The Myth: Starvation is a good indicator of overpopulation. The Truth: In nature, we define overpopulation as when the population is beyond the sustainable level. Starvation will not occur until damage to the environment exhausts the supply of food. Starvation may be a final outcome, but is useless as an indicator, as it is too late. Using starvation as an indicator of overpopulation is like using to collision with the ground as an indicator you are falling.
Those warning of overpopulation, will often resort to warnings on that final step of starvation, on the belief that this will resonate even with the audience who does not care about the environment. Focus on starvation as a symptom most benefits those with per capita profits who wish to promote population growth as long as possible. 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.
- Starvation: The Last Symptom
- Too Late Even in Nature.
- Human Masters of the Planet: We Starve Last
- Overpopulation and ‘Plagues’ in Nature
- Environmental Damage: The Real Symptom
- Carrying Capacity: Environmental Degradation
- Humans and Carrying capacity
- Good News and Solutions
- Beware of Disinformation
Starvation: The last Symptom
Too Late even in nature.
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.
Human Masters of the Planet: We Starve Last
Humans are in many ways unrivalled as the dominant species on Earth. Humans now have weapons and other measures, that enabling 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.
Environmental Damage: The Real Symptom
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.
Good News and Solutions.
Simply put, the good news is that we have already largely tackled the biggest issue: birth rates that drive population growth. Despite this, as best explained by Hans Rosling, the population will continue to grow until the ‘pyramid’ for the entire globe becomes a rectangle. As long the greed for perpetual growth does not intervene, then population will start a very gradual decline. Later than ideal, as yes with a population already too large, but with an end to growth in 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
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 that fear of overpopulation can drive 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)