Environmental Justice: Overpopulation and Industrialization

Michele Perch

The world’s population is growing at an annual rate of 1.5%, or 87 million people annually (Southwick 1996, p. 159).  This puts the population at close to 7 billion people, all of whom need to share resources and space.  The crude birth rate is falling, but crude death rates are declining even more (Southwick 1996).  This means the births per year per thousand people exceed deaths per year per thousand people, leading to a positive rate of natural increase in the population.  While there is not a universal consensus that the global population will continue to increase - like a 2003 United Nations report that calculates a 1.85 fertility rate and an eventually declining population – most studies agree that the future will closely resemble the past (Wattenberg 2003, p. 1).  In other words, the global population will continue to rise, and we must pay careful attention to the environment and its resources in order to sustain a healthy population.  Populations are growing the most in the developing world, due to a lack of education, lack of access to birth control, a history of high infant mortality rates, and perhaps a need for more children to help maintain the household (Southwick 1996).  These factors all reflect the low incomes per capita in developing countries, which correlate with other injustices present in the developing world, such as high levels of pollution.  This paper examines the effects of overpopulation and development on the environment and on the health of the world’s people, with a specific focus on the inequality between developing and developed countries.

People in developing countries suffer from lack of clean drinking water, access to sufficient medical care, and other resources and programs that are commonplace in the developed world.  It is not feasible to ensure that everyone live a comfortable lifestyle with 6.7 billion people already inhabiting the planet.  But if the world’s population continues to grow, even more people would live in poverty and have poor standards of living.  It is estimated that “an optimal human population on earth in terms of reasonable living standards is no more than 2 billion people” (Southwick 1996, p. 161).  While we have well surpassed the allotted two billion-person population needed to live “comfortably”, we must also recognize that a continuous rise in the global population is unsustainable in terms of human health standards and the environment.

It may be helpful to look at cities in developing countries as a measure of just how poor conditions could get in the rest of the world in the future, if the population continues on this path.  If the world reaches its limit of habitability, as many cities already have, we will see “nations straining to meet basic human needs for housing, employment, education, and health services” (Southwick 1996, p. 168).  A lack of these needs indicates more poverty, homelessness, welfare, disease, and crime.  In other words, not only will food, water, and other natural resources be scarce, but publicly provided goods will also be in short supply. 

Though the government does not provide it, fresh air is a public good that is significantly affected in developing countries.  The environmental Kuznets Curve, developed by Simon Kuznet examines fresh air in countries with varying incomes, comparing pollution with income per capita.  The curve is formed in an inverted U shape, with income per capita on the x-axis and pollution on the y-axis.  As one might imagine, those countries that have close to no annual per capita income – and thus no industry and pollution - are few and far between.  But as income per capita rises, so does pollution.  As a country’s income per capita gets past about $5,000 per person (which is less than four times the income per capita in the United States) pollution decreases again (Dasgupta 2002, p. 148).  The overall picture of the Kuznet’s curve explains that pollution is a result of nations developing their industries.  As nations get wealthier, they have the financial capacity to mitigate pollution through advanced technology, and the political structure and stability to create regulations that restrict pollution.  These nations also have the luxury to shift their focus a bit from pure economic development to issues such as education and healthcare.  With education comes an understanding that pollution can have adverse health effects, and as countries improve economically and politically, they can begin to finance and enforce more stringent environmental regulations (Dasgupta 2002, p. 152).  This is the downward slope of the curve.  Many nations still in the developing stages have begun to market goods and services, but are unable to reduce pollution through finance or policy. 

Some environmentalists worry about the “race to the bottom”, or the idea that multinational corporations prefer to establish in developing nations because their laws regarding the environment are quite lenient (Dasgupta 2002).  This implies that as a result of lax standards, developing nations will attract foreign investment that leads to a rise in pollution.  This may also cause developed nations to loosen their environmental standards in order to maintain competitive trading between those countries who make their goods cheaply in dirty industries and those who must adhere to strict environmental standards. 

Environmentally, the two greatest issues facing the developing world are overpopulation and industrialization – both of which can lead to overexploitation of the Earth’s resources.  In developing countries, governments cannot implement economic policies to reduce pollution, because it is too expensive.  Cap-and-trade, for instance, can get very expensive for the government, and may put too many restrictions on industries that are just beginning to develop.  A tax on pollution, on the other hand, is costly for inherently “dirty” industries in developing nations.  This idea may work in developed countries – as it does in France – but its industry has the savings to do this, and has likely already developed enough to either pay the tax or invest in new technology.  The developing world is also at a loss when it comes to changing behavior to mitigate pollution.  On a personal level, people in developed countries can buy energy-saving appliances, drive their cars less, or turn down the heat in the winter to mitigate pollution and climate change.  However, the developing world does not rely so much on fossil fuels, and thus there may not be much behavior to change.

Unfortunately, developing countries will suffer from high levels of pollution until they expand their economies to the point that they can implement policies or regulations that restrict pollution effectively.  The issues of environmental justice that the developing world faces – such as overpopulation and “dirty” industrialization - are difficult for the countries themselves to deal with.  Without the help of the developed world to speed the growth process and provide resources to limit population growth such as educational materials and cheap access to birth control, these disparities still may continue to exist. 



Dasgupta, Susmita, et al. Confronting the Environmental Kuznets Curve. The Journal of Economic Perspectives. 2002. Vol. 16, No. 1.

Southwick, Charles H. Global Ecology in Human Perspective. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996.

Wattenberg, Ben J. “It Will Be A Smaller World After All.” The New York Times. March 8, 2003

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last updated 4/18/10