Overpopulation is defined by carrying capacity, which means the number of individuals and ecosystem resources like food, water, and space can be sustained indefinitely. It is estimated that around 108 billion people have lived throughout history. That means that around 6.5% of everyone that’s ever lived is alive today.
On average, a live counter shows every birth and every death around the globe, calculating the difference to give this single and seemingly unstoppable number. Population grows when the number of births is greater than the number of deaths.
Far from one born every minute, it’s something more like 250 every minute or about or 4 every second. With only a hundred 8 deaths per minute, it all adds up to a growth rate of about one percent per year. It might not sound like much, for experts estimate that by 2050 there could be 10 billion of us! But, if we look at the levels of consumption across different contexts globally, across cities, within cities, they’re highly, highly unequal.
Could we control human overpopulation?
It took around two hundred thousand years for Homo sapiens to go from zero to 1 billion, roughly the world population in the 1800s. Then in 200 years, that bigger skyrocketed to what it is today, over seven billion.
So what happened? The Industrial Revolution happened machines that paved the way for modern farming techniques. It allowed farm foods to be produced on an unprecedented scale. As a result, it makes food more affordable and allows families to grow.
- Medical advances also had a huge impact on keeping people alive for longer.
- The main reason for overpopulation today isn’t because too many of us are being born but not enough of us are dying.
So what do we do with all these extra people? The problem isn’t the physical space they take up. Standing side by side, the entire world’s population would fit into 500 square miles, which is less than the size of Los Angeles. The real issue is with all the things that many people consume food, water, and the Earth’s natural resources.
We’re facing a crisis of overpopulation where the sheer bulk of humans on the planet outstrips its carrying capacity. That carrying capacity defining the maximum number of people that the earth can support is fixed. Some estimations imply that we’re already exceeding it over-consuming earth’s resources by up to 50 percent of each year.
- An overpopulated world will see water, fuels, and living space runs short while pollution increases and natural environments are destroyed.
So what can we do? Could we control the overpopulation problem? For the time being, we could limit some of the effects by encouraging urbanization.
- Taking people into vertical cities makes the most of space and local resources and reduces the environmental impacts.
In 1800 only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. Today nearly 50% of the Earth’s seven-and-a-half billion people live in urban areas. Like Dakar and some of the densest have more than 44,000 people in a single square kilometer. But being packed in like sardines doesn’t do wonders for the quality of life. So it’s going to take some pretty serious Urban planning to handle.
- To address overpopulation, we need to stop making new people slow the increase or even stop the increase altogether.
Solution: Worldwide, nearly 40% of pregnancies are unintended, nearly 80 million each year. So, making male and female birth-control things cheap and readily available to all stand a chance of significantly reducing that birthrate.
Many governments opt for a simple education program to inform people about the overpopulation problem and its effects. If people can’t control their lawns themselves, perhaps it’s better if the government controls them instead. India and China certainly thought so in the 1970s.
Indian officials started a forced sterilization program in 1976, but the brute-force approach prompted massive public outcry, and Family Planning pretty much went out the window after that. China’s one-child policy lasted longer and was only formally phased out in 2015. As a result, the fertility rate in China is now 1.4 children per woman. But there’s some question about whether these measures violated basic human and reproductive rights. It turns out people don’t like governments interfering in the bedroom Department.
However, limiting the number of people being born has its problems too. About 52 percent of the world’s population is under 30 years old and has started decreasing this number. We chip away at the ablest workforce and end up with way too much dependence. It’s doomed for failure like a tower of cards with its top bigger than its bottom. The opportunity for people to take advantage of others, the devaluing of life itself, and the potential for discrimination are all fairly hefty arguments against it.
Although these recent polls indicate that many people favor dying with dignity. For example, a nationwide poll in Australia of over a thousand people found that 71% of them supported the legalization of voluntary euthanasia. However, death is final after all, and it will take a significant culture change to make it routine.
Overpopulation in future
Today birth rates are falling almost everywhere. The less time a country spends in rapid growth stages, the quicker Earth’s population stops increasing. So it’s unlikely that the 12 billionth human will ever be born. By 2100, our population will most likely peak between 9 and 12 billion. So instead of one big population bomb, the challenge today is defusing a few population “cluster bombs” in pockets of the developing world.
There are two big ways to accomplish this.
- Increasing women’s access to education is the most effective way to lower birth rates. In addition, it improves children’s health and leads to better family planning.
- Empowering women leads to slower population growth.
This alone could reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as all wind energy by 2050. Today, the richest 10% of humans are responsible for almost half of climate emissions, while the poorest half are only responsible for a tenth. So developed nations will have to reduce their impact and meet developing nations in a cleaner middle.
Populations can’t grow forever without consequences, but under the right circumstances, populations control themselves. But 10 billion people are still many mouths to feed, and doing it without ruining nature or anything like that won’t be easy. But it’s not impossible, and it won’t take some apocalyptic robot army of forced population control to do it. While history has taught us that population growth has natural checks and balances, we have yet to find a limit to creating new ways to live.
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“Human Overpopulation: Still an Issue of Concern?”. Scientific American.
Fletcher, Robert; Breitling, Jan; Puleo, Valerie. “Barbarian hordes: the overpopulation scapegoat in international development discourse.”
Paul Ehrlich; Anne H. Ehrlich. “Too Many People, Too Much Consumption.”
Ehrlich, Paul R. Ehrlich & Anne. The population explosion. London: Hutchinson.
“Does population growth lead to hunger and famine?”. Our World in Data.
“The specter of “overpopulation.” Transnational Institute.