By Dr. Charles F. Gritzner

“Overpopulation? Asian and European Leaders are Begging Their Citizens to Have More Children.” 

This recent (July 2017) headline certainly grabbed my attention!  After all, over a span of centuries have not a host of Cassandras expressed deep and abiding concern over the dire consequences of population growth?   Formal recognition of a severe “population problem” is not new.  In fact, British political economist Thomas Robert Malthus published the first of his several essays on the perils of unchecked population growth in 1798 (a 6th revised edition of his original Essay on Principle of Population appeared in 1830).  Malthus recognized that the human population grows geometrically (2-4-8-16, etc.), whereas food production increases arithmetically (1-2-3-4).  The logical (at the time) conclusion was that the growing population would soon outgrow the slower expanding food supply resulting in massive starvation, widespread disease, and devastating military conflicts.

Fast forward. . .does any of this sound familiar?  Once again, the group now labeled “Neo-Malthusians,” is wringing its collective hands in anguish as the world population continues to increase toward a mid-century maximum estimated to reach 9.0 to 9.5 billion (at which time, it is believed that the fertility rate will drop to or below the replacement level of 2.1, resulting in its plateauing and beginning to drop).  But with another 1.5 to 2.0 billion new mouths to feed between now and 2050, the strident call for population control measures is once again echoing off the walls of reason.  During recent decades a number of pundits have cautioned against the dire consequences of out-of-control population growth.   They include such well-known and widely believed pundits as Paul Ehrlich, Lester Brown, Carl Sagan, Werner Fornos, and Garrett Hardin.

I began college teaching in 1960 and Population Geography was one of my early course offerings.  At the time, I must admit to having been a devout member of the “panic over population” crowd.  During the 1960s and on into the 1970s, we had a plethora of persuasive literature that more-or-less confirmed and strengthened our perceptions, fears, and resolve to “do something about the problem.”  The polemics catered to our firm conviction that human population growth was on an out-of-control doomsday-heading spiral.  Numerous books pandered to our concerns and reinforced the firm conviction that our species was reproducing itself into oblivion.  They include such titles as:  Famine – 1975!, The Population Bomb,  Our Plundered Planet, Moment in the Sun, The Population Dilemma, Population Crisis, Our Crowded Planet, and my personal favorite, Standing Room Only. 

But wait. . .many of the “modern era” calls of  alarm were most stridently issued more than a half century ago—and we’re still here!  And by nearly any measurable index, humankind is doing not only well, but infinitely better than at any previous time in history!  What happened?   Could the gurus—both then and now—somehow got it wrong?  In 1960, the population was approximately 3.0 billion.  Today it stands at about 7.4 billion.  As you would expect, this nearly 250 percent growth over a span of 57 years (as of 2017) has raised a red flag of alarm in many quarters as population-related issues once again appear to be moving into the forefront of social concerns.  But is there really cause for alarm?  What story is told by selected demographic (and related) data?

1960  2017 Status
Human population 3.0 billion 7.4 billion 4.4 billion gain
Fertility rate 5.0 2.4 2.6 decline
Crude birth rate (per 1,000) 34 19 15/1,000 decline
Crude death rate (per 1,000) 18 8 10/1,000 decline
Life expectancy at birth 54 74 20 year increase
Percent hungry and malnourished 50+ 12 40%+ decline

Many other statistics could be cited, such as per capita income, level of educational attainment, access to clean water, health care, agricultural production, and so forth.  All show remarkable progress during the past half century.  Whereas pockets of poverty and hunger remain in the Less Developed world, conditions in Latin American, southern and eastern Asia, and even a number of areas in Africa have improved immensely.  And in those areas of Africa where conditions have not improved, governmental failure, rather than population numbers or density, is primarily at fault.  Because of inept government, the economy is stagnant and unable to provide adequately for the people.   Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe may be the most egregious example among many on the continent.

What happened. . .where did the harbingers of gloom and doom go wrong?  First and foremost—and I admit that this is going to be extremely difficult for many readers to grasp—the population “problem” has little if anything to do with numbers of people per se. Rather, it has everything to do with culture:  what people know and are able (and willing) to do.  Of particular importance are the political, economic, and social aspects of a people’s way-of-life.  In this context, two extremely important concepts must be considered:  overpopulation and carrying capacity.

Most definitions of overpopulation refer to crowding:  the more people and the greater the density, the more overpopulated a place is considered to be.  Surprisingly, however, this concept has little to do with actual population numbers or density. Rather, it is based upon a number of cultural factors.  Using this guideline, a working definition might be:

Overpopulation is a condition in which the culture of a defined population and area is unable to adequately provide the basic needs of that population as determined by its own perceptions and standards. 

Common sense should indicate that people tend to cluster in locations where they can make a living (by whatever means).  It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the world’s wealthiest and best off countries in terms of scale of living (standards are goals; scale is the measure of actual attainment) are also some of the most densely populated, e.g.,  Monaco, Singapore,  the Netherlands, and Japan.  Conversely, many countries with very low population densities rank among the world’s least developed and most impoverished, i.e., they are overpopulated.

Carrying capacity is a concept most directly associated with livestock grazing:  how many head of stock can a particular parcel of land support, given its grazing potential? Demographers and others have long applied the idea to humans and the different environments they occupy.  Admittedly, the concept is very persuasive for those who fail to recognize how the world works in terms of human ingenuity and ability.  People, by virtue of their culture—in this context the most important traits being economy, technology, government, and society—and if able to pursue their dreams unfettered by political, economic, or social obstacles, are able to transform landscapes in order to make them more productive.  Further, domestic natural resources and the overall condition of the natural environment, per se, are of little relevance in determining human well-being.  For example, more than 95% of the resources used in Japanese industry must be imported.  Dirt poor Bolivia, on the other hand, is rich in resources, as are a number of very impoverished African states.  For every impoverished population occupying a “challenging” environment, there also are affluent populations living in similar conditions.  For example:

Humid tropics Central Africa Hawaii, Singapore
Deserts Sahara Southwestern United States
Rugged mountains Central Andes Switzerland, Colorado Rockies

In this regard, it is also important to employ an historical perspective.  What were the earliest inhabitants of a particular environment able to do, i.e., what was the land’s carrying capacity given their level of technology?  (Here, it will be useful to answer the question for your area of residence.)  What are contemporary residents able to do in order to make the environment more productive?  How have population and the land’s carrying capacity changed during the past century or so and what developments made those changes possible?  Simply stated, how has the carrying capacity of southeastern Nevada changed from the time the area was home to the Paiute Indians versus the economic activity of present-day Las Vegas?  The physical geography has not changed; rather, it has been transformed and made more productive.  Looked at another way, some areas have a low population density (e.g., my home state of South Dakota), but are engaged in activities (such as productive agriculture) that help support large populations elsewhere.

But what about. . .living space, agricultural space, food supply, and natural resources?

When discussing the human population and its future, certain questions are always raised (and legitimately so).  Let me address four of those most frequently asked.

What about living space; isn’t the planet becoming increasingly crowded?  Actually, the answer is no.  A little number crunching reveals some startling realities.  For example, if the entire human population was placed together and dumped into Arizona’s Grand Canyon, they would fill about 10% of the gorge and be nearly out-of-sight.  Or looked at another way, if all 7.4 billion people were standing together, each occupying an area of three square feet, they would cover less than 700 square miles, or an area 20 x 35 miles. Clearly, people do not create a space problem.  Rather, it is the environmental transformation—the human imprint on Earth’s surface—resulting from what people do and what they require for survival.  Today, more than half of the world’s people live in urban environments.  Worldwide, as cities grow, migration is draining the countryside of its people.  In a number of countries, in fact, rural depopulation, hence, abandoned agricultural land, is viewed as a critical problem.

Figure 1. Panoramic view in southern Oregon, including an area of roughly 700 square miles, the area covered by the entire human population if standing together with each person occupying an area of three square feet. (Photograph by Zok Pavlovic.)

Are we in jeopardy of running out of productive agricultural land?  To answer this question, one must once again think in terms of cultural differences.  In the United States, most farming relies on space, heavy equipment, and energy.  Throughout much of the world, the reliance is upon intensive human labor, with minimal equipment (other than hand implements), and very limited space.  If every family in the world had a home and farmland the size of an average family’s agricultural plot in Asia, all Earth’s people and their small farms would occupy an area approximately the size of the state of Texas.  During recent decades, including within the United States, a huge amount of farmland—in some areas over 50%–has been taken out of production.  Also, huge strides have been made (and will continue to be made) in terms of increasing the productivity of agricultural land.  Although genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have their share of critics, some experts believe that their wider acceptance has the potential to equal if not surpass the Green Revolution in terms of future agricultural productivity.

And what about the global food supply?  This is the “problem” on which most alarmists have focused their attention since the time of Malthus.  Here, an historical perspective will be most helpful.  Geographer William A. Dando authored a very revealing book, The Geography of Famine (1980).  Throughout recorded history, famine has been the leading cause of catastrophic death and by a wide margin.  During the past century, however, the period in which the human population has nearly quadrupled, famines have become fewer in number and far less severe in terms of deaths.  Several factors account for this decline.  First, agricultural production has soared due to better land use practices, wider use of fertilizer and pesticides, and better strains of crops.  Similar strides have been made in meat production throughout much of the world.  Second, huge improvements have been made in food preservation, storage, and distribution.

And finally, the human factors most responsible for famine, such as inept governments, have been minimized in much of the world.  As a percentage of the human population, fewer people are hungry today than at any previous time in human history.  A century ago, about 80 percent of the world’s population was undernourished.  Today the figure is around 12 percent.  Dare we believe, as some experts suggest, that hunger will be completely erased by mid-century when the population is projected to peak at 9.0 to 9.5 billion?        

Finally, are we going to run out of natural resources?  Admittedly, many essential resources are non-renewable.  When they are gone, they are gone.  Eventually, some will be depleted.  But human ingenuity always seems to come up with alternatives.   Centuries ago, people throughout much of the world were concerned over widespread deforestation.  What will we do for fuel?  In the latter part of the 19th century, there was deep concern over decline in the whale population and the prospect of running out of whale oil as the then dominant fuel in many areas.  Then kerosene. . .the list goes on (and on and on).  Today, we are so rich in energy sources that there are millions of people who advocate the abandonment of what may be the planet’s two chief energy resources:  nuclear and fossil fuels.  The late economist, Julian L. Simon believed that humans were the ultimate resource.  Human ingenuity, I am confident, will continue to solve resource (and other) problems over which many express deep concern.

And the future. . .what does it hold in store?  Looking back over the past half century or so, there has been a perpetual state of panic over population growth.  The “catastrophic” increase in human population has been perceived by many to be the catalyst for an impending disaster of catastrophic magnitude.  Such fears often are fueled by baseless polemics from panderers who in some way benefit from public hysteria.  In this case, the wisdom conveyed in “just follow the money” is rather appropriate.

During my lifetime we have faced countless “crises,” some real, but most imagined.  Nearly all of them failed to materialize (remember the hysteria surrounding ozone depletion, and Y2K with its worldwide breakdown of computers?).  Today, of course, anthropogenic global warming is at the fore of environmental concerns.  (Despite the fact that the human population and the biosphere have both thrived during warm periods and greatly suffered when the planet’s temperature dropped.)  Through these and countless other supposed crises, we have managed not only to survive, but to thrive.  Evidence of our success is clearly illustrated by the ever-increasing well-being of a continuing to grow human population.  And, yes, many European and Asian countries are begging their citizens to have more children.  They see population decline as a serious threat to their national well-being.

Panic over Population: Perceptions, Pundits, Polemics, Pandering