Overpopulation - the root of our environmental crisis?

Diego Garcia-Montufar

It is tempting to see overpopulation as the root cause, or “a major driving force” (Southwick, 160) of environmental degradation. The present day world’s population of approximately 6.5 billion people is more than triple the population of the beginning of the 20 th Century, and the strain that these people are causing on the world’s resources – through consumption, transportation, living space, sewage and farming – could be enough to explain the environmental crisis that we face today. However, the picture is not that simple. Many aspects of the environmental degradation are indeed linked with overpopulation, but others – which are arguably the gravest problems, like global warming – may not be. In this essay I will attempt to explore the connection between overpopulation and environmental degradation. I will first look at the concept of overpopulation itself and then proceed to examine the world’s environmental degradation in order to see if a connection exists.

The problem of overpopulation and its link to environmental degradation is a tricky one to explore because of the difficulty to define both terms. Overpopulation does not refer to a large population, but is defined in terms of a connection between population and resources: if a place has a population larger than its resources can sustain, then it is overpopulated. Taking this into account, one could easily come to the conclusion that the world of today, where “one out of five people, including one out of three children under the age of five, is hungry or malnourished”, is overpopulated. But even a conclusion like this is problematic, because many problems like hunger, disease and inadequate housing are a problem of distribution, not of lack of resources. This means that today’s world produces more food than is needed to feed its 6.5 billion inhabitants, but not all of them have access to it (Waugh). Furthermore, if we agree that the world of today is overpopulated because of problems like hunger and poverty, then we must also take into account that these problems have been present throughout human history, which means that the world has been overpopulated for most of its time. But environmental degradation to the degree as we know it today is a recent problem.

The definition of environmental degradation is also problematic. Problems like contamination of rivers and deforestation have also been occurring for a long period of human history; they are therefore not a function of overpopulation. However, environmental problems like global warming, which could be considered the most threatening because of their global as opposed to localized effects, are recent problems in human history, so the connection with overpopulation could be easily made. “Many ecologists (…) see excessive consumption as an equally important cause of pollution and environmental deterioration. Most agree that the two factors [population growth and excessive consumption] work hand in hand to threaten the world’s ecological integrity.” (Southwick, 160.) Still, a close examination of the problem of global warming will reveal that population is not directly linked with the problem. The United States, which is the leading contributor of carbon emission to the atmosphere with 25.2% of total world carbon emissions (Nationmaster), has a population of 298 million people, only 5% of the world’s population (CIA World Factbook). In stark contrast, India has a population of more than 1 billion people, about one sixth of the world’s population, and contributes only 4.4% of the world’s carbon emissions. Moreover, in terms of resource availability and living standards, the United States is not an overpopulated country, whereas India is. From this we can conclude that global warming, the largest environmental threat that we face today, is not linked to overpopulation.

Edwin Dolan provides a good viewpoint about the problem of overpopulation and its relation to environmental degradation. He argues that what matters is not absolute quantity (the population) but the way resources are used (i.e. the productive allocation of resources). Dolan uses a simple example: “A highway traveled by 1 million smog-free electric cars does not produce any more smog than a highway traveled by such one car; the total amount of smog produced is zero in each case.” (Dolan, p. 69.) The lesson of the story is that “the two problems of population pressure and pollution abatement are, both conceptually and in practice, quite separate and distinct.” (Dolan, p. 69.)

Still, the viewpoint that population pressure is not related to environmental degradation at all is not true either, even though one may be fooled into it when following economic models like (name)’s. A larger number of people will inevitably represent a bigger constraint of some sort on the environment. Following with the example of India, we can identify some ways in which its overpopulation does affect the environment. The burning and throwing of corpses into the river Ganges, for example, was not a big problem when the population pressure was low. Nowadays that some cities alone are responsible for 200 corpses entering the river each day, however, the corpses are having some environmental consequences which affect the people who bathe in the river and those who drink water from it. In this case, we are dealing with a more localized problem, but an environmental problem nevertheless. Still, it is neither a major global environmental problem nor “a major driving force in environmental degradation.” (Southwick, p. 60)

Overpopulation does pose some negative environmental problems, but it is far from being a major driving force in environmental degradation. The reason is simple: environmental degradation does not depend on the number of resource users (the population) but in the amount of resources used in total. Under this light, excessive consumption – not overpopulation – becomes the threat. Thus, it is possible that country like the United States, which has a mere 5% of the world population, can consume 25% of the world’s resources and be the major contributor of global warming gases worldwide. The implications of this are far reaching, since it means that a country like the US need not cut back on its population growth, but rather cut back on consumption and resource use.

Works Cited

DOLAN, Edwin G.; TANSTAAFL: The Economic Strategy for Environmental Crisis, 1974.

SOUTHWICK, Charles H.; Global Ecology in Human Perspective. Oxford Univ. Press, 1996.

WAUGH, David; Geography, an integrated approach. Nelson Thornes, UK, 2002.

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last updated 02/06/07