Overpopulation: Avoiding the Dismal Theorem

Every species on the planet Earth has a natural limit to its population size. A species can increase its population to a point, but eventually the multitude of organisms outgrows all available resources, which causes a population decline. Due to the fragility of ecosystems, an explosion of a single species could lead to serious unbalances within the environment, whether food sources, space or the existence of other species.

Where, then, is the human limit? More appropriately, where will the human limit be? The current population is just above 6.6 billion people and is rising. It seems safe to assume that at some point the current J-shaped population curve (one that increases exponentially), fed by the last few centuries, will eventually tip over into an S-curve, which levels out around the limit of carrying capacity. Whether or not this change in population will be forced or willful depends on humanity’s ability to act despite cultural, moral and political obstacles.

In TANSTAAFL: The Economic Strategy for Environmental Crisis, Edwin Dolan presents T.R. Malthus’ “dismal theorem,” which paints a grim future for a planet filled with too many humans. According to this theorem, the cost of living and food will rise proportionally to salary. This means that people living at or below subsistence level will eventually fall to poverty and will cease to reproduce due to poor living conditions, crowding and lack of nourishment. The groups just above subsistence level will then be at risk of falling to poverty. Essentially, only the rich minority will be able to survive and multiply while the lower classes suffer immensely. The lack of sustenance will cause the population to reach equilibrium by multitudes being forced and snuffed by destitution. (Dolan, Edwin, 59)

A picture as dire as this is hardly imaginable. Still, there are an estimated 100 million homeless people and hundreds of millions more who live at or below subsistence. (Capdevila, Gustavo) Worryingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, most of these people are located in cities and other urban areas. Urban growth is a threat in itself. Cities, especially in developed countries, have grown at a disproportionately high rate. In the United States, for example, in 1800, 5% of people lived in towns of more than 2,500 people. However, by 1975, 73% lived in cities of over 100,000. (Southwick, Charles, 168) This trend has been repeated all over the world, from developing to developed nations. Environmentally, the expansion of cities is incredibly detrimental. As Charles Southwick states, “cities are parasitic on the surrounding landscape. … [They] must import food, water, air, construction materials and most natural resources… [and] must export waste products in gaseous, liquid and solid forms.” Cities are also centers for crime, unemployment and poverty, not to mention pollution. Despite all of the difficulties of city living, people still flock there in hopes of fulfilling dreams and grasping opportunities.

Cities are one example of the bustling technologic advances that facilitate the huge population incline. Cities must use increasingly advanced technologies to grow and house so many people in a very small space. Technology, as a whole, has created a trend toward better living conditions. Agriculture, transportation and a better understanding of the human body have paved the way to the current trend of high birth rates and low death rates. However, these increasing birth rates are putting excessive pressure on the environment. Especially in developing nations, a disproportionally large amount of the population is of child bearing age or younger. Most of these developing regions are located in or near “Hot spots,” or regions of fragile tropical wilderness. (“Population, Health and Environment”) Increasing population in these areas leads to huge amounts of deforestation and desertization to feed more people. Unfortunately, most of these peoples have little knowledge about forest conservation and sustainable farming.

As Dolan laments, “ the fastest population growth and the greatest increases in total numbers are occurring in the countries least able to support this growth.” (Dolan, 166) Poverty is sometimes viewed as a result of population explosions. Societies that exceed their resource bases experience shortages in everything from food to jobs to shelter. With this sort of crisis, there is little chance to raise the standard of living. Poverty can also be interpreted as the cause of high population growth. Poverty-stricken peoples generally lack education and health care. In addition, especially in agriculture-based societies, children are often seen as an asset and are put to work as soon as they are capable. Unfortunately, families who need help to survive often reproduce excessively in case of infant mortality. But, as was stated above, infant mortality is dropping, so these families continue to expand. Many cultures not only have too many people but also morally disagree with contraceptives and family planning.

It appears that agriculture and the increasing population go hand in hand. However, a hard reality faces the human race considering the rate at which fossil fuels are being depleted. Food production, from fertilizers to transportation, relies heavily on energy provided by these fossil fuels. Humans are attempting to tap new sources of fossil fuels, but realistically speaking, even if a temporary source is found, eventually it will be used up as well. Converting the entire world to a different source of energy would probably mean grand changes in other aspects of life, from the meaning of products and energy to jobs and laws. Perhaps this hypothetical lifestyle would be far better than the alternative of cramped space, food and energy shortages at the rate we are depleting our land and resources now.

In my opinion, educating the masses that have control over food production, from small-scale farms to huge industrial juggernauts, is not the way to go. Instead, humans will need to reassess their desired lifestyle. There is no plausible way of leveling the field when it comes to socioeconomic standings. However, working to improve conditions of the lower class, especially in third world nations, seems to be a step in the right direction. With family planning and education, it’s possible for families to realize and benefit from bringing fewer lives into the world. Radical changes have yet to come, but some solutions to the population problem have been implemented. Family planning has had affects on birth rates, but, as Dolan states, “these programs must also influence adolescents and children entering reproductive age” in order to make a significant, long-term change. (Dolan, 171) Health and education programs, such as those affiliated with the Sierra Club, offer hope. However, it is common that such programs are met with resistance. After all, cultural and societal norms, such as religious beliefs and political stances, are much more influential than an invisible “eco-limit.” It’s not hard to imagine that a family struggling to survive will be open to information about facts about over population. Not to mention, these programs are unwieldy simply due to the momentum of population growth.

What makes the population problem especially hard to address is the reaction of governments. The United States, for example, only changed its opposition to population planning in the 1990’s. Even now, abstinence-only education is still popular among school systems. However, for many countries, governments have taken the initiative to limit population growth by economic benefits and population planning. Singapore, for example, not only provides birth control education and family clinics, but also economic benefits for smaller families. These small steps may be far from halting overpopulation, but there may be hope for further initiatives in the direction of public health, family planning, and population control. By controlling the population, pressure is relieved from the planet, which means resources are spread more easily across the masses, so both the planet and the people win.


Capdevila, Gustavo. "HUMAN RIGHTS: More Than 100 Million Homeless Worldwide." Inner Press Service. IPS News Service. 17 Apr. 2008 <>.

Dolan, Edwin G., Ch. 5 from "TANSTAAFL: The Economic Strategy for Environmental Crisis" 1974, pp. 55-72.

"Population, Health and Environment." Population, Health and Environment. 17 Apr. 2008 <>.

Southwick, Charles H., Ch. 15 from "Global Ecology in Human Perspective" Oxford Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 159-182