What to do about Overpopulation and the Industrial Revolution?

Scott Long

Overpopulation and the Industrial Revolution

The past two hundred years have witnessed a massive rise in both industrial and population growth. As a result we as a race have begun overusing and destroying our resources on a level never before seen in the history of humanity. OK. So what? Many would argue that we as a species need to expand; we have the right to control and use our environment to the extent that it will allow us. Humans can, should, and are affecting the world around them on a level never before seen or recorded by society. These last statements epitomize what I call “the economists view” of environmental degradation. We have always exploited the environment to a large degree, and we have always emerge fine, in fact, we are arguably more fine now than we have ever been in the past. So why bother?
What is the problem with overpopulation, one might ask? More people on the Earth? Great! More people to expand humanity! More geniuses born into each generation to solve the problems the last generation left behind. What’s the big deal? Surprisingly, on the order of serious environmental problems, few people outside the scientific or political spheres have any idea about the threat overpopulation poses. The Earth’s population as of now is about 6 billion right now. It took the entirety of human existence up until 1960 to reach the level of 3 billion. It took, oh, 30 years after that for the world’s population to double. How long will it take to double again? As of now, all the soldiers that died in World War II would be replaced within less than half an hour. No one has any idea how many people the Earth is actually able to hold. As of now, we are sitting on a larger version of Easter Island not sure when the shoe is going to drop. More geniuses born to solve our problems for us? Not if they are born in to peasant parents in an Indian town and never get the education they can use to help humanity. The truth is we have no idea how many people the Earth can hold. One can even argue that the Earth can’t support all the people it has now. Millions upon millions do not have it as cushy as Americans do, there is mass starvation in many third world countries as well as other problems associated with children. Forced castration was undertaken for a time in India, and the abortion of daughters is becoming an established practice throughout large portions of Asia.. As Ehrlich asserted in the 70’s, humanity is like the person falling off the Empire State Building, looking around when they’re half way down and marveling at how well things are going so far. Imagine a Petri dish full of bacteria that double its population every minute. The bacteria starts doubling at 11:00 and has filled all the space and used up all the food in dish by 12:00. How long before the bacteria fill the dish will they realize they have a space problem? The answer is 11:59. With the kind of exponential growth the bacteria demonstrate, the same kind humanity is starting too demonstrate also, they will have half filled the dish at 11:59, and will have completely consumed all the space and resources in it by 12:00.
What course can be taken to remediate overpopulation? Most suggestions resolve around family planning and economic expansion. Efforts to promote contraception and alternate birth control methods have some effect. However, the best way to reduce birth rates lies in economic expansion. Post-industrial countries, where medicine is advanced enough to keep child-mortality low, and where women have careers are the key. When families don’t need to rely on children for agricultural survival, they will be free to pursue smaller families. When women have their own careers to invest themselves in they will be less likely to view five or six children as desirable. Family planning aid should not be restricted, as the current government has done, and infrastructure should be promoted in the third world countries where the majority of the population explosion is going on. The Earth’s population will reach ten billion within 35 years. We can’t hope to support that many, we can barely support the world population as it is now. However, going down the same road of industrialization that Europe and the United States followed carries its own dangers. The coal based industrial expansion that the West relied on was the precursor for the pollution and global warming we are experiencing today.
The dangers of global warming I believe by now are well known. However, how can we as a society promote the conservation and new technologies that are necessary to reduce the level of greenhouse gases and environmental degradation now prevalent? Some specific suggestions involve the ultimate tech fix. Renewable energy sources provide both advantages and disadvantages. Wind power is promising, but is not efficient enough to ever handle the entirety of the world’s energy demand, which by the way, has been rising continuously and shows few signs of stopping. Hydroelectric has the potential to cause as much damage as it averts. They block fish migration from above the dam, and increase downstream soil erosion, as well as having the possibility to displace large populations of people. Solar energy is not efficient enough to be economically viable. As of now, we have no viable alternative to fossil fuels. We have the technology to conserve mass amounts of the energy we do create, but as of yet there is little concerted effort to implement it. Higher fuel efficiency in cars is possible. As early as the 1970’s oil crisis Volvo had a car that drove with 70 mpg. Part of the problem lies in the relative cheapness of oil in the U.S. When the entire cost of oil is not included in its market price there is no incentive to conserve. U.S. government subsidies on oil retard fuel efficiency standards and conservation. Economic incentives have the possibility to work, although it is true that any politician who attempted to impose them would be driven from office very quickly. However, there is a point past which I believe Americans should put aside their economic desires and attempt something not based on material concerns. Investment in alternative energy research can and should be undertaken. Ponder this: in the 1990’s, the post-it note company 3M invested in reducing their waste, and saved almost 70 million dollars in reduced disposal costs.
The industrial revolution and population growth have provided unprecedented growth for humanity. However, there are serious and possibly catastrophic consequences wrapped up in the willful ignorance of the problems they cause. Although we do not know specifically what final effects our own development will have on the world around us, we can and should plan on remediation of the problems that we have caused up to now. To those of the economic mindset above I suggest this, that to exploit the world around us without knowledge of its effect, or to continue to do so even though we are aware of the damage we are causing, is willfully stupid. If our environment is permanently degraded by the damage we cause we can have no one but ourselves to blame for inaction.

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last updated 2/6/03