Overpopulation Gets The Rap

A graph of world population shows an exponentially rising curve. We can graph world population against world economy, and will find that growth in the economy is outpacing population growth. (Among other things, food production has expanded far beyond what Malthus imagined.)

Global Overpopulation?

Many people believe that the world is overpopulated. Many people also believe that overpopulation is the greatest threat to our ecology and environment. This idea, it turns out, is very old. The ancient Greeks believed that they could calculate a “holding capacity” for the entire earth, and the idea has survived since then.

But it isn’t really fair to talk about “global overpopulation.” Although people do have a huge impact on the environment, it is misleading to examine the world as a whole as if it were homogenous, or as if the effects of population growth propagated immediately across the entire surface of the earth. (Carbon dioxide emissions are one of the few things that are truly global.)

Overpopulation and ecological disasters are both local phenomena. When a famine occurs in Ethiopia, the rice growers in China are not responsible. A measure of world food production cannot explain the famine in a particular place and time. The world is becoming more globalized, but a tremendous amount of localism still exists.

The Humane Society understands this when it talks about a cat overpopulation. It doesn’t claim that the global cat population has exceeded the world’s cat food supply. It talks instead about an overpopulation of cats in a particular area only.

Population Always Gets Blamed

Also, it is difficult to tie overpopulation too directly to ecological disasters. Disasters are complex social, political and economical, as well as environmental, events. It may be said that overpopulation was a problem leading to the debacle of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. The city was too packed, right? But would it be fair to say that when someone drowned, they were killed by overpopulation? No, of course not – they were killed by drowning. And they drowned not because they were part of an “extra” or “redundant” population; they drowned because there was a hurricane, and because of poorly built levies, and for other reasons.

An ecological disaster may be blamed on overpopulation, but market forces can be a much more important force. If the housing market booms in China, and imports much more wood, African nations may level their forests. Population is clearly not to blame; market forces are. As the world globalizes, politics and economics will continue to be the mechanism of problems, and of solutions, rather than sheer numbers.

Household Size

Household size is extremely important. If population stays about the same, but household size goes down (as a result of rising incomes, for example), the economic impact of the population will go up proportionally. A recent study found, in fact, that divorce is bad for the environment because divorced couples take up more space and use more resources.


Nathan Sayre, Berkeley Professor – Geography 130 course

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