...it all comes back to the earth...

The Effects of Overpopulation and Industrialization on the Environment

Lindsay Devon Brin

Once we humans hit on the idea of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, we had a means for exponentially increasing our population. Even as mere 2-legged, wingless creatures, humans could expand to cover the world, and pull from the earth nutrients to support this massive layer of people. The population increase has continued, and there are disagreements as to if and when the increase will end. The number of people on this earth is the indirect problem; more directly, the problem is that 6.3 billion people need a lot of food to survive, and the earth can only support so much. The industrial character of our societies on this earth means that our existence is an emphasized give and take: we take minerals from the soil and from the depths of the earth, and trees and water from the surface, and we give back all sorts of wastes and, in moments of intelligence, replant trees and create beauty.

Whether or not our enormous population is actually overpopulation, and thus a problem, is debated. Some theories predict futures of doom, in which our population is finally stabilized by widespread death, while others believe that our population will stabilize before the situation is anywhere near that morbid. (Southwick; Dolan) Whatever the population will do in the future, the fact remains that the amount of people we have on the earth now have a tremendous impact on the environment, in terms of both human actions and the space that humans take up. (Southwick) Furthermore, a large amount of people creates a demand for a large amount of energy and products, and the methods we use to fulfill the demands heavily impact the environment as well. While some of the problems of industrialization have been widely noticed and some have been solved, many remain unrecognized or ignored. Luckily, people seem to be becoming more and more aware of the environment, and methods of production may change to fit this perspective.

According to Southwick, scientists have used information on the availability of agricultural land, energy resources, pollution control and sustainability to calculate the optimal human population on earth to be 2 billion. The earth could and does support many more people than that, but even now there are problems of poverty, malnutrition, conflict and environmental deterioration. (Southwick) In most developed and developing countries, birth rates and death rates have fallen, but because death rates have fallen faster, population increase has resulted. (Several countries in Europe have reached or are near zero population growth, and so are exceptions to this general rule.) (Southwick) Thus, the world is looking at an even more excessive human population.

In “Coping with the Population Explosion,” Edwin Dolan comments that as the human population has increased, advances have been made in both agriculture and industrial technology, and so the earth is able to support more people than ever before. (Dolan) But even if we are able to more efficiently use the earth’s resources, and shift demand from one material to another, the fact remains that most of the resources we use are unrenewable. However long it takes, if we continue this pattern, we will eventually come close to the end of the string.

Dolan presents several ways that our population could reach equilibrium, one more morbid than the last. In the first case, a theory furthered by T. R. Malthus, there is some existing technology that causes a population limit. As population increases, the price of living rises relative to wages, leading to a halt in population growth of the poorest classes. One by one, the slightly higher middle classes will be pulled down to subsistence level, and eventually excess deaths of the poor will cancel out births in the rich, creating equilibrium. Another theory, called the “utterly dismal theorem,” involves charity to the poor, and ends up with everyone exhausted and in the gutter. Population is stabilized when people come home too tired and hungry to reproduce. A third, and happier, possibility is for the birth and death rates to reach equilibrium at a higher-than-subsistence standard of living. (Dolan)

This last case is obviously the best outcome, but whether or not it is possible is debated. Dolan argues that any sort of legislation will be fruitless because of differing viewpoints of the population, and the best option is to let the population work itself out spontaneously. While overpopulation is a broad problem that seems distant from many people’s lives, birth and children are near to people’s hearts, and so it is difficult to change the root of the problem. However, the World Health Organization has found that population growth slows when infant mortality rates are reduced, in part because mothers do not need to have many children to ensure that a few of them survive.(Southwick) Thus, there may be ways to use modern technology to solve an age-old problem.

Even if the situation never comes near Malthusian doom, the sheer amount of people on this world affects the environment immensely. For example, cities must take food, water, air, construction materials, and natural resources from the surrounding areas. Wastes from the city, such as garbage, human waste and industrial pollutants, must be brought out of the city. (Southwick) A city, a dense area of humans, is thus nowhere near self-sufficient, and harms the environment. Cities create massive amounts of water and air pollution, and are known to have homelessness, crime, unemployment, social welfare and poverty. This closely packed an area of humans seems counter productive to our earth’s well being. Cities do have benefits, such as efficiency and the ability to accommodate many people in a small area. But this is in part cancelled out by commuters who may drive 50 miles to get to the city. (Southwick)

Industry in our society produces many byproducts; two notable gases are CFCs and CO2. CFCs that are released in the atmosphere undergo a reaction that reduces the creation of ozone. Ozone in the atmosphere blocks UV rays, and increased CFCs mean depletion of ozone. Patterns of ozone movement in the atmosphere result in the depletion being centered over Antarctica and, though slightly less, over the Arctic Circle. (Fahey and Ravishankara) The reduced use and intense control of CFCs following the Montreal Protocol in 1991 means that the cause of the problem is greatly lessened, and it seems that ozone depletion has reached, or is about to reach, a peak. (Kerr) The hole over Antarctica should be noticeably reduced in 5 or 6 years. (Kerr)

The release of CO2 into the atmosphere creates another problem, distinct from that of CFCs. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat and causes global warming, and increase in air, earth and water temperatures. (Hansen) Humans have caused carbon dioxide to become a problem in several ways. Firstly, many industrial technologies involve burning fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Also, deforestation means that there are fewer trees to reabsorb the gas. The lack of carbon sinks then increases the problem. The Kyoto Protocol, developed by 160 nations in 1997, described methods to help decrease this problem. (Kyoto Protocol) While many countries did ratify the protocol, the United States did not. As global warming continues, it makes sense to at least decrease our effects on the global temperatures.

Waste-producing technologies in miniscule amounts should not seem to be an excessive problem, but this isn’t what is happening. Billions of people on this earth need energy and produce waste. Coupled with overpopulation, industry as it now occurs is dangerous to the environment. It is not impossible to have cleaner and safer sources of energy, and much human energy should be put into this area of research.

Back to the earth I screamed and
no one listened to me
Back to the earth I lived and they
all followed
Come and see my world

-Rusted Root, "Back to the Earth"

All bibliographical information taken from Professor Carr Everbach’s blackboard site for this Envs02 class: Human Nature, Technology and the Environment
Dolan, Edwin G., Ch. 5 from "TANSTAAFL: The Economic Strategy for Environmental Crisis" 1974, pp. 55-72.
Fahey, D. W., Ravishankara, A. R. "ATMOSPHERIC SCIENCE:Enhanced: Summer in the Stratosphere" Science, 1999, vol. 285, pp. 208-210.
Hansen, J., Ruedy, R., Sato, M., Lo, K., "Global Warming Continues" Science 2002, vol. 295, p. 275
Kerr, Richard, "A Brighter Look for Good Ozone" Science, 2002, vol. 297, pp. 1623-1624.
Southwick, Charles H., Ch. 15 from "Global Ecology in Human Perspective" Oxford Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 159-182.
text of Kyoto Protocol found at http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/convkp/kpeng.html; date found at http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/kyoto/kyotorpt.html


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last updated le 21 fevrier 2003