A Cultural Approach to Overpopulation 5/9/06

Joey Roth

Overpopulation is a condition that, for nonhuman organisms, can usually be absorbed and mitigated by the ecosystem. It is critical to remember that “overpopulation” does not refer to s specific population threshold, it refers to a ratio between population and available biological resources. When discussing Earth's carrying capacity, this ratio changes based on the development of new technologies that can increase the bioproductivity of available space. It can also change due to the depletion of non-renewable resources however, in which case a lower number of people would constitute overpopulation. The utility of the resource/ population ratio breaks down in modern human societies however. In this context, factors such as economics, politics, and the social climate can impact who gets the needed resources, and can thus lead to artificial pockets of overpopulation. Examples of such “artificial” famines are not difficult to find in history: China's Great Leap Forward, the Irish Potato Famine, Somalia in the 90's, etc. In fact, all major famines in modern history are “artificial” to some degree because each depended on large population densities or the mismanagement of resources, or both.

Although it has been construed as such, the issue of overpopulation is not a new one. Rev. Thomas Malthus (1798) originated the idea that human population growth is exponential, and predicted that Britain's current growth rate was unsustainable. Even before this, Jonathan Swift (1729) wrote A Modest Proposal which, along with becoming a classic of high school English classes during the unit on satire, suggests that eating Irish babies could save people from overpopulation-induced famine. Malthus was the first to write scientifically about overpopulation however, and his concept was summarized in what became the Malthusian growth model. It held that, while human population growth was exponential, the growth of the food supply was linear. The suggestion here was clearly that the food supply could not keep up with the “human supply”. While this prediction was valid within the technological climate of Malthus's time, advances in agriculture, specifically the Green Revolution, have significantly bumped up the Earth's carrying capacity. Because the revolutionary part of the Green Revolution was the application of petrochemicals to agriculture however, its practices have in effect tied the food supply to the oil supply, which, as discussed previously, is rapidly being depleted. While nuclear power could solve an energy crisis, it is unclear how the boost in farm productivity achieved through the use of petrochemicals could be sustained (for a reasonable price) in a world with a scarce supply of petroleum. In order to support population growth projections, either fa more land will have to be devoted to growing food, or individuals will have to radically alter their consumption habits.

This raises the concept of the ecological footprint. The term “population” as used in the Malthusian growth model belies the variability between different population groups and between individuals within those groups. The demands that one person places on he environment (that individual's “ecological footprint”) is not necessarily the same as another's. In fact, an individual from a developed nation and an individual from a developing or non-developing nation would likely have drastically different patterns of consumption, and hence ecological footprints, simply as a result of what's available in their respective ecologies. Culture has a way of adapting to the environment, and thus people in environments with limited resources may be able to use what's available to support more people than would individuals from American culture were they transported to a similarly scarce environment. A cultural shift in patterns of consumption may therefore be one of the only solutions available once the agricultural use of petrochemicals becomes untenable. There is already significant agitation towards this efficiency-oriented direction on the side of energy consumption, and things like the Prius, peak oil debate, Earth Day, and advances in photovoltaics all point to energy efficiency becoming a cultural value. Relatively little is being done to curb other forms of consumption, particularly in the realm of food. Consuming locally grown produce that is cultivated in the most sustainable, (not necessarily efficient) way could do much to curb one's ecological footprint. There is a vegetarian movement, but their doctrine generally focuses on the moral implications of eating meat, an argument that falls on deaf ears much of the time. If these activists instead focused on the fact that meat is one of the most energy-intensive ways of getting nutrition, much of the relative success of the environmentalism movement could be harnessed. I'm not personally opposed to the consumption of meat, but believe that it could be cultivated in far less ecologically demanding ways: cowpods, for example.

In my last essay I discussed how culture could be considered a form of technology. In the case of overpopulation, it may be the only truly effective “tech fix”. If we do not develop a worldwide cultural aversion to and condemnation of those who have obscenely large ecological footprints, no other technology other than space colonization will allow a significant increase of Earth's carrying capacity. Even space colonization is geared towards relieving the pressure on Earth.

I invite each person who reads this to take the Ecological Footprint Quiz: http://www.myfootprint.org/