As established in the previous exploration: Overpopulation, Starvation is the last symptom, overpopulation is exceeding ‘carrying capacity’.
Reducing the number of people is counterproductive if the action to reduce population, reduces carrying capacity. If society was to collapse, then even with 1/10 the people, we could still be overpopulated relative what we could then support.
- The degree of overpopulation is the ratio between actual population, and carrying capacity, which is the maximum number the environment can support.
- The ratio can be brought back below 1.0 either by reducing population, raising carrying capacity, or a mix of both.
Contents in detail:
- Yes, we are overpopulated, and yes a solution matters.
- Overpopulation is a ratio!
- The Impact of “Ratio, not a number”: there is no magic number.
- Our current ratio is population in excess of carrying capacity.
- Is ‘Exceeding carrying capacity’ a real problem?
- The is no unlimited sustainability.
- Overpopulation is a ratio, with two potential solutions:
- managing population level: the number.
- managing carrying capacity
- ‘Going green’.
- Climate Change and Global Warming.
- Limits: Poultry Farms vs Humanity’s Future
- Uncomfortable Carrying Capacity Increases
- Comfortable Carrying Capacity Increases
- Conclusion: There are serious consequences of the myth.
Yes, We Are Overpopulated, and Yes A Solution Matters.
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.
The Impact of “Ratio, not a number”: There is no ‘magic number’.
Have you ever considered the question: Ok, how many people can the Earth support?
The answer is that it all depends on how those people live. In the 1920s we began the use of CFCs in refrigerators and air conditioners, and by the 1989, a global treaty agreed to prohibit their use in the first recognition that humanity had the power to damage the entire planet in a short period of time. The population who could inhabit the Earth and continue to use CFCs in refrigerators might be less than 100 million.
The population of people the Earth could sustain continuing to use single use plastic bags for the all their shopping is less 1 billion people. The Earth fairly certainly could not sustain all over 7 billion people driving fossil fuelled cars as much as people do in western societies such as Europe or the USA.
Every answer for “how many people can the Earth support sustainably” is dependant on how those people live, and how the people live determines the carrying capacity of the Earth.
Our current ratio, is population in excess of carrying capacity.
The question of “If we are overpopulated, how come we are not starving?“, has previously been answered.
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 .
Humans have long realised they were managing to damage the local environment, but for most of history, most of the planet was untouched by our society, allowing the planet to absorb the impact of humans on the planet.
However, “sustainability”, has progressed has gone from something our grandparents never considered, to front of mind. Almost everyone on the planet now sees it as important we exist sustainably, and recongnises we have not been living sustainably.
What is often overlooked, is the relationship between populating and sustainability. The greater the population, the greater the challenge to living sustainably, and that there is a population level that could exist as we are living now, and be existing sustainably.
People are generally aware something must change. The step here is to see that change as the changing the ratio between the number of people on earth, and the number of people the earth can support with our lifestyle.
There is no lifestyle that can support an infinite number of people, but there are lifestyles that can increase carrying capacity.
The is no unlimited sustainability.
As an example, we speak of renewable energy as ‘sustainable’. Yet there is clearly an absolute limit the total energy available from, for example, solar or wind energy. I believe it would be possible to meet our entire current global energy needs from solar power without requiring huge tracts of currently natural or productive land to be converted into solar farms. But would it be possible to meet the needs of a population 100x larger, or 1,000,000 times larger than our current population? Even the air we breath is in finite supply. Nothing we do is sustainable for an infinite number of people. Everything that is ‘sustainable’, is only sustainable for a specific maximum number of people.
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, some people die of today, but not as a result of a global food shortage caused by 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: The Elephant in the room.
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.
Population is elephant in the room in any discussion on sustainability. This is because population reduction is not a viable solution, and ensuring population growth remains limited is politically challenging, but we continue to ignore population as key factor at our peril.
2. Manage carrying capacity
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’ lifestyle.
Climate Change and Global Warming.
Climate change is a result increase in levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, due to:
- CO2 emissions from human activities including the burning of fossil fuels and timber.
- Reduction of forest areas that reduce CO2 levels.
Even at the current level of CO2 emissions per capita, with sufficiently less people, and sufficient trees, the CO2 the plants could fully consume the CO2 emitted. We can’t reduce the number of people sufficiently, so reducing CO2 per capita emitted is essential, but as we will also increase the number of people who would emit CO2, achieving sufficient reduction is a huge task. Many countries have a ‘net zero emissions’ by 2050. Note this is not ‘zero emissions’, but ‘nett zero emissions’, which is where the total emissions are not greater than the plant life plus any other CO2 sinks can absorb. People themselves cannot stop emitting CO2 unless they stop breathing, and giving the Earth can only host a finite amount of life, there is a finite population who can exist even if their only emissions are to breath, a smaller total population who can have a small amount of emissions beyond their own breathing as included in targets, and an even smaller total population that could exist sustainably at our current level of emissions per capita.
CO2 emissions are another example of overpopulation for the global carrying capacity with our current environmental impact per person. By adjusting our environmental impact per person, we should be able within our abilities to fix this carrying capacity problem, but there are many others created by a population so large.
Our solution is managing carrying capacity by adjusting emissions, but climate change is again a problem exacerbated by recent increases in population, and negatively impacted by any future population increases.
Capacity Limits: Poultry 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
- cage eggs
- free range eggs
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.
Just as the number of chickens that can be sustained in a given space (carrying capacity of that space) can be dramatically changed (50x space difference between cage and free range), the number of humans that can be sustained (carrying capacity of Earth) can be radically changed by human behaviour and changes we make to the environment.
At the extreme, strategies to support the maximum possible population of humans become similar to ‘cage eggs’. Just as there is incentive for farmers to have to generate profit by producing the most eggs, global corporations have a profit incentive to have the most consumers possible.
For the chickens, the largest possible population means living most disconnected from nature and not necessarily the most attractive lifestyle. It is very likely the same applies to humans.
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.
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 ratio 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.