The Biggest Problem: Overpopulation

More people have been added to the world’s population in the past 50 years than in the preceding million years, bringing the total human population up to 6.5 billion people in 2006 (Raleigh; Connor). While the population continues to increase, however, the space and the resources necessary to satisfy these people might not be able to expand to meet their needs. According to some scientists, the Earth can only support 1 to 2 billion people in relative prosperity. This supposition is based upon a middle class standard of life, which includes a job, some kind of housing, a varied diet which is not limited by food and water shortages, at least one automobile per family and access to satisfactory education and health care; however, it also factors in the availability of agricultural land and the amount of pollution produced per person, which can be counteracted by a series of recycling and sustainability programs (Southwick, 161). While 1 to 2 billion people may be the Earth’s optimal carrying capacity, according to these scientists in 1996, we are now living in a world with 6.5 billion people, more than 3 times that number. Moreover, by the year 2050, even the lowest United Nations population projections put the human population at 7.7 billion people, although the most likely estimate is 9.4 billion, which comes as a result of a median fertility rate; however, the highest fertility curve, which estimates the population to be 11.2 billion people by 2050, a 93% increase over the 1996 population, is still potentially feasible as well (Raleigh). Those numbers are the reality that we are being forced to deal with right now.

The chances of the population naturally decreasing back down to 2 billion are very slim and there is no guarantee as to whether or not the resources that were available would be evenly distributed throughout the population. They certainly weren’t about a hundred years ago when the population actually was 2 billion people. Yet while more people are living longer and more fulfilled lives than at any other point in human history, more people are also living in situations of abject poverty and misery than ever before. The globe must not only limit itself to dealing with the suffering of the current population. Now more than ever, the world must take a longer view and ensure that there will not only be enough resources for the current generations of humans but the next one as well.

            Eighty percent of the world’s population currently lives in conditions ranging from mild deprivation to serve deficiency with one out of five people in the world hungry or malnourished, one out of three living without adequate fuel to cook or keep warm and one out of four adults attempting to survive without the ability to read or write (“Magnitude”; Southwick, 160). Some scientists see this trend as a result of high population growth. They argue that as a population exceeds its resource base an inevitable shortage of space, housing, food, jobs and social services will result, leading to impoverished conditions. As the population increases, governments must increase their economic growth by a rate of 2 to 3% merely to meet the same living standards that the current population currently subsists on, which leaves no room for economic growth within the people’s resource base and thus no chance for upward mobility (Southwick, 166).

Other scientists, however, see poverty as the cause of high population growth rather than the result of it. Without education, health care and a reasonable standard of living, families in impoverished nations are forced to produce more children in order to provide labor to help ensure the success of the family farm or business as well as build a system of support that will take care of them in their old age. Children provide the security that the government cannot in rural agrarian communities; however, a family in an impoverished country must have 6 to 8 children in order to ensure that 3 or 4 of them will survive to adulthood. Therefore if infant mortality rates could be reduced by 50% then the estimates of the world’s population would decline significantly (Southwick, 166).

Population is not merely effected by infant mortality rates, however, regardless of whether it increases the population or decreases it due to human social constructions. Historically, what has kept the human population in check has been extremely high death rates as a result of the immense loss of life than ensued during times of famine, war and periodic epidemics of infectious diseases such as the bubonic plague and tuberculosis. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, Europe had broken free of this equilibrium as new advances in medical technology counteracted the impacts of many of formerly deadly diseases and increased the longevity of the now burgeoning population. Mortality rates continued to decline throughout the 19th century as improvements in public health, sanitation, personal hygiene and living standards increased the average age of the population despite the negative impacts of industrialization and ill health that resulted from urbanization. Yet they did not experience the same precipitous increase of population that followed after WWII, in which the population increased by 3 billion people in less than 50 years, because they counterbalanced their improved survival with the desire for smaller families and the use of abortion and birth control (Raleigh).

While birthrates can be controlled through family planning facilities, social and cultural mechanisms and the education of women, the developing nations that need these solutions the most will not necessarily have access to them (Southwick, 164). As a result, 90 percent of the world’s population growth will occur in Asia, Africa and Latin America over the next twenty-five years with India and China providing the great contribution to the number as their current base population reaches reproductive maturity (Southwick, 166). This population growth will be in addition to the current population, which is going to present its own challenges as industrialized nations attempt to organize and finance health care for the 22% of its population that will be over 60 years of age as compared to 9% in 1990 (Raleigh).

Yet the problems of the future are not merely limited to overpopulation. We are also going to have to modify our current standards of resource consumption to build a sustainable future for the next generations of humanity, regardless of how big or small that number might be. Humans are currently taking advantage of about 20% more renewable resources than can be replaced each year and if the projected 2050 population of 9 billion people comes to fruition then some scientists say that it would take the natural resources of four planet Earths to sustain our needs (Conner). While there is the possibility of the tech fix with the advent of interstellar travel or the creation of a fantastical disutopias, in which the humans live in a 120 square meter room in a 2000-story building that spans the entire earth so that the population can increase to twenty times its current size, ultimately, the actions that we take over the next few years are going to have the most impact on the human population and humanity’s future, especially as the new bulge in population reaches sexual maturity. Therefore I believe we should be investing more time and energy into devising solutions in order to educate women, provide birth control and family planning and attempt to stem the problems before they start rather than planning for scenarios that we can hopefully prevent from happening.


Works Cited

Connor, Steve. "Overpopulation is Main Threat to Planet." Financial Times 7 Jan. 2006.

Dolan, Edwin G. TANSTAAFL: the Economic Strategy for Environmental Crisis. 1974. 55-72.

Raleigh, Veena S. "Trends in World Population: How Will the Millenium Compare with the Past." Human Reproduction Update (1999): 500-505.

Southwick, Charles H. Global Ecology in Human Perspective. Oxford UP, 1996. 159-182.

Southwick, Charles H. Global Ecology in Human Perspective. Oxford UP, 1996. 159-182.

"The Magnitude of Population Growth and Its Consequences." Population Media Center. 2003. <>.

Return to ENVS2 homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies

last updated 1/25/06