Overpopulation? The myth of number vs ratio.

(draft: under revision)

This page is about a journey to the conclusions that:

  • overpopulation is ‘exceeding carrying capacity’ and occurs prior starvation
    • If we are overpopulated, why are we not yet starving?
    • Overpopulation is a ratio!
    • Is ‘Exceeding carrying capacity’ a real problem?
  • Overpopulation is a ratio, with two potential solutions:
    • manage population level
    • manage carrying capacity
      • ‘Going green’
      • Limits: Egg Farms vs Human Future
      • Uncomfortable Carrying Capacity Increases
      • Comfortable Carrying Capacity Increases
  • Overpopulation Denial
    • to be added
  • Conclusion: There are serious consequences of the myth

Overpopulation Precedes Starvation

If we are overpopulated, why are we not yet starving?

How can there be overpopulation when we have sufficient food? In response to the question “are we overpopulated?”, the answer often comes after consideration of whether we have sufficient food.

While a lack of food could indicate too many people, it is a poor indicator.

In a previous post I explored how starvation is the last indicator of overpopulation, and as an indicator can be like using hitting the ground to know you are falling, or waiting until are clearly dying to decide you should worry about skin cancer.

What is a better indicator? How can we determine that, despite people not starving, we are overpopulated? In nature, we use the concept of ‘carrying capacity‘.

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, habitatwater, 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 it is that, without change, we will eventually find the environment becomes unsuitable to support us, then we are overpopulated.

Overpopulation is a Ratio!

Carrying capacity at any given point of time is a number. This environment has a carrying capacity of X individuals is a calculation of the maximum number for any given species. Then there is the actual number of that species.

Measuring overpopulation requires considering both numbers. The simplest test would be, overpopulation occurs when actual population > maximum carrying capacity. The problem with this is that by reducing the result to a binary ‘true of false’, is that it loses any representation of a degree of overpopulation is lost.

The solution is to express overpopulation as a ratio. Having gone through these steps to reach to the conclusion overpopulation is a ratio, a quick search reveals I am not alone in this conclusion. The Environmentalist and the Borgen project show on a search for ‘overpopulation ratio’, and both declare overpopulation a ration of the first paragraph on the linked pages. I am not declaring overpopulation is a ratio because of these sources, but I provide them as sources that independently come to same conclusion.

Is Exceeding carrying capacity a real problem?

The counter point of view on overpopulation, is to question ‘does overpopulation matter if we are not yet dying?’. Yes, people die of starvation now, but not as a result of a global food shortage due to global overpopulation. Why worry when we can still feed everyone?

Overpopulation means a population beyond sustainable levels. The population can be fed only while damaging the environment, raising the difficulty level for food production for future generations. The people of Easter Island did not starve the moment they were overpopulated, as they could keep existing until the environment was so damaged that food production completely collapsed. Then because the environment was damaged, the population fall back to pre-overpopulation levels, it totally collapsed.

The more we borrow from the future by damaging the environment, the greater the challenge for future generations, until potentially, the challenge just become too great.

I suggest that existing beyond carrying capacity certainly can matter. Here is a thought experiment on how.

Consider a human civilization dependant on fishing. Their environment includes the area of ocean where they fish. Initial technology allows fishing in the shallow areas. Overpopulation would be when their fishing in these areas results in a decline in the fish population within the fishing area. This civilization is confident that new technology will in future allow extending fishing to the deeper waters: technology to increase carrying capacity! Now consider, if the technology is introduced immediately, then all that is required from the deep water fishing is a small number of fish, just sufficient to allow avoiding overfishing of the shallow area fish. However, if the technology is delayed and the shallow area fish are exterminated, then the future requires all fish to be caught from the more difficult deep water.

Of course, if the shallow water fish population can recover, than initial damage could be reversed.

Following on the thought, if existing unsustainably results in irreversible events such as extinctions, permanent destruction of habitats or complete exhaustion of resources, then the damage from overpopulation is permanent and will be a problem for all future generations. Certainly overpopulation and can create permanent problems for humanity.

Overpopulation Ratio: with two potential solutions

1. Manage population level

Counter productive to reduce population AND carrying capacity

When viewing overpopulation as number rather than of population to carrying capacity, it can appear the only solution to overpopulation would be the reduce the population. Once the importance of the ratio is considered, then it becomes clear that reducing population only helps if carrying capacity is not also reduced. For example, another meteor was to hit the Earth, even though people may die immediately reducing the population, the environment would be severely damaged, reducing carrying capacity to a level that would increase the overpopulation ratio. Almost any dramatic steps to reduce population, also impact carrying capacity. War, disease, natural disasters, all impact both population and carrying capacity, and as such are ineffective at reducing overpopulation ratio, even though the population is reduced. Even with less people, a smaller house can still be more crowded.

2. Manage carrying capacity

‘Going Green’?

The philosophy of ‘going green’ is that of lowering the environmental impact (or ‘environmental footprint’) of each person.

Consider a situation where a population is exactly at carrying capacity, a ratio of one (1.0). If the environmental impact of each person is halved, then the environment can sustain double the population and remain at the same same 1.0 ratio. The problem for the Earth right now, is that on the basis of current extinctions, we current exist with a ratio substantially greater than 1.0 and even halving the environmental impact per person, may not prevent overpopulation given the population continues to climb.

In a country such as the USA, halving the environmental impact per person should be achievable. Achieving this as an average globally, given there a significant people in less developed countries who have very little environmental impact is much more difficult. In reality, while the countries with greatest wealth per capita decrease their environmental impact per person, the impact per person will still be too high to for the whole world to be able to exist with this new lower environmental impact.

The problem with ‘going green’ and reducing impact per person, is that it can be counteracted by growing population numbers, and particularly by growing numbers living a ‘developed nation’ livestyle.

Capacity Limits: Egg Farms vs Human Future

Managing carrying capacity for an ever increasing population comes with other risks. Consider ‘chicken farms’, otherwise known as ‘egg farms’.

Strange name ‘egg farm’. I tend to things of the chickens being farmed in order to produce eggs, in the same way I think of sheep farmed in order to produce wool not a ‘wool farms’. I find the term ‘caged eggs’ even stranger. Whatever.

The point is that at the supermarket two of the main ranges of eggs available are

Note I am using the Australian Labels and definitions for cage and free range. Labels for specific egg farming types will differ from country to country as will details of what each category means. These are not the only two ways to produce eggs and this is not a debate about the best way to farm eggs, and is instead a discussion on environments and population.

The key point is that for the same sized environment, a far greater population of chickens can live sustainably in the ‘cage’ environment, than can live sustainably in the free range environment. The population that can be sustainable, but changing the environment and how the chickens live in that environment. If a free range chicken farm has population growth that results in too many chicken to live sustainably in the space available, then farm could adapt the environment and to the cage model, and then the number of chickens could continue to increase.

Despite all the claimed advantages, the ‘cage’ environment does appear to have been created to allow production of more eggs from a given size egg farm.

More eggs=more revenue.

The main motive introducing ‘cage egg’ farming was to house more chickens in a given environment. Each chicken is a source of eggs and thus a source of profit.

However the market share figures indicate a 40% share cage eggs and a 47% share for free range eggs in Australia, although at one time cage eggs dominated the market. Maximum population densities do not even guarantee the best economic outcomes.

Uncomfortable Carrying Capacity Increases

Minimising ‘footprint’ to maximise carrying capacity it not always as inconvenient as living as like caged hens, but it also restrict us humans. Do you enjoy the beach, or the park? How many people can be at your favourite beach, or park before the enjoyment suffers? Could would double the number of people still be OK? Doubling the global population would, on average, double the crowds at every location on Earth. Some people are find their previous favourite holiday destinations already too crowded for both the visitors and residents. While humans may not literally live in cages or ‘the matrix’, there is a point at which too many humans lowers the quality of life.

Comfortable Carrying Capacity Increases.

In 1920s very few of the worlds around 2 billion people used Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). By the 1960s, far more of the worlds 4 billion people were using them in far too many products, and by the 1980, usage by the worlds 5 billion people dropped below 1920s levels. Sometimes technology leads us to adopting behaviour changes that radically lower the Earths carrying capacity, and the widespread use of CFCs was one of those times. Sometimes by adapting our behaviour, environmental footprints per person can be lowered to dramatically raise carrying capacity by altering behaviours that previously were not identified as limiting carrying capacity. Eliminating fossil fuels is a key example. We should not be fooled into thinking that any replacement for fossil fuels will provide unlimited carrying capacity with respect to energy consumption as wind, solar, hydro etc., all also have some environmental impact. A huge improvement, but not an enabler for future unrestricted population growth.

Overpopulation Denial

This section to be added as a summary, with an entire page devoted to the topic also to be posted.

Conclusion: The ‘Number’ Myth has consequences

The myth that overpopulation is defined by the number of people alone, rather than a ration of people to carrying capacity, creates a barrier to humanity solving what has become one of the greatest challenges: living sustainably.

That fact that ‘sustainable living’ is actually adjusting lifestyle to increase carrying capacity to match our population becomes opaque. The goal becomes abstract, leading to denial of the problem.

Living sustainably requires addressing ‘carrying capacity’ and limiting total population, yet lack of education of the population side of the equation leads to trying to solve the problem by controlling only one of the two key variables.

If overpopulation was only one number, and completely dependant only on the number of people, then the only solution to overpopulation would be to kill people. Since killing people is not actually a solution, the only path while people still think of overpopulation as a raw number, is to pretend we are not overpopulated so no one comes out with plans to kill people. In other words, even those who wish to protect the planet, need to engage in overpopulation denial, while overpopulation is misunderstood.

In fact, there already are extremists who identify overpopulation as a problem may advocate just radical population reduction, despite that the action of radical reduction would also damage carrying capacity, and potentially exacerbate the original problem.

The lack of understanding of overpopulation removes the topic from discussion. Yet humanities problems can only be solved if managing population is part of the agenda. We need to manage carrying capacity, by lowering environmental impact per person, while also managing population!

Emission targets are a good step. Other environmental impact targets would also be a good step. However, ‘effective birth rate targets’, or effective caps at current levels, would also make sense to avoid policies to drive increases in birth rates for discredited economic goals of segments of society do not undo progress.

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