half of all people who have ever lived are alive currently is a myth!)[4]

-  Plankton make up 3 times more biomass than all 7 billion humans combined.[5]

- Every man, woman, and child on earth could each have 5 acres of land. [6]

- Every man, woman, and child on earth could each have a half acre of arable land.[7]

- If we wanted to squeeze close, everyone in the world could stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the island of Zanzibar.[8]

- About 48% of all people live in a country with below-replacement fertility.[9]

- The global total fertility rate is 2.53 children per woman.[10]

- By 2050, Nigeria is projected to have a larger population than the United States.[11]


 

Endnotes

[1] Holt-Giménez, Eric, et al. "We Already Grow Enough Food for 10 Billion People… and Still Can't End Hunger." Journal of Sustainable Agriculture 36.6 (2012): 595-598.

[2] Gleick, Peter H. "A look at twenty-first century water resources development." Water International 25.1 (2000): 127-138.

[3] "WORLD POPULATION TO 2300." The Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations (2004): <http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/longrange2/WorldPop2300final.pdf>.

[4] Wachter, Kenneth W. "Cohort Person-Years Lived." Essential Demographic Methods. Berkeley: University of California, 2012.

[5] Garcia-Pichel, Ferran, et al. "Estimates of global cyanobacterial biomass and its distribution." Algological Studies 109.1 (2003): 213-227.

[6] Calculated from numbers found on: "Central Intelligence Agency." The World Factbook. Web. 30 Sept. 2013. <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2097.html>.

[7] Ibid.

[8] "A Tale of Three Islands." Demography. The Economist,<http://www.economist.com/node/21533364/print>.

[9] "World Population Prospects the 2012 Revision." The Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations (2013):<http://www.unfpa.org/webdav/site/global/shared/documents/news/2013/KEY%20FINDINGS%20WPP2012_FINAL-2.pdf>.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Barnes, Hannah. "Is Population Growth out of Control?" BBC News. BBC, 28 Sept. 2013. Web. 01 Oct. 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24303537>.

 

 

References

"A Tale of Three Islands." Demography. The Economist, <http://www.economist.com/node/21533364/print>.

Bakker, Karen J. "A political ecology of water privatization." Studies in Political Economy. 70 (2003).

Barnes, Hannah. "Is Population Growth out of Control?" BBC News. BBC, 28 Sept. 2013. Web. 01 Oct. 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24303537>.

"Central Intelligence Agency." The World Factbook. Web. 30 Sept. 2013. <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2097.html>.

Garcia-Pichel, Ferran, et al. "Estimates of global cyanobacterial biomass and its distribution." Algological Studies 109.1 (2003): 213-227.

Gleick, Peter H. "A look at twenty-first century water resources development." Water International 25.1 (2000): 127-138.

Holt-Giménez, Eric, et al. "We Already Grow Enough Food for 10 Billion People… and Still Can't End Hunger." Journal of Sustainable Agriculture 36.6 (2012): 595-598.

Michael, Webber E. "How to Make the Food System More Energy Efficient: Scientific American." Scientific American, 29 Dec. 2011. Web. 30 Sept. 2013. <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=more-food-less-energy>.

Wachter, Kenneth W. "Cohort Person-Years Lived." Essential Demographic Methods. Berkeley: University of California, 2012.

"World Population Prospects the 2012 Revision." The Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations (2013):<http://www.unfpa.org/webdav/site/global/shared/documents/news/2013/KEY%20FINDINGS%20WPP2012_FINAL-2.pdf>.

"WORLD POPULATION TO 2300." The Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations (2004): <http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/longrange2/WorldPop2300final.pdf>.

“2013 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics by World Hunger Education Service." Weblog post. World Hunger Education Service. Hunger Notes, n.d. Web. 30 Sept. 2013. <http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world hunger facts 2002.htm>.

 

 

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really?

The authors of this article have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. I hope that anyone who reads this pseudo-intellectual garbage doesn't actually take it seriously. The points are all wrong and in fact were misinterpreted by the authors due to their lack of understanding of seemingly anything. They have manipulated some facts to try and help their message, but their logic is... nonexistent.

Most of this article consists

Most of this article consists of logical fallacies and assumptions that just because something is now, it will be later. That we can find freshwater at a rate of 7x now, for example, provides no proof that we will continue to do so in the future. Same goes for food, etc. (this article relies on assumptions that because we could do something in the past with technology then unknown, technology currently unknown will provide the same effect in the future).

The only truly valid piece of information in this entire article is the bit on birth rates. The rest truly is just wishful thinking. This does not mean that the point of the article (that overpopulation is not a real problem) is wrong, but it does mean that if you actually want to prove that point, come up with more than "we invented stuff once I bet we can again!"

We don't need to FIND fresh

We don't need to FIND fresh water; while mining asteroids and icy comets remains a distinct possibility for our far far future, so much as we need to produce it. Reverse osmosis is a technique for purifying water and with the current tech being developed and the exponential rate at which we make technologies suggests that we will be able to create clean water from dirty water without relative difficulty. It's happening already. Poop can be recycled into potable water. How do you think people have been surviving on the International Space Station? Do they have an I.V. running up there?
While the rest is wishful, yes, it's ore important that it's inspirational. Not so much as to say that it's inspired as it's inspirational. Which is the important part. Why do we go to school? To learn what has been done and repeat it? Or to build upon the foundation we are now aware of?

You've got to be kidding me.

You've got to be kidding me. Who exactly is committing this "Over-exploitation of the Environment"? Humans, I'd wager. Lots and lots of humans, most of whom will reproduce themselves many times over without intervention. And what could possibly cause conflict? (aside from religious fanatics trying to eliminate other beliefs...)
Competition for limited resources? Bingo.

People on productive land don't willingly give it up to share with others. Of course you could impose a "policy" that everyone lives on a cup of rice a day, and since nobody starves to death per se, then there's no overpopulation. (You show me one time that "policy" ever solved a real problem without force to back it up.)

At some point, increasing human numbers invariably collide with finite basic resources. It's already happened, and it will keep happening.

Reply to comment | Population Research Institute

Excellent way of telling, and good piece of writing to take facts regarding my presentation subject matter, which i am going to convey in academy. 

Closed environments

Have you not considered the Earth is a 'closed environment'? If you believe that many resources on the planet are finite, you may need to readdress this subject.
I'm not decided whether current population density is a problem or not, however, it has to be considered in a finite 'closed' space such as Planet Earth. The other side of the equation is resource use, and distribution of those resources.
I believe the only infinite resource is energy from the sun.

Reply to comment | Population Research Institute

I don't even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was good. I do not know who you are but certainly you're going to a famous blogger if you are not already ; ) Cheers! 

Reply to comment

The Earth is definitely not a closed environment. Do you realize exactly how much of the planet is uninhabited? Even places that are considered uninhabitable can be transformed into habitable environments. These are all things that will take place in the future, not even the near future, a transformation like this will be necessary maybe 200 years from now. Even building resources such as metals and woods aren't in danger of becoming scarce. The developments of new materials, usage of other resources and more efficient ways of production will definitely be exceeding the usage of current resources. As I said earlier, Earth is not a closed environment. Space is going to be explored and we're going to expand, this may not be for a very long time, but it wont be necessary for a very long time. Global Warming and overpopulation are both ridiculous theories encouraged by self hating humans. They're consumed by this idea that we're guilty of something. It's a common Psychological trait. Think of Global Warming as nothing but longer seasons. This planet has seen ice ages and the warmer equivalent of them. I suppose it was dinosaur farts that caused extremely higher temp. and humidity averages than we have today. Also, the sun isn't an infinite resource. Stars die, and then they run out of fuel they collapse and would most definitely destroy us, unless of course we venture out into deep space.

This article fails to address

This article fails to address the real concerns of overpopulation, as all of them always do. What a shame. How many people can fit shoulder to shoulder in Zanzibar doesn't matter. Space is not the issue. Food and water aren't even the issue. The finality of expensive resources and the need to preserve non-human ecosystems is what matters. Unless we want to purposefully keep a significant part of the world from developing, then we are eventually going to need electricity, cars, computers, and large buildings for every country and every culture. We don't have the resources to do that. Those things are made out of rare materials, which is why they're expensive. Furthermore, it isn't acceptable to keep spreading humans out as we create more of ourselves, because in order for us to live the comfortable civilized lives that we enjoy, we have to dismantle the natural, uncivilized ecosystems which were there before us. Unfortunately, we need there to be untouched wilderness on the Earth in order for us to survive. We can't just put humans everywhere. There need to be places that we don't go, so that other ecosystems can thrive. As our numbers go up, we won't be able to comfortably house all the humans in the same geographical areas any longer, which is exactly what leads to suburban sprawl. As we push outward, the uncivilized, natural habitats in the world shrink, which leads to ecological instability, extinction of species, and loss of the most fundamentally necessary resource of all: breathable air.

"3) “But we’re growing

"3) “But we’re growing exponentially!” Um,...No. We’re not. We are growing, but definitely not at an exponential rate."

Wrong. The growth is exponential and the actual number is irrelevant. Any growth that is proportional to the starting number is exponential. If the rate of growth is greater than zero, we have exponential growth. If the rate is less than zero, we have exponential decay.

"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."
-Albert Bartlett