Overpopulation: A Suburban Cancer?

Michael Ahn

Over the course of human history on earth, the issue of overpopulation has been an underlying threat to the growth and prosperity of human civilizations.  While the human population has been able to grow at an increasing rate and there is no question that humans will be able to increase their numbers, there is the question of whether the planet earth will be able to sustain such tremendous numbers in the future.  Already the earth is experiencing changes in its climate and terrestrial surface as the industrial might of humans continue to exploit its natural resources and ravage the clean air, land and waters.  Southwick in his Chapter 15 excerpt Human Populations introduces a very interesting analogy between the human population and cancer cells. 

“Other scientists consider human population growth ‘an ecopathological process’
that is out of control and injuring the earth.  In this sense, such population growth
in some parts of the world is carcinogenic, a ‘cancer-like growth’ with the
potential of destroying the global ecosystem.” 

Perhaps this insightful metaphor could provide not only the negative and threatening connections the human population has with cancer but also provide possible approaches to resolve and ameliorate the human population stress on the global ecosystem.

  The basic criteria of cancerous growth have much in common with the characteristics of human population growth.  These include: “1) rapid, uncontrolled growth, 2) invasion and destruction of adjacent tissues and environments, 3) metastasis, or spread by colonization, 4) dedifferentiation, or loss of distinctiveness in individual components” and “furthermore, the malignant process in an individual or an ecosystem often involves the production of toxic metabolites.  It is very interesting to see the striking similarities of the destruction caused by uncontrollable agents upon their host bodies, and it also brings forth a different perspective to our existence on the planet. For too long has the human race considered themselves the rulers and masters of the planet earth and for too long have we forgotten our place in the ecosystem as a collective species interacting with the living and nonliving elements of the environment in which our actions have left the biggest impacts and effects.  Perhaps we can relate this metaphor to another aspect of human growth population, one which has manifested itself since the end of World War II and contributed to the cancerous spread of human disturbances in nature: urban sprawl.  Spreading forth outwardly from metropolitan hubs of dense human populations, the suburbs have become the vehicles of immense land development, converting valuable rural lands and fragile ecosystems into immense housing subdivisions, shopping complexes and office buildings with vast highways to connect them across wasteful and inefficient distances.  Because these rural acres are extremely cheap to purchase, developers have progressed unchecked to churn out large and spacious housing units, utilizing more land for lawns, garages, roads and parking spaces.  The construction of these housing divisions can itself have irreversible consequences on the environment when rivers and streams are rerouted or dammed, hills and rocks are flattened, and forests are cut down.  These housing subdivisions in turn attract the growing population of families looking to settle down in reasonable housing units in clean and quiet neighborhoods, away from the concentration of major cities and towards a sedentary, isolated life in the supposed “country-side”.  They bring with them their dependency on automobiles (for lack of better transportation and to travel the commuter distances) and raging consumption for fossil fuels, and thus their nonstop exhausts of greenhouse gases.  These suburbs have become the new interface for humans and the natural world; it has become more than just a buffer between urban metropolitan skylines and the roaming countryside, they are the invading forces breaching deeper and deeper in to the very lifelines of the natural ecosystem.

Overpopulation may not be the question of how many, but a question of where.  It is irrefutable that the race of humans will continue to steadily grow and humans will address the problems of supporting that population through tech fixes and innovations but the issue of sustainability and whether the population can actually continue to live on the earth involves addressing the very livelihood of the environment.  Paul Ehrlich once predicted that the by the end of the 20th century, the human population will have grown so large and beyond the carrying capacity that mass starvation was inevitable.  On the contrary, there has not been a mass starvation or famine due to agricultural and technological advances to produce more food.   Humans are incredibly adaptable and flexible to their environments; they can manipulate and capitalize on resources to best situate their conditions for survival.  The focus must now be shifted towards the health of the earth and the geography of the humans living on the planet’s surface.  How can the ever-growing population situate themselves on the earth without the fear of completely destroying the planet and themselves? 

Suburban and cancerous cells share the ability to attack and colonize adjacent environments; all it takes is one rogue tumor cell circulating in the arteries to reach another neighborhood of healthy resources before growing in to another life-threatening tumor.  Cancer can become incredibly malignant and threatening if it spreads throughout the body, attacking all crucial organs and systems of the body at once and beyond the ability of the body’s defenses.  It is better to localize and concentrate those cancerous cells for easier, more efficient and better-supervised treatment.  Containment is a key element in treating cancer and perhaps that is a viable solution to control human impact on the environment.  This containment is translated into urban planning and designs best reflected in New Urbanism, a code of planning principles highlighting compact, proximal neighborhoods integrated with sustainable and green ideas.  Regarded as the answer to the destruction of suburban sprawl, new urbanism calls for the rebirth of traditional neighborhoods focused on pedestrians, not automobiles, allowing residents to live closer to the places they eat, work, and play and decreasing the demand for rural land.  While population growth may not be altered, the spread of this population and the extent of its impact can be controlled via containment.

If humans are to live in exceedingly high numbers, they must learn to live in higher densities.  It is not their right to consume volumes (consider the airspace above a plot) of land to satisfy our distorted conception of personal space with no regard for the consequences.  If humans are to be considered above the analogy of a pathogenic cancer, then they must start to behave above the mentality and nature of cancer cells and become living species playing their part in the grand flow of life on earth.


Southwick, Charles H.  Global Ecology in Human Perspective.  Chapter 15 Human Population. Oxford University Press.  1996

Dr. Warren Hern's work relating human cancers and human populations (link added 8 April 2011)

Davis, Lisa Selin.  “A (Radical) Way to Fix Suburban Sprawl”.  Time Magazine.  June 11, 2009.

Dowling, Timothy J. “Reflections on Urban Sprawl, Smart Growth, and the Fifth Amendment”.  University of Pennsylvania Law Review.  Vol. 148, No. 3, January 2000.

Kunstler, James Howard. James H Kunstler dissects suburbia. TED talks.  Febrauary 4, 2004.

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