Overpopulation and the Environment:

Is Population Control the Solution?

Erica Wong

The current global population is booming: 6.8 billion people, as compared to only one billion people only about 200 years ago. There’s no end in sight for our earth’s population growth – the population is expected to increase by 1.23% per year. This means bad news for the Earth; there’s no question that the higher the population a country or the planet has, the more environmental degradation occurs. The more people there are, the more resource use occurs. Our Earth is already being pushed to its limits, resource-wise. There’s no question that the population needs to be controlled – but will it truly improve the state of the environment?

First of all, the adverse effects of overpopulation must be examined. Pollution of all types increases due to people living in close quarters. More cars on the roads leads more air pollution, and a higher population leads to water pollution, since there are more opportunities to dump waste in the oceans. The oceans will also be depleted because of overfishing.

In addition, with the clustering of people into cities and the increasing technological advances, global warming has become a problem. More fossil fuels are being burned, which leads to higher levels of greenhouse gases (the level of greenhouse gases has increased by 61% by 1970) and subsequently, warmer global temperatures. This will lead to rising sea levels and the potential for areas to be flooded and agriculture to be destroyed. Global warming will also cause more extreme weather events such as severe droughts and storm patterns, which in themselves can also cause habitats to be destroyed beyond reasonable repair.

Of course, the more people there are, the more room they must need in order to build homes and businesses, as well as grow food. Thus, deforestation is occurring at alarmingly high rates. Eighty percent of the Earth’s original forests have disappeared and one-third to one-half of the Earth’s surface has been transformed from its original state. As a result, two-thirds of Earth’s species might disappear by the end of this century due to their loss of habitat. The Green Revolution of the 1960s made agriculture much more fruitful with the introduction of pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation – more food could then be produced for the Earth’s burgeoning population. However, agriculture uses most of the Earth’s available freshwater – more than half of it is currently being used – by 2025, this percentage could increase to 70%. Increasing numbers of livestock degrade the land because of constant grazing, and the usage of pesticides has led to not only the disappearance of certain plants and insects that are beneficial to the environment, but also the pollution of rivers and oceans due to run-off.

So, countries around the world have instituted international family planning (IFP), which offers financial assistance to fund programs that advocate the responsible planning of the number and spacing of children. IFP prevents women from having high-risk or unintended pregnancies, provides contraceptives and education for girls (women who are educated have less children later in life; in addition, better educated women tend to be wealthier, and therefore don’t feel the need to have children who can work to support the family) and provides better overall pre- and post-natal care (if the infant mortality rate drops, families will feel less compelled to more children to “replace” the ones who died). IFP appears to be successful; contraceptive use is now 30% higher since the mid-1960s.

The thing is, does IFP really help to slow the rate of environmental degradation? It remains to be seen. Much of the damage done to the environment has been so great, it cannot be easily reversed. After all, IFP was only instituted in the middle of the 20th century, after centuries and centuries of damage to the Earth. It will take many more years of countries’ meticulous institution of IFP in order to determine what effects it has, if any.

There are also some ethical issues involved with IFP. China, the most populous country in the world, instituted a “one-child” policy in order to control their rapidly growing population. This rule does not extend throughout all of China – ethnic minorities and people living in rural areas are exempt. However, the “one-child” policy seems to be working; established in 1979 by Deng Xiaoping, the population growth has been reduced by as many as 300 people since then. So if this policy does indeed work, what’s wrong with it? Human rights advocates cite China’s use of not only fines to punish those families with more than one child, but also forced abortions and sterilizations as violations of basic human rights. After all, shouldn’t people have the right to choose how many children they want? Also, sexism is inherent in this policy; many families will have gender-specific abortions and only abort female babies. Now, the gender ratio for babies born in China is 118 males for every 100 females, as compared to 105 males for every 100 females in most other parts of the world.

The idea of population control as a way to lessen environmental degradation is a complex one; ethics and human rights are involved, not just global warming and pollution. It is not even clear whether IFP even works in the long run. Thus, the best way to combat our Earth’s growing population and its effect on the environment is to educate people about what they can do to reduce their impact on natural resources.

Works Cited

"China's One-Child Policy." 7 Feb 2006. 23 April 2006. <http://geography.about.com/od/populationgeography/a/onechild.htm>

"Global Population Growth: The Numbers and What They Mean." National Wildlife Federation. 30 March 2005. 22 April 2006. <http://www.nwf.org/population>

"The Importance of International Family Planning." National Wildlife Federation. 30 March 2005. 22 April 2006. <http://www.nwf.org/population>

"Population and Agriculture." National Wildlife Federation. 30 March 2005. 22 April 2006. <http://www.nwf.org/population>

"Population and Forests." National Wildlife Federation. 30 March 2005. 22 April 2006. <http://www.nwf.org/population>


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last updated 4/23/06