There has been a great deal of discussion on the future status of human population. Some go so far as to “consider human population growth to be one of the greatest problems in global ecology and a major driving force of environmental degradation” (Southwick, 1996, p. 160). Concerns about population have mostly revolved around the predicted rapid growth in the number of humans on the planet, but others have suggested that there may be massive depopulation in the future. Both these arguments are made using solid statistical data and historical trends for support. So which one is accurate? This paper will look at both sides of the argument, and attempt to reveal some inherent flaws in the thinking.
Many people are very worried because there are currently approximately three births for every death in the world, causing population to skyrocket to over 6.5 billion people. There are many negative implications of overpopulation. One is the harmful environmental effects that come with human presences will be compounded by the presence of more people. Another concern is the lack of resources on the earth, and how there are already hundreds of millions of malnourished and impoverished people in the world.
The most pessimistic view of overpopulation compares the presence of humans on the earth to that of a virus in the body. These people vie the current state of population growth as “an ‘ecopathological process’ that is out of control and injuring the earth” (Southwick, 1996, p. 161). This theory contends that humans are growing at an unchecked rate due to the lack of any natural predator, and we are abusing our environment for our own personal gains and advancements, which may eventually lead to the destruction of the earth.
There are a few general flaws with the overpopulation theories. First off, those that prescribe to the belief that human growth is modeled after that of a virus are overly simplistic and pessimistic. There is no denying that human presence has been detrimental to the environment, and there is also little realize to believe that an increase in population will not bring about more detrimental effects. Nevertheless, many humans recognize these problems, and are actively working to fix them. Additionally, unlike a cancerous virus that will continue to damage the body until it is destroyed, one has to be confident that if the effects of the human presence become too devastating on the earth, we will take drastic changes to alter our practices.
Perhaps that view is overly optimistic, and many will contend that we already have irrevocably damaged the earth, but survival is a basic human instinct shared by all. Our survival is contingent upon our habitat, and therefore one must conclude that measures will be taken to protect it at all costs.
Ben Wattenberg, in his March 8 th 2003 New York Times article, makes the contention that it will actually be a “Smaller World After All.” He cites declining fertility rates as his principal argument, and contends that the next crisis will not be overpopulation, but depopulation. If this were to be the case, it could have far reaching benefits for both the environment and mankind. Wattenberg’s argument highlights a major flaw in discussions about populations. Statistics on things such as fertility rates or population growth can be manipulated either way to make either argument. One can site low fertility rates and argue for depopulation, or one can site the recent trends of extreme growth to argue for overpopulation.
Another flaw in both the overpopulation and under-population theories is purely oversimplification. While it is useful to utilize historical trends to try and predict future outcomes, one thing we should have learned from history is that the future is exceedingly unpredictable. The myriad number of the things that may affect population such as war, disease or space exploration could all drastically affect the population situation and make this discussion unnecessary.
Additionally, there really aren’t too many active measures that can be taken. Some countries have experimented with limits on family size, but that is something that would be exceedingly difficult to either justify or enforce in most of the world. As Dolan noted, “I can see no more justification for the government to subsidize population growth than to legislate against it” (174, p. 65).
The rationalizations argued in this paper are perhaps frustrating in that no definitive conclusion is reached or argument constructed. But that is the state of the population issue right now. We may one day be overpopulated (and what defines overpopulation?), we may be under populated (same question), or the entire discussion may be unnecessary. The detrimental environmental and social effects may continue to be compounded, or they may be assuaged. In the interest of ending on a positive note, one can take solace in one of the few certainties shown throughout history. Human beings have an innate ability to adapt and an instinctive desire to survive, so there will always be reason to keep the faith.
Dasgupta, Susmita; Beniot Laplante; Hua Wang; David Wheeler. “Confronting the Environmental Kuznets Curve.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives. Vol. 16, No.1. Winter 2002. pp. 147-168
Dolan, Edwin G., Ch. 5 from “TANSTAFFL: The Economic Strategy for
Environmental Crisis” 1974, pp. 15-72.
Southwick, Charles H., Ch. 15 from “Global Ecology in Human Perspective”
Oxford Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 159-182.
Wattenberg, Ben J., NYTimes article: “It Will Be a Smaller World After
All” March 8, 2003.
Send message to Swarthmore College Environmental Studies
last updated 5/17/08webmaster