The Myth: Starvation is a good indicator of overpopulation. The Truth: In nature, we define overpopulation as when sustaining the population results in damage to the environment. There is no requirement for starvation, which would only be an outcome if damage to the environment disrupts food supplies. Starvation will be a consequence only when overpopulation has resulted in environmental collapse that will result in a rapid population decline. Starvation is useless as an indicator, by the time there is starvation all environmental food reserves have been consumed, and catastrophe is then unavoidable.
Focus on starvation as a symptom, most benefits those with per capita profits who wish to promote population growth for as long as possible, since focusing on the last problem, allows ignoring the population issue until that last moment. To focus on starvation, is to risk the planet being another Easter Island.
To set things straight: famines are not a useful indicator of overpopulation.
Using final outcomes to detect the problem means the problem remains hidden until it is too late to act. Starvation may be a final outcome, just as death is a final outcome of cancer. Starvation arrives too late to used to detect overpopulation. Declaring ‘the starving billions has not happened so we need not fear overpopulation’ is about as well advised as declaring ‘I am not dying yet, therefore I need take no precautions to prevent cancer’.
Environmental damage is the useful symptom, as control of population is on the right track, if we stay on track we can avoid catastrophe is largely already in place. It is not necessary to bury our heads in the sand.
- Diet, Housing and Lifestyle: The Early Warnings
- Starvation: The Last Symptom
- Too late as an indicator, even in nature.
- Environmental Damage: The Real Symptom In Nature
- Climate Change and Global Warming.
- Carrying Capacity: Environmental Degradation
- Humans and Carrying capacity
- Quality of Life: The Real Symptom in Human Society.
- Current Reality:
- Good News and Solutions
- Beware of Disinformation
Diet, Housing and Lifestyle: The Early Warning Signs.
Overpopulation: The Best Things Become Scarce First.
Long before starvation, more desirable and healthier foods become more expensive, forcing more people into a lower quality diet, with more basic and processed foods with a diet of breads, and ‘pizza, pasta, burgers’. Overpopulation has already began when when diet and other lifestyle indicators begin to decline. Then, further population increase will have a further negative impact on quality of life for the average citizen. The wealthiest 1% will always eat well and thrive better than ever in a totally overpopulated world, while an increasing percentage of rest of the population experience a decline in the quality and variety of their diet.
Further symptoms are high cost housing and overcrowding of desirable locations. Too many people living in the one house does not mean inhabitants will starve, but it gets hard for anyone to have their own space. Overpopulation of the planet will have the same effect.
Relative Wealth Obscures Overpopulation.
Competition for resources is regulated by wealth. Billionaires must compete with billionaires, but have an advantage over those with less wealth then them. If everyone was a billionaire, the being a billionaire would not help in having a large area of land or the best food.
In the 1960s and even 1980s, those in the USA, key European countries and a few others had far more wealth those in Asia and many other countries. The population of people in the world with the wealth of the middle class in wealthy countries was a small subset of the global population. To holiday in Venice only required competing with those of similar wealth, but as the average wealth levels rise globally, those in the USA, Western Europe etc, must compete for holiday destinations, luxury items and even housing with a globally increasing population of people of somewhat similar wealth, at the same time the world population itself is still rising.
Starvation: The last Symptom
Too late as an indicator, even in nature.
While some environmentalists warn that overpopulation will eventually lead to starvation, this is mostly an attempt to connect with members of the public who do not link the environment with long term survival of humanity.
You do not detect a rodent plague by the rodents starving, or a detect a locust plague by the locusts are starving. No one says “oh, they are not starving, so there could be even more and it will be fine. Instead environmental damage is seen as the key indicator of overpopulation, the same applies with human overpopulation.
Yes, starving millions or billions could be a final outcome of unchecked overpopulation, but this outcome only occurs following environmental collapse. First the environment is damaged by population levels the environment cannot sustainably support.
Try telling a farmer dealing with a mouse/rat/rodent plague: “the damage to environment means nothing, you if they are not starving, then it is not overpopulation”. Note that if a the farmer waits until the rodents are starving, he is waiting until the farm has been decimated. Sound a little like Easter Island? As we humans are adaptable, we will not starve until sources of food are so exhausted there is nothing left at all. Starvation only occurs after overpopulation has continued until the problem is no longer solvable.
Humans are masters of the Planet: We Starve Last
Humans are in many ways unrivalled as the dominant species on Earth. Humans now have farms, weapons and other measures, that enable controlling and dictating what happens with plants and with other animals. Disease is still a threat, but generally, humans are in control.
This ‘dominant species’ status means, when there is a shortage of food, humans will be the last ones to miss out. Consider how “the year with no summer” is often credited with the invention of the bicycle. Why? Because while there were food shortages and famine for people, it was livestock like horses, not humans, that actually died in significant numbers. Other animals only get to eat what is left after the humans are fed. So quickly there were less horses but the same number of people needing transport.
In many places, there were no horses left to ride, and still humans needing to go places. So we adapted. We learnt to live without an animal, because humans have to power to chose who gets fed, and normally chose humans, so the animals starved. We can avoid starving until all other animals have starved. Only once all other animals have been lost do we starve, all alone as the last creatures left.
Once we are starving, the problem is so advanced, the cure is probably impossible. When dealing with serious problems, like when testing for a disease, it is far better to look for early symptoms, rather than wait until the problem is unstoppable.
Overpopulation and ‘Plagues’ in Nature
Reading about plagues of animals in nature, reveals stories of the destruction of the environment that result from surges of population of a single species, and reveals how extreme the numbers of the total population can become prior to that species beginning to decline due to starvation. Searching, I have not found a single account of where the early signs of any of these events was high levels of starvation of the overpopulated ‘plague’ species.
In fact, every starvation event or famine I have found from research, has occurred a result of a compromised environment. Not one I have found has occurred as a result of population growth alone. It could be argued that a high population created vulnerability to the environmental event, but it is still the environmental ‘collapse’ that creates the famine.
“If we are overpopulated, how come we are not starving?”
A common response to the question “are we overpopulated?” is the suggestion that if we are able to feed ourselves, then we are not overpopulated.
There are two possible reasons we could consider the planet overpopulated, even while we can still manage to feed everyone:
- If our methods providing food for everyone damage the environment, then while we can feed ourselves now, as the environment suffers may not be able to continue to feed everyone.
- We may managed to provide food to prevent starvation but still fail to be able to provide a healthy and appealing diet for all, resulting scarcity of once plentiful delicious foods, as well as increased diabetes and other diseases resulting for poor diet.
- As battery hens will attest, you can have enough food to avoid starvation, but still live in overcrowded conditions that prevent the enjoyment of live, nature, and holiday locations to the fullest.
The carrying capacity of a biological species in an environment is the maximum population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water, and other necessities available in the environment.Wikipedia: Carrying capacity .
In a sense, if we as a species are exceeding the carrying capacity of the environment, then while we maybe able to obtain food and all other necessities from the environment now, if the situation continues, the environment will eventually collapse and we will run out of food or other necessities (think Easter Island). So the test as to if we are overpopulated, is test as to whether the environment would be able to sustain us living in our current manner. If reality is that, without change, we will eventually find the environment becomes unsuitable to support us, then we are overpopulated.
Environmental Damage: The Real Symptom In Nature
Carrying Capacity: Environmental Degradation,
The carrying capacity of a biological species in an environment is the maximum population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water, and other necessities available in the environmentWikipedia: Carrying capacity .
Every creature ‘damages’ the environment, but when the number of creatures is below the ‘carrying capacity’, the environment repairs itself at a rate equal to, or faster than, the rate of damage. Caterpillars eat the leaves of a tree, but if within carrying capacity, the leaves grow at a rate to ensure there will still be leaves.
This means the test for exceeding carrying capacity, is the presence of environmental damage that does not self repair.
Under the definition of ‘overpopulation’ as ‘exceeding carrying capacity’, it is difficult to mount an argument that our species is not currently exceeding the carrying capacity of our planet. We have exceeding the maximum population size that the environment can sustain indefinitely, which in turn, degrades the environment. As the environment degrades, carrying capacity is further reduced.
Humans And Carrying Capacity
Although carrying capacity is still applicable with humans, the definition of carrying capacity as quoted was not designed with humans in mind. Humans introduce a new factor: the ability to change their impact on the environment, and therefore change the carrying capacity of the environment.
The reality is how many humans can the environment “sustain indefinitely” is significantly changed by how the humans behave. Clearly, without technology and advanced farming techniques, we could not even house and feed the current over 7 billion people on the planet. Our challenge is that technology that enables us to house and feed this number, does not at this time do so sustainably.
In fact, the very technology itself creates challenges to sustainability. In fact, if we consider cities with the latest in technology, and compare those with major cities with older technology, it is clear environmental impact is not decreasing. We not are getting better at living sustainably, so technology is not always a solution to the problem. No matter how we balance living ‘naturally’, which tends to support lower numbers of humans in a given area, against maximum use of technology, which supports more humans in a given area but has far reaching implications in terms of resources consumed and waste produced, we simply do not yet have a solution for housing the current human population in a sustainable manner.
Quality of Life: The Real Symptom in Human Society
A healthy and appealing diet becomes only possible for ever smaller group of the wealthy.
There as many foods in our diet, and they will not all at once ‘run out’ or be only available to the wealthy. Within the foods that we ear, there are foods that are easier to produce in large quantities with little resources, and other foods that are more resource intensive. Some foods become hard to obtain or expensive, even while overall there is still sufficient food.
Foods that can be mass produced with little resources remain affordable. Grains such as rice and wheat are simple to produce, provide a core diet and could potentially be produced in sufficient quantities to sustain perhaps double the current human population. While if there was a return to the population growth rates of 1960 when doubling could occur with 30 years ‘double’ would not be a big buffer, at the population growth rates of today (2019), a capacity to produce double current requirements is a more than adequate buffer.
However, a diet of only wheat, rice or other grains alone is neither appealing nor a balanced diet.
For most societies, the question that arises is not ‘is there food?‘, but ‘is there good food?‘.
Already at current population levels, some foods are only a viable part of diet for the wealthy people. Even in the wealthy country of the USA, there is already uncertainty that people on lower incomes can afford a healthy diet. If this question of a healthy diet being affordable arises in the USA, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, it is logical the problem is already more significant in many less wealthy countries.
This indicates some ingredients of a healthy diet have already become too expensive too produce and distribute to current population levels.
So does further population growth ensure more foods will become available only to the wealthy?
Yes. There is already the suggestion that sustaining the projected human population, as well as sufficient livestock to enable that population to include meat in their diet, is no longer be sustainable, and the only solution is for most people to become vegetarian or vegan.
While some may feel removing meat from the human diet is a good thing, doing so is difficult for those on a budget who cannot easily afford affordable healthy meat substitutes. The suggestion is that rather than this being a choice people make, that the only way to sustainability as the human population increases is to reduce the livestock population, which as a result will progressively increase the price of meat until it is consumed on only the rarest occasions by anyone who is not extremely wealthy.
Then consider foods such as coffee and chocolate, where again production cannot easily be expanded to allow projected populations in developed societies to consume these foods at current levels enjoyed in these societies.
As population levels increase, the number of foods that must be removed from the menu for people of ‘average wealth’ will continue to increase. It is not that such foods will necessarily become impossible to produce, it is that the foods becomes either impossible to produce enough for everybody or expensive to produce. Either way, some foods become expensive. If the foods that become expensive are not desirable, then logically no one would pay the high price.
Already there are foods that only very wealthy can afford as there is simply insufficient supply for everyone, the more people, the more foods that will be eliminated from the diet of all but the most wealthy.
The Escalating Cost of Housing.
The more people that require housing, the more housing becomes a scarce resource. While this does mean people who own houses can feel positive about the increased value of homes, if all homes increase in price, it seems of little practical value. Sure, the current house may become worth more, but a new home will also cost more, and the only way to unlock the asset value is to downsize or move to a less valuable home.
More People to Share the Same Resources: a lower standard of living.
For most animals, getting enough food to eat is the only necessary resource. Not all animals require ‘houses’, but they all require some degree of ‘personal space’. Whether it is the serenity of a pristine deserted beach or a holiday in Venice, the personal space required for the ultimate experience is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
Relatively High Wealth Provides Immunity from The Consequences of Overpopulation.
While it is true that overpopulation contributes to the risk of human apocalypses, that risk goes unnoticed until after an apocalypse, es occurs.
Current Reality: The Agenda Of Population vs Overpopulation.
Good News and Solutions.
Simply put, the good news is that we have already largely tackled the biggest issue: excess birth rates that drive population growth. Despite this news, as best explained by Hans Rosling, the population will continue to grow until the ‘pyramid’ for the entire globe becomes a rectangle. Then, provided multinational greed does not intervene, the population will start a very gradual decline. A decline later than ideal, and yes with a population already too large, but with an end to growth within reach.
With an end to population growth in sight there is some chance that technology can help improve sustainability, to a point where we can support the population of humans on the planet. How well we deal with this issue will determine the number of humans at the time we achieve sustainability again, and the living standard of the typical human at that time.
The solutions are simple and largely already well known:
- move as quickly as possible to reduce environmental impact per person
- ensure no disruption to current trends of birth rates
- educate on the benefits of flat population or even gradual population reduction
Beware of Disinformation: ‘Big Markets’ as a variation of ‘Big Tobacco’.
There are active ‘voices’ declaring ‘overpopulation is a myth’. Declaring, we are not yet starving, so we are not overpopulated. Consider arguments raised to support this position, against the case that the symptom of exceeding carrying capacity is damage to the environment. Exceeding carrying capacity being ‘overpopulation’. We are overpopulated, and cannot survive if those pushing for further population growth, as a means to drive economic growth, have their way.
As put by leading environmentalist David Attenborough:
“But it is very alarming at the rate we’re going, and although people will say, ‘In the long run, we are going to stabilize’, they’re going to stabilize – as far as I can see – at a rather higher level than the Earth can really accommodate.”David Attenborough on population. World Economic Forum
Further, consider the motivations of voices declaring ‘overpopulation is a myth’:
- fear drawing attention to overpopulation can increase racism and isolationism
- fear that overpopulation will create ‘one child’ style policies
- belief that an ever increasing population is required to combat the ‘ageing population problem’
- belief that ever increasing population is required for economic prosperity for all
- belief that ever increasing population creates more wealth for the very rich corporations and individuals
No matter where you stand on any of these issues, and I will discuss each one in further posts, each simply provides a reason for denying we are overpopulated. In other words, each is a reason for hiding the truth, rather than a dispute of the truth. In many cases, a self serving reason for hiding the truth, and I suggest hiding the truth is never a desirable solution to any problem.
The evidence of that the sum of human population is damaging the global environment is overwhelming.
“For the past 20 years I’ve never had any doubt that the source of the Earth’s ills is overpopulation. I can’t go on saying this sort of thing and then fail to put my head above the parapet,” Attenborough told GeorgeDavid Attenborough: New Scientist Interview with Alison George.
Basically, unless population growth maintains the lower end of current projections, the consequences will be dire. The answer lies in balancing the position of two greats, which I surmise as (not exactly their words)
- don’t panic population growth is under control (Hans Rosling)
- we need to do all we can to ensure population growth remains under control (David Attenborough)