I really, really, vehemently hate the term “overpopulation”. Other people are often shocked by this notion, particularly those who know me as an outspoken environmentalist. “Are you not concerned with too many people on this planet?!” They always return with. It’s an attitude that labels me as crazy and misguided - how could I possibly be not concerned with overpopulation?
Let me say right off the bat that (hopefully) what I am going to say is not what you expect. Also, if your reaction is like the one described above, please try to not take the things I say as a personal attack on your character, but as an unfortunate reality based on current global conditions.
Truly, I am concerned with similar things to what a lot of vehement “overpopulationists” are concerned about. If we are talking about an infinite planet, there is no concern for any number of people as too many. If everyone has food to eat, water to drink, and a place to call home, there is no ethical or scientific argument to be made to have 10 or 10 billion homo sapiens in existence. There are 10 quadrillion ants on this planet, and no one is at a loss for how to control raging ant populations. At least, certainly, the ants themselves are not concerned with this. In some biological scheme we seem to feel that reproduction and the further creation of humanity is a good thing. As humans we prefer the notion of “people on planet earth” to “no people on planet earth”, so at least we’re in agreement that some number of us is a good thing.
Of course, the important notion is that we don’t live on an infinite planet. We have resources like arable land, access to freshwater, living space, air, etc. And therefore like all living things ever on this planet, somewhere we can define an earth “carrying capacity” for humans. Normally we use this phrase when considering a species within a certain ecosystem. We talk about leopards in a specific jungle or a type of plant in a forest. The cycling of nutrients and resources allows for a certain number of organisms at any one time - if the species goes over that number of organisms, it will only last a short while as the least common resource(s) get depleted and organisms without access die off. Many types of species are at an equilibrium with this - vacillating between periods of “over” and “under” population with regard to the ecosystem.
Such a similar comparison to humans, however, is not so easily made. For one, humans inhabit just about every non-marine ecosystem on earth, so resource distribution between ecosystems is hugely important. Do we define the human ecosystem as the entire earth itself? Do we add up all of the food and water and land everywhere when considering what humans have at our disposal? Usually, this is not how people think about this concept. Instead, we divide up the earth and its resources into regions - continents, countries, cities, etc. So while one region may have a lacking of water (say, a desert), another may have an overabundance. How far do we let the water travel before calling a zone over- or under-watered? Or is saying we have enough water on earth, regardless of location, enough? Can resources “cross” cultural, political, and socioeconomic boundaries when we are considering population?
This leads to the second reason defining carrying capacity for humans is not so easy: we have extremely complicated social structures. These social structures are not important when considering the carrying capacity of a certain plant or animal in an ecosystem. “Wealth” in an ecological sense means that the organisms with access to resources live while the ones without access die. For non-human organisms, there is an amorality to this concept. But there are plenty of people in deserts who have water (that they pay to receive) and plenty of people in water-rich regions who die from water pollution (the leading cause of premature death in third-world countries). With regard to resources, which situation of people can be sustained, and which cannot?
There exist many people (at least among people I have interacted with) that are afraid of overpopulation. Indeed, it sounds like a scary notion. I ask them what exactly they are afraid of - what is wrong with lots of people around? More disagreements? Stress about too many friends? Of course not - the issue is always addressing having enough food to eat and water to drink. Luckily for those afraid of this, if we consider the entire earth to be the human ecosystem, we don’t have anything to worry about for a long while. The US throws away billions of pounds of food daily, along with many other countries as well (I tend to use the US in statistics because its the country I know the most about). Water is a bit more of a concern, but still if we built the piping we could get water to everyone no problem. All the major resources humans need to survive exist plentifully on this planet. While of course at some point even if we perfectly distributed life’s necessities like food and water around the globe, with “some number” of people we would run out trying to keep everyone alive. But, we don’t have a good idea of what this number is. Sure, its not a number I’d like to mess with, but its certainly no where near 7 billion. Especially when we consider that humans only really NEED to drink a few liters of water a day and 1500 calories of food (or so) to maintain a healthy diet.
A much quicker way to address the issue of “people on this planet running through our resources” is to address the issue of overconsumption rather than the issue of overpopulation. In a manner I will explain, overpopulation treats individual impact as “equal” and therefore results in vastly unequal treatment, while overconsumption does the opposite. The former ends up being an extremely destructive manner by which to approach the world’s issues.
You see, when considering average consumption patterns around the globe, we can determine easily who (on an averaged, national level) is consuming much more than the others. If everyone in the world lived like Americans, we would need five earths of resources to supply everyone’s lifestyle. Unfortunately, we have just one earth. By contrast, if everyone on earth lived as an Indian, we would need 0.8 earths - we would be doing just fine. And before everyone jumps up and says, “I don’t want to live like the average Indian!” (which, when I hear that, I wonder how many of these people have actually been to India and have any sense at all for how the average Indian lives; but I digress) we must acknowledge that carrying capacity varies drastically when we discuss lifestyle. To put it in other terms, when we consume resources at various amounts, we change the amount of people on the planet that can be supported. In this sense, the average American is over-consuming the earth (along with most the industrialized world) while the average Indian is perhaps under-consuming the earth.
To me, this is the crux of environmental issues. We are consuming resources at a rate outpacing the rate of these resources replenishing themselves. Yes, population is a factor in that consumption rate. In basic math (the population)*(average consumption rate per person) = environmental impact of humans on earth. Reducing either or of these things will lessen our environmental impact, no doubt. But focusing on reducing our population justifies unjust deaths and maltreatment of people globally, while focusing on reducing our consumption rate affects our daily actions and impacts as individuals.
Let’s pretend, for a moment, that we are at the brink of earth’s capacity of humans when considering all of the available food, water, and energy. If we are only concerned with the number “7 billion” as “too many!” then surely we must address (1) how many is not too many? and (2) how do we get from where we are to that number? If we decide 6 billion is safe, then we have to address the unfortunate predicament of how to remove 1 billion. Do we draw straws? Besides such a situation being infra-structurally ludicrous, everyone secretly (or not so secretly) believes themselves to be deserving of survival. The reality of our world is that in such a situation the rich people survive and the poor people die off. This has nothing to do with localized access to ecological goods like food and water. Las Vegas would survive this scenario not because of the local water sources but because of monetary wealth. Biodiverse and resource-rich regions like Appalachia and rural India would suffer because of wealthy regions stripping them of their ecological wealth. People die where the people are poor, which has nothing to do with local ecological resources. But more troublingly, it also has an inverse relationship with the people “at fault” with the overconsumption problem. Rural Indians are already under-consuming the earth (as said above), and are being killed off for a problem they were entirely the victims of. Meanwhile the richest people on earth - no matter the country - can afford to maintain lavish, consumptive lifestyles, all the while calling the problem “overpopulation”.
What does this do? It lessens the ethical burden of the wealthy to help the poor by justifying their deaths as solving the problem. I am sick and tired of hearing mumbles of tsunamis and disease and drought and starvation as having the positive spin of “population control”. I am disgusted by the attitude that, driven by fear, sees natural disasters and preventable disease as solutions that help achieve some human:earth ratio balance. These disasters tend to be far away and affect the poorest among us - those without access to news reports, without sturdy homes, without access to medical care. I have personally heard people sheepishly find value in cancer deaths, drought deaths and tsunami deaths because they help keep away the scary end of running out. This logic is even as misguided as it is vile because in reality these justifications kill off the least impacting members of society, and therefore requires the most number of deaths to achieve a balance in resource consumption.
Now, lets address the same situation (we are at the brink of running out!) but instead focus on overconsumption as the problem rather than overpopulation. Lets say that right now, altogether the people on this planet are over-consuming resources at a rate making us in danger of running out of resources. We can look at and attack issues of waste and resource misuse to address this problem. The richest among us would be required to clean up their acts. We would refrain from watering lawns in deserts, throwing away valuable food, driving big cars that pollute the air and deplete energy reserves. Change would have to be enforced, yes, but at least it would be justified based on who is over-consuming what. And what is amazing about this new scenario, is if accomplished well, there is no evidence it results in greater unhappiness - if anything, the opposite. There is no evidence that the people on earth that consume more are happier or more fulfilled. Life would need to change, but not necessarily for the worse. And we can lose the notion that the solution to the earth’s problems lie somewhere in killing people off.
As far as I can tell, humans have never been very good at addressing population through groupthink or any kind of legislation. This can be seen back to the Irish Potato famine, where the famine was really caused by Malthusian Brits who stocked up on Irish potatoes in the name of resource depletion (read “The Malthus Factor” if you don’t believe me). People are afraid of resources being lost, so the rich ones buy up what they can while the poor lose everything. This happened in Maoist China and Stalinist Russia (situations that have been deemed as overpopulation problems by much of the western world). This type of groupthink is how the stock market works, too - if we all think everyone is going to sell, we all do it because as individuals we don’t want to lose everything - and boom, depression. We construct our own imagined tipping points via self-fulfilling prophesies that result in the loss of resources for the masses. Or in other legislative terms, family planning policies are mandated, like the one child policy in China. A policy that has largely been revered by the West (a big *phewf* on that one, then those Chinese won’t take all of our resources!) further subjugated women in society, justified female infanticide, and puts China on track for a major social security problem as the younger generations cannot sustain their parents.
Sure, there are better ways to manage population, like education of women and access to contraceptives. It has been proven that women with higher degrees of education, in general, chose to have fewer children. But I like female empowerment and women’s education for a lot of reasons, and fewer children to imbalance the consumptive patterns of the rich is NOT one of them. The children of uneducated parents are not the biggest consumers of resources that make overuse of the earth a scary idea.
The dialogue on “overpopulation” frustrates me so because it is a way for the wealthy to (1) remove themselves as the over-consumptive problem, (2) pin said problem onto the poorest and least powerful in our society, who (3) by and large have already been victimized by the rapid depletion of earth’s resources. These actions tend to (4) encourage hoarding and policies that favor the people in political power (read: wealthy people), creating (5) a world predicament that looks a lot like what said people in power predicted, with resources so imbalanced it appears there is not enough to go ‘round. Most upsettingly, this worldview (6) justifies its own positive feedback, encouraging further fearful resource hoarding and (7) yet again washes the powerful free of guilt from saving poor populations that were “doomed” anyway by lacking resources.
Really, I understand the fears people are trying to express when they talk about overpopulation problems. But it misses the point entirely: not only does “overpopulation” deal with the problems unethically and inefficiently, but the end goal is rooted in a spirit of social Darwinism that sets up a powerful class to appear more deserving of life than the less powerful or impoverished. The end goal should not be to prevent life – we should want life to flourish. We should be striving for human happiness and diversity and opportunity. Focusing on overconsumption as the problem lets us work to redefine happiness so it doesn’t mean “the most stuff” or even “the most power”, but access to pursuing life and freedom of existence. The goals of addressing overpopulation are distinctly opposite. I would rather strive for a less consumptive (and oftentimes happier) existence rather than a less populated world as my end goal, but apparently that puts me in a minority.