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Overpopulation And Systemic Collapse

By Peter Goodchild

27 May, 2012

The world's population has risen from about 1.7 billion in 1900 to 2.5 in 1950, to over 7 billion now. Most of this increase, of course, has been in "developing" countries, suggesting that the term "developing" is rather misleading: a combination of environmental degradation and rapid population growth often makes "development" impossible (Catton, 1982; Kaplan, 2001). It has been said that without fossil fuels the global population must drop to about 2 or 3 billion (Youngquist, 2000, October), although even a number of that size is questionable. In terms of agriculture alone we would not be able to accommodate the present number of people as fossil fuels become scarce, with manual labor instead of automation, and without the hydrocarbon-based fertilizers and pesticides that make modern yields triple those of earlier times (Pimentel, 1984; Pimentel & Hall, 1984; Pimentel & Pimentel, 2007).

Overpopulation is the fundamental cause of systemic collapse (Catton, 1982). All of the flash-in-the-pan ideas that are presented as solutions to the modern dilemma -- solar power, biofuels, hybrid cars, desalination, permaculture, enormous dams -- have value only as desperate attempts to solve an underlying problem that has never been addressed in a more direct manner. American foreign aid has always included only trivial amounts for family planning (Spiedel, Sinding, Gillespie, Maguire, & Neuse, 2009, January); it would seem that the most powerful country in the world has done very little to solve the biggest problem in the world.

The problem of overpopulation is worsened by the fact that there are many people busy either transmitting or receiving disinformation about the subject (Kolankiewicz & Beck, 2001, April). For left-wingers, discussion of high population is seen as persecution of the world's poor. For right-wingers, high population is seen as providing more buyers, more workers, and more investors. For politicians, more people means more votes. For many religious groups, high population reflects God's command to go forth and multiply. Corporate funding of several major environmentalist groups has also done quite a job of disconnecting them from discussion of population: they may be "green" but they are no longer "clean."

Overpopulation can always be passed off as somebody else's problem. It is the fundamental case of what Garrett Hardin calls "the tragedy of the commons" (1968, 1995): although an oversize family may have a vague suspicion that the world will suffer slightly from that fecundity, no family wants to lose out by being the first to back down. Without a central governing body that is both strong and honest, however, the evasion is perpetual, and it is that very lack of strength and honesty that makes traditional democracy an anachronism to some extent.

The Chinese have made quite an effort at dealing with excess population growth, but even they have not been entirely successful. Since 1953, the year of the first proper Chinese census and approximately the start of concerns with excessive fertility, the population has gone from 583 million to over 1.3 billion. For that matter, since the official starting of the one-child campaign in 1979 the population has grown by over 300 million (Riley, 2004, June); in other words, China's increase is equal to the entire population of the US.

Overpopulation, however, is a problem that occurs not only in poor countries. The evidence is also clear in the US:

". . . Mounting traffic congestion; endless disruptive road construction; spreading smog; worsening water pollution and tightening water supplies; disappearing wildlife habitats, farmland, and open spaces; overcrowded schools; overused parks and outdoor recreation facilities; the end of small-town life in communities that until recently had been beyond the city; the impending merging together of separate, unwieldy metropolitan areas into vast megalopolitan miasmas; and the overall deterioration in quality of life and the increasing social tensions of urban dwellers reflected in such phenomena as gated communities and road rage" (Kolankiewicz & Beck, 2001, April).

It is only in the hinterlands, away from the cities, that the opposite occurs: depopulation, "rural flight." The causes of depopulation are many, but they begin with the industrialization of agriculture and the growth of enormous corporate farms, "agri-business." As the farming population is impoverished and reduced, the peripheral economy also shrinks, and crime and other social problems are the result. Nevertheless, the urban population of a country increasingly outweighs the rural. Worldwide, most people now live in towns or cities, but the larger urban areas will be death traps as resources disappear. For many, however, the choice between rural and urban will be difficult.

Actually, "overpopulation" tends to be a euphemism for "over-immigration." Every country in the world is already well populated, in most cases quite overpopulated. The conception of some sort of land that is lying "empty," waiting for the blessing of new arrivals, is a fiction invented by dishonest politicians. "Family planning" organizations sometimes inadvertently help to propagate this myth by euphemism, excessive caution in phraseology, an unwillingness to risk antagonism. Although "family planning" is an admirable goal, what such organizations rarely state is that it is not where a child is born that really matters, demographically and economically, but where that person is eventually living -- not the moment of birth, but the decades between birth and death, during which time that person will be consuming the world's resources, along with 7 billion other people doing the same. Emigration and immigration, transferring the problem of overcrowding from one country to another, do no good at all; if anything, they simply perpetuate the illusion that birth control is unnecessary. Nor should concerns about population movement be labelled parochial, provincial, narrow-minded, as opposed to the more-fashionable concept of "thinking globally": just as "spreading the wealth" (the socialist ideal) results only in universal poverty, so "spreading the population" only exacerbates universal overpopulation.

Discussion of overpopulation, however, is the Great Taboo. Politicians will rarely touch the issue. Even the many documents of the United Nations merely sidestep the issue by discussing how to cater to large populations, in spite of the fact that such catering is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

To speak against overpopulation is an exercise in futility. How likely is it that the required massive change in human thinking will ever take place? Even in "developed" countries, to broach the topic of overpopulation is often to invite charges of racism and elitism. There seems something both naïve and presumptuous in the common liberal American belief that people in such countries are waiting to be "enlightened" to American ideals. On the contrary, the inhabitants of poor countries are often quite determined to hang on to their present systems of politics and religion, no matter how archaic and oppressive those systems may seem to outsiders, and would prefer that any proselytizing go in the opposite direction. Indeed, there is the frightful possibility that one reason why the US government gives so little aid to some countries is that the problem of overpopulation there is regarded as hopeless, and any assistance would be just money down the drain (Kaplan, 2001). Instead of dreaming of ways to reduce a population of several billion to a reasonable number overnight, therefore, it might be more sensible to think in terms of the medical system of triage: let us save those who can be saved.

One solution that is sometimes proposed for the dilemma of fossil-fuel decline is a global campaign for the humane implementation of rapid population decline. With all due respect for the attempt to find a satisfying answer to the question of overpopulation, such a proposal would conflict with the available data on the rate of decline in fossil fuels. The annual rate of population decline, in a civilization in which fossil fuels are by far the most important sources of energy, must approximately equal the annual rate of fossil-fuel decline, which is predicted to be about 3 percent.

Unfortunately there is no practical humane means of imposing a similar annual rate of decline on the world's population. If we allow the loss of petroleum to take its course, a decline of 3 percent would result in a drop in world population to half its present level, i.e. to 3.5 billion, by about the year 2030. The only means, however, would be a rather grim one: famine.

Like so many other species, humanity expands and consumes until its members starve and die. The basic problem of human life has still never been solved: the imbalance of population and resources. As a result, the competition for survival is intense, and for most people life is just a long stretch of drudgery followed by an ignoble death. It is ironic that birth control, the most important invention in all of human history, has been put into practice in such a desultory manner. Why are we looking for intelligent life on other planets, when there is still so little of it on Earth?

In view of the general unpopularity of birth-control policies, it can only be said euphemistically that Nature will decide the outcome. It is St John's Four Horsemen of war, famine, plague, and death who will signify the future of the industrial world. Nor can we expect people to be overly concerned about good manners: although there are too many variables for civil strife to be entirely predictable, if we look at accounts of large-scale disasters of the past, ranging from the financial to the meteorological, we can see that there is a point at which the looting and lynching begin. In fact, the basic cause of warfare throughout history and prehistory has been, quite simply, overpopulation and the subsequent lack of food (Harris, 1989). The survivors of industrial society will have to distance themselves from the carnage.

The need for a successful community to be isolated from the rest of humanity is also a matter of access to the remaining natural resources. With primitive technology, it takes a great deal of land to support human life. What may look like a long stretch of empty wilderness is certainly not empty to the people who are out there picking blueberries or catching fish. That emptiness is not a prerogative or luxury of the summer vacationer. It is an essential ratio of the human world to the non-human.


Catton, W. R., Jr. (1982). Overshoot: The ecological basis of revolutionary change. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162. Retrieved from http://dieoff.org/page95.htm

------. (1995). Living within limits: Ecology, economics, and population taboos. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kaplan, R. D. (2001). The ends of the Earth: From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia -- a journey to the frontiers of anarchy. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith Publisher.

Kolankiewicz, L., & Beck, R. (2001, April). Forsaking fundamentals: The U.S. environmental movement abandons U.S. population stabilization. Washington, D.C.: Center for Immigration Studies. Retrieved from http://www.cis.org/articles/2001/forsaking/forsaking.pdf

Pimentel, D. (1984). Energy flows in agricultural and natural ecosystems. CIHEAM (International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies). Retrieved from http://www.ressources.ciheam.org/om/pdf/s07/c10841.pdf

------, & Hall, C. W., eds. (1984). Food and energy resources. Orlando, Florida: Academic Press.

------, & Pimentel, M. H. (2007). Food, energy, and society. 3rd ed. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press.

Riley, N. E. (2004, June). China's population: New trends and challenges. Population Reference Bureau. Population Bulletin, 59 (2). Retrieved from http://www.prb.org/Source/59.2ChinasPopNewTrends.pdf

Spiedel, J. J., Sinding, S., Gillespie, D., Maguire, E., & Neuse, M. (2009, January). Making the case for US international family planning assistance. US Agency for International Development. Retrieved from http://www.jhsph.edu/gatesinstitute/_pdf/publications/MakingtheCase.pdf

Youngquist, W. (2000, October). Alternative energy sources. Oil Crisis. Retrieved from http://www.oilcrisis.com/youngquist/altenergy.htm

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is prjgoodchild@gmail.com


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