Is the Earth Getting a Little Packed?


                             By: Chris Milla



            The little animatronic children at Disney World were right, it is “a small world after all”; maybe even too small. At the beginning of the present century there were approximately 1.7 billion people in the world(Southwick pg.159). Today, there are nearly 6 billion people in the world. The world’s population has more than tripled in the span of a hundred years. Given that the earth’s population is constantly on the rise and seeing as how our natural resources are gradually being depleted, we must ask ourselves: what is to become of us and what is to become of our environment? In order to understand this question we must first have a thorough understanding of whether or not there is a population crisis.. Having understood this, we must then look at the consequences, if any, of the aforementioned population dilemma. Finally, it is imperative to see whether the governments of the world have appreciated this situation as a crisis and whether or not they have acted.


I) Population Crisis?

            Population concerns began in 1798 when Thomas Robert Malthus, an Anglican clergyman, wrote an essay entitled An Essay on The Principle of Population (link(link). The essay focused on the relationship that he believed existed between population growth and human subsistence levels (by ‘subsistence’, Malthus meant anything from food to jobs to land).  Malthus argued that the earth’s population expanded ‘geometrically’ while “’subsistence increases only at an arithmetic ration’”(linklink). This meant that at some point human beings would experience a scarcity of land, food and jobs, leading to “human misery and catastrophe” (Southwick pg. 159). This time of misery is described as a time where the poorest classes in society strive for survival and where every other class (except the very wealthy) falls to the level of subsistence. Author Edwin G. Dolan describes this period of time as a, “picture of a society in which affluence can exist only against the backdrop of miserable masses,” (59).

            At the opposite end of the spectrum, some scientists have argued that overpopulation and the depletion of our natural resources are not genuine problems and therefore, will not pose a serious threat to our existence. In particular, economist Julian Simon, has argued that the earth’s rich natural resources coupled with our massive economic growth and technological advances will ensure that a greater amount of people will live in better conditions than ever before (Southwick pg. 160). This optimistic perspective along with the Malthusian point of view both present convincing data and arguments. Yet, because of the extremity of each position, the two theories are flawed in several respects.

The Malthusian perspective and the extreme optimistic perspective are both flawed in some respect. The Malthusian assumes that the population will continue to grow at the rate that it is currently growing. It fails to consider the fact that some generations, for instance the baby boomers generation, had a great deal more births than other generations. In turn, when a large generation reaches the ends of their lives, many more people will die than are being born (Dolan pg. 63). Furthermore, the Malthusian perspective is also very deterministic. Doom seems almost inevitable. The overly optimistic perspective fails in the sense that it seems to be turning a blind eye to the fact that the world’s population is in fact increasing at an alarming rate. And while yes, there are more people living far better than ever before, there are also far more people living worse than ever before (Southwick pg. 161).

For this very reason, I feel that the middle of the road perspectives ring more true than the aforementioned theories. Some scientists have acknowledged that possibility of a population crisis, but have argued that by then, we will have developed some technological breakthrough that will help us overcome this crisis. Scientists belonging to this school of thought have argued that the earth can accommodate twenty million times its present population (Dolan pg.58). It would take approximately 890 years for us to reach that level of population and by then, or before then, some form of technological breakthrough will have fixed our problem (the tech-fix as discussed in class) (Dolan pg. 58).  Another middle of the road perspective argues that maybe at some point something will happen that will “bring the birth rate and death rate of a society at a higher-than-subsistence standard of living” (Dolan pg. 61). This “thing” that could happen can include an increase in homosexuality worldwide, a desire to be celibate or maybe even the increase of wars (Dolan pg.61).

 I am partial to the two aforementioned middle-of-the-road theories because on the one hand, they highlight the fact that there is a great possibility that we will experience a population crisis in the near future. Yet, on the other hand, these theories also stress that there are ways in which the crisis can be averted or overcome (by doing this, these theories do not confine themselves to the extremes that the Malthusian and the optimistic theories did). Taking these theories and theories similar to them as our basis for understanding the potential dangers of overpopulation, it is important to take the next step and look at how this population crisis may affect the environment.

II) What are the Effects on the Environment?

            Some scientists have likened the effects that human population growth has had on the earth to the effects of cancer on human beings (Southwick pg. 161). Among this group of scientists, Dr. Warren Hern (a physician, anthropologist and public health epidemiologist) has likened human population growth to cancer for a variety of reasons, namely: “(1) rapid, uncontrolled growth (2) invasion and destruction of adjacent tissues or environments (3) metastasis, or spread by colonization” (Southwick pg. 161). Also, scientists further this notion by bringing up the the fact that humans, in much the same way as cancer, produce toxic metabolites (Southwick pg. 161). This is quite a powerful accusation and it is also a good lead in into the discussion of whether or not human population growth is harmful to the environment or not.

            One prominent argument that overpopulation will lead to further destruction of the environment is the notion that with more people there will be more pollution. At first, this argument seems very rational. For the most part, people and man-made industries cause pollution. If there are more people, there will be more pollution. Yet, author Edwin Dolan points out certain fallacies in this argument. Dolan points out that tackling the pollution problem by attempting to reduce the amount of people in the world is similar to roasting a pig by burning down the barn (69). As he puts it:

“…a highway traveled by 1 million smog-free electric cars does not produce any more smog than a highway traveled by one such car; the total amount of smog produced is zero in each case. If you want to control pollution, go at it directly not via the back-door measure of population control.” (69)


By this, Dolan essentially means that the problem lies not in the number of human beings, but in their behavior.

            Another argument concerning overpopulation and its adverse effects on the environment is the notion that with more people there will be more urban growth. Cities are the primary centers of population growth inside most countries. People flock to cities for jobs, cultural experiences, educational institutions and so on. The downsides of this however, are both numerous and dangerous. As author Charles Southwick tells us,

Ecologically, cities are parasitic on the surrounding landscape. For life support, cities must import food, water, air, construction materials, and most natural resources. [In turn] they must export waste products in gaseous, liquid and solid form…. Pollution plumes from great urban centers are visible from space and certainly contribute to global atmospheric conditions. Cities modify local and regional weather, and may even have an impact on global climate patterns…” (169).


The one prominent benefit of having the world’s populations amassed in specific regions is that if they did not all live in cities, people would scatter across the world’s landscapes (Southwick pg.170). This would cause immeasurable harm to the environment.

            Having looked at some of the arguments that highlight the negative effects of overpopulation on the environment, it has become apparent to me that yes, overpopulation would in fact harm the environment. I say this for two particular reasons. First, although Dolan is right in arguing that pollution should be dealt with in the regulation end rather than in the population end, it seems obvious to me that it is easier to regulate a small number of people rather than to regulate a large number of people. With a greater number of people, rules and regulations are often times more loosely enforced. Secondly, although it is true that if there were no cities the scattered population development would seriously harm the environment, the reality we are faced with is that there are cities and the larger these cities become, the more they hurt the environment and deplete natural resources. Having established this connection between overpopulation and the destruction of the environment it is important to conclude by examining what has been done concerning this problem.


III) Conclusion: What, if anything, has been done?

            Different governments have reacted to the population problem in different ways. Some governments have ignored the problem, other governments have established official programs for family planning (India for instance- programs usually emphasize sexual education and contraceptive distribution), other governments have offered economic incentives to limit family size, governments like China have tried to coerce their people to limit family size and so on. Some of these responses have been more effective than others. Personally, I would argue that the emphasis should be on sexual education and distribution of contraceptives.