In nature, we define overpopulation as when the population is beyond number the environment can sustainable without environmental damage.
Those warning of overpopulation, will often resort to warnings on the eventual starvation that would occur following environmental collapse. However, there are those who profit from overpopulation and are so rich they would not starve anyway, then point out ‘the world is not starving yet, so environmental collapse is fine!’ But can we risk the entire the world really becoming an Easter Island story.
To set things straight: famines are not a useful indicator of overpopulation.
- Carrying Capacity: The Limit Before Environmental Degradation.
- Humans and Increasing Carrying Capacity
- Good News and Solutions.
- The Legacy Of Explosion.
- Beware of Disinformation.
Carrying Capacity: The Limit Before 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 Increasing 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
The Legacy Of The Explosion.
Despite the good new of population now being able to be controlled, we have still undergone an unprecedented population explosion, which has left a legacy of world were existing sustainably is now an incredible challenge. Everything we can do to limit any further population growth and more to a planned and slow relaxing of the population pressure is essential, and must be combined with some dramatic steps to save the planet in the meantime.
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)