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Overpopulation And Depopulation

By Peter Goodchild

12 August, 2012

Combined with the decline in fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources, overpopulation may be the fundamental cause of the coming systemic collapse, as Catton (1982) and others have maintained, but the situation might not be so simple. In the first place it is common to find that a country is divided into overpopulated urban areas and depopulated rural ones. Secondly, there is a geographically larger division between entire countries that are overpopulated and entire countries that are depopulated. How can all these demographic facts be fitted into a theory of global overpopulation?

Before we go any further, though, we should reconsider the definition of "overpopulation." It may to some extent be a value judgement rather than a name for an external event. Who says a country is overpopulated? On what grounds do we make such a proclamation? If fossil fuels are declining, then long-distance transportation of food will become an impossibility, and a localized economy will be vital. One might therefore choose to define "overpopulation" as a matter of the ratio of population to arable land. But that definition maybe too simplistic, even if we have included related matters such as climate, soil type, and soil degradation (Bot, Nachtergaele, & Young, 2000).

We also need to consider the social issues. There is the curious fact that a good deal of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, although certainly poor, might actually be described as not overpopulated -- if we insist on the aforementioned definition of "the ratio of population to arable land." The immediate problem with sub-Saharan Africa is not so much a lack of arable land, but that the arable land is so poorly managed. Warfare, political corruption, and social chaos result in yields no better than those of countries that have little good land to begin with.

In terms of a practical definition of "overpopulation," more relevant than either arable land or the management thereof may be population growth rate. It is that which is most closely correlated with poverty; that is certainly the case, not only with sub-Saharan Africa, but with much of Asia and Latin America (CIA, annual).

Now let us look at the term "depopulation." Again we are facing a word that becomes less simple as we examine it. In the first place, "depopulation" is not the mere absence of "overpopulation." The term is generally used with reference to an actual reduction in population in a given area, and basically this is a matter of an increasing difference between the urban areas of a country and the rural ones. It is common knowledge that we live in an age of urbanization. It is said that people move from the countryside to the city because there seems to be more opportunity to find jobs in the city, for example, even if that often turns out not to be the case. The depopulated countryside is often not very pleasant: when (to choose one major factor) the corporate farms have pushed the small-scale farmers out, what remains is poverty, which may then be followed by crime and other social ills.

But there is a second dimension to the dichotomy of overpopulation and depopulation, one which is found on an even larger scale. While overpopulation is most problematic in parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, depopulation is perhaps more clearly found in large parts of Europe. It is said that many European countries are not even producing enough children to keep their population alive. So much land, and particularly rural land, has emptied that the native trees and shrubs of Europe are returning, and so are the wild animals. This may not be a blessing either for humanity or for nature. Mature forest is not necessarily beautiful: on the contrary, a mature forest may contain far fewer species of either plants or animals than a piece of countryside that has been managed for centuries by farmers who understand stewardship (Teil, 2005, July 3).

And yet perhaps the term "depopulation" is a misnomer. Is it possible that "depopulation" is nothing more than what stockbrokers would call a "correction"? That "depopulating" just means "becoming of normal size"? Instead of looking for a "cure" for "depopulation," perhaps the concept itself is fundamentally flawed. Of course, such a statement goes against the grain of mainstream journalism. Numerous articles intimate that many European countries will be virtually uninhabited if present low birth rates are continued, and that the only alternative is to allow a great flood of immigrants to replace the present inhabitants. But politicians may have a hidden agenda: increasing immigration means increasing votes.

It's true that declining population is accompanied by social problems, at least nowadays. People leave because businesses leave. Then businesses leave because there isn't enough of a population base to support them. A town cannot even have a "general store" if there are no customers. It's a vicious circle. And as unemployment increases, as money becomes scarce, many people decide to start their own "businesses" -- such as breaking into the summer cottages of the "idle rich." Then the newspapers start screaming, "Our town is dying! Send us some immigrants! Forgive us for all our previous complaints. Our sons and our daughters left long ago, so you don't have to include them in the equation. We'll do anything for a dollar, and we'll sin no more."

It may be that people in "depopulated" areas have simply lost the skills to dig up a piece of ground and plant their own crops. They feel they cannot get through the day without going into their yards and firing up at least one big piece of gasoline- or diesel-powered machinery, as they have done every day for years. Going back to the nineteenth-century world, before the combustion engine, would be a major culture-shock, and an insult to their recently acquired status as members of the "civilized" (industrialized) world. Not many people below the age of 80 know how to plant a good-sized vegetable garden, or how to take care of a few chickens or goats.

It might be worth adding that the rural "shock" is based on a lack of sophistication anyway. Those who live in the country are aspiring to the kind of success, marked by the number of mechanical toys one can accumulate, that many city-dwellers now regard as embarrassingly outdated. Rural communities have still not reached the "post-materialist" mentality of the 1960s, never mind the "post-industrial" mentality of a world of declining natural resources.

When the inhabitants of any geographic area begin to "suffer" from the scourge of "depopulation," they start to shout, "Repent! The end is nigh!" Much more constructive, though, would be to ignore the narrow-minded capitalist outlook of the local newspapers, and consider instead how to re-invent the economy of earlier times: smaller-scale but more self-sufficient.


Bot, A. J., Nachtergaele, F. O., & Young, A. (2000). Land resource potential and constraints at regional and country levels. World Soil Resources Reports 90. Rome: Land and Water Development Division, FAO. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/ag/agl/agll/terrastat/

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

CIA. World factbook. (annual). US Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook

Theil, Stephan. (2005, July 3). Into the woods. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from

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



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