Exploding? The Sensitive Issue of Overpopulation

By Daniel Isler

In his mesmerizing book “Freedom”, Jonathan Franzen delicately handles a sensitive but critical issue. He takes his protagonist to a journey into a large sustainability activists group, calling mainly for immediate actions to decrease the world’s population. Although being recognized as a genuine issue by sustainability scientists and social scientists – the subject of decreasing population is still a taboo in most parts of the world. Just think for a second about China’s one-child policy, forbidding more than one biological child for each couple of parents – and feel the repulse and intimidation we experience in light of such intervention to our personal decisions.

But this is by no means a new issue: warning signs were raised already over 200 years ago, namely by British scholar, Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. In a nutshell, he showed and argued that while population growth is exponential by nature (2-4-8-16…), food and other resources grow arithmetically (1-2-3-4…). This observation means that if untouched, the population will outgrow its own fuel needed to live, and will unavoidably extinct. Although debated intensively over the last 200 years and often dismissed by other scholars – Malthusianism remains a central notion in the debate about global over population.

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Looking at the pure numbers, it seems Malthus was about right – the growth of the population does work in an exponential way. In 1800 the whole world was less populated than contemporary China or India. In just 170 year, we quadrupled into 4 billion. But this was just slow growth: only 50 years after being 4 billion, we are expected to double our size, again, by 2024. As you can see by the hypnotizing population clock – we are working on it with full power. Movements such as World Population Awareness (WOA) are advocating for higher awareness for the topic, pushing towards an open discussion about it. But it remains a big elephant in the room: while we speak about alternative resources, global warming, reducing pollution and so on – we neglect this topic, mainly because of its sensitive risk of intervening in one of the most personal decisions a human has to face in his/her life.

Like any other good debate, there is another side to this pessimistic point of view. The group “overpopulation is a myth” strives to expose some truths (so they say) about the topic. They mainly claim (backed with scientific proof) that the cry over overpopulation is an exaggeration that is not rooted in facts, but rather in first hand experiences of density in urban areas in the east and in the west. Other counter arguments are made by Erle C. Ellis, an associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland in his New York Times piece:

There is no environmental reason for people to go hungry now or in the future. There is no need to use any more land to sustain humanity — increasing land productivity using existing technologies can boost global supplies and even leave more land for nature — a goal that is both more popular and more possible than ever.”

Or in other words, Malthus was wrong – his exponential vs. arithmetical notion was based on old agricultural communities. He did not take into account modern technology that can “catch up” with population growth (it already does, there is too much food on the planet due to capitalism’s surplus).

2013 was the year that signified a turning point: starting this year, more people live in cities than in rural areas – worldwide. This is not probable to turn around, which means cities will grow bigger and bigger. Today there are about 7,000,000,000 (seven billion) people on Earth. Your kids will see a world with 14 billion. Now imagine all those people living in one big global city. Weird, huh?


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2 thoughts on “Exploding? The Sensitive Issue of Overpopulation

  1. Pingback: The sound of freedom cries | Mirrorgirl

  2. There is an even more taboo topic closely related to this, namely which parts of the population are responsible for most of the population growth, simply because it may be perceived as borderline racism. However, in the interest of objectivity, it must be said that the population in developed countries is ageing and decreasing, and that most of the population growth occurs in third-world countries, which are unable to properly sustain even the existing population, let alone impose some kind of one-child policy like China did. What I’m really afraid of is that our political correctness in avoiding discussing this problem in, say, India, will lead to a future humanitarian catastrophe. Most of the population there lives in horrible hygienic conditions as it is, with very poor access to fresh water etc., yet every family tends to have 5+ children at least, due to cultural factors and the prevalent mindset. This may cause huge problems 20-30 years down the line.

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