Synopsis: Overpopulation may yet result in our demise.
It may seem we have far more pressing problems than population, but every one of those pressing problems is impacted by population, even including those Davad Attenborough may not be considering, the economic problems that flow from economics based on perpetual growth. Plus, the study of the unique history of the human population provides an insight into the future and even an understanding of the key difference between humans and other animals.
The journey of human population so far.
After a long journey to gain understanding, here is a recap of the story of human population so far:
Over the long term, most species have a stable population unless there are environmental changes, or their species evolves.
For approximately the first half of the around 300,000 years of the paleolithic era that homo sapiens existed, they were constrained to Africa, but then managed something remarkable: they adapted to increase the environments they could inhabit without evolving as a species in the conventional way.
But it was from the time of the development of civilisation around 10,000 BCE, when humanity began following a path of gradual but long-term population growth never observed in any other species that the human difference became fully apparent.
This was then followed from around 1700 CE by an unprecedented population explosion that continued until around the year 2000. While the explosion was sustained by the industrial revolution, it was triggered by the achievement of a near eradication childhood mortality through the taming of humanities most effective predators: bacterial and viral diseases. Many species experience ‘plagues’ where a population explosion reaches a level resulting in environmental damage, but for such an event to be global or over such a long time is unusual. Normally, population optimisation responses will end overpopulation before environmental damage has time to become too permanent, however the duration human population explosion was extended by progressive further reductions in childhood mortality.
The current situation.
Humans have reached ‘peak child‘, which confirms that population explosion is ending, and as the rate of childhood mortality, equivalent to rate ‘predation’ for humans, now too low for any further reduction to trigger for another population explosion.
In any other species you would expect not just an end to population growth, but a population decline or correction until environmental damage ends through natural population optimisation responses which have evolved to avoid extinction from overpopulation in advanced species.
But humans are not “any other species”. While young people are going to naturally be less motivated to have many children, during the almost three centuries of the extended population explosion, the economic system adapted to become optimised for living with population growth, and as population grew so did wealth inequality, giving rise to many billionaires with unprecedented wealth who thrive with the largest population possible.
So, on one hand the explosion is over, and population should naturally drop until sustainability is restored, but on the other hand, billionaires, economists and the media are all calling for population growth to somehow return to population explosion conditions. Meanwhile are managing to avoid mass starvation temporarily living unsustainably and borrowing from the future.
So, what happens next, and could failure to deal with overpopulation kill us?
There are currently 3 positions on future population:
- The UN projection is accurate, and the global population growth slows and a eventually stabilises by around 2100.
- Nature and the environmentalists get their way, view as expressed by David Attenborough et al, and the population gradually declines until sustainability returns.
- The wishes of billionaires, economists, big business, the media and some governments all come true and there is perpetual population growth for the foreseeable future.
Nature can be difficult to override but the very wealthy control so much of the world’s wealth now that they are also a force to be respected. However, between climate change and AI combined with technology, there rules are about to be rewritten during a period of great turmoil.
How those rules are rewritten will determine whether overpopulation does result in the tragedy of loss of life, or if humanity finds a less traumatic path to easing population pressure.
Billionaires would be even richer with even more people, but as the total amount of life has halved in the last 500 million years and is slowly headed towards total extinction, a choosing a path towards a planet where we are the only species left may play a role in our own demise.
Overpopulation: a cost of one of the greatest achievements.
The trigger for overpopulation.
For any species, a rapid decline the impact of predators produces a population “boom”, explosion or plague followed by an adjustment to a new “normal” stable population.
Historically, almost 5 of every 7 humans born did not live long enough to become parents themselves, with disease, human main “predator” being the predominant cause of these deaths.
Throughout history mankind’s main predator not been some fierce best, but instead parasites, bacteria’s and viruses mostly too small to see. It is said that mosquitos are the world’s deadliest animal, but mosquitos only spread the real culprits which include malaria and lymphatic filariasi microorganisms and Dengue, West Nile, yellow fever, Zika, and chikungunya viruses.
Then consider TB, smallpox, the plague, Cholera, Spanish flu, etc. The list is huge.
The chances that a newborn survives childhood have increased from 50% to 96% globally [from 1750 to 2023]. This article asks how we know about the mortality of children in the past and what we can learn from it for our future.by Max Roser April 11, 2023: Our world in data “Child mortality in the past”.
Greatest achievement candidate and life changing achievement for all humanity.
Historically the main reason people had a short life expectancy was not because old age came earlier, but because such a small proportion lived to reach old age or even adulthood.
Approximately 50% of children died as a newborn:
With an historical average of 7 children per family just to achieve near stability, those who did manage remain healthy through all their reproductive years had to have even more children, and thus statistically prior to the reduction in deaths, experience even more of their children die.
Compared to the 21st or even 20th century, life prior, and especially prior to 1650 was tragic. We have data from 1750, and although the population explosion due to increased survival rates had already began, still 50% of children were dying:
A child dying is one of the most dreadful tragedies one can imagine. We all know that child deaths were more common in the past. But how common? How do we know? And what can we learn from our history?Our world in data, “Child mortality in the past”: Every second child died [1750-1780].
People in the past never lived in ecological balance with nature, they died in ecological balance with nature. It was utterly tragic!Hans Rosling
The impact is not limited to the elimination of the tragedy, but it also reduced the required number of births.
For most of our history, pregnancy and childbirth were dangerous for both baby and mother. If we look at long-term trends in maternal mortality – the likelihood a woman will die from pregnancy-related causes – we see that every 100th to 200th birth led to the mother’s death.How many women die in childbirth?
If on average women have 7 children, that results in as many as 1 in 15 women dying in childbirth.
Of course, those that die before reaching their share of the 7 children per women average, either through death during childbirth for from disease, raise the number of children other women needed to have to keep up the average.
The result is that women had to spend a significant portion of their adult life pregnant or with young infants some of whom would not survive.
Prior to the reduction in child mortality, equality for women in the workplace was only possible for the small percentage of women not busy maintaining the population level.
The reduction in child mortality may have given us a population explosion, but it has transformed our lives with an impact beyond other achievements such as the moon landing.
Yes, we do have human overpopulation.
History could be divided so far into global “pre-unsubstantiality” and “unsustainability”.
Until sometime in the 20th century, the waste and emissions produced by the population of under 1.6 billion in 1900 billion could all be absorbed by nature, or at least were assumed by the majority of people to be able to be absorbed by nature.
In the 120 years since 1900, not only did the population increase by a factor of 5x, but plastic was introduced, the automobile population reached over 1 billion, and power grids powered mostly by fossil fuels were introduced globally.
Almost everyone accepts we are now existing unsustainably as a result, which many feel can be rectified without any reduction in population, does means that until unsustainability is rectified, we are by very much by definition existing in a state of overpopulation.
What seems surprising, is that those who feel we need to at least pause population growth until unsustainability is rectified, are less vocal than those who advocate that continued population growth is required in order to fuel economic growth.
The impact of population on climate change and climate action.
The impact on climate.
Climate is just one many environmental issues, but it is one of the most urgent, and provides an example of how a change of human behaviour should provide a solution to the problem even at the current level of population.
The problem is exacerbated by reaching a population of 8 billion people in late 2022, as we progressed through 5,6 and 7, from only half as many with 4 billion as was the case in 1974, provided the emissions per person were the same we would have only half the total greenhouse emissions.
It would still be a problem requiring a solution, but there would be more time to make the required transition and a far less disturbed planet during the process.
Plus, even transitioning away from fossil fuel would not allow an infinite population, because just as it is popular to blame the surprisingly stable cattle population since the 1970s for contributing to the rise of methane level since the 1970s, an increase in the population of any animal, including humans, will increase CO2 levels just from breathing.
The impact of population on climate action: Growth renders austerity ineffective.
There is a huge emissions imbalance which sees the wealthiest 1% produce more than twice emissions of the least wealthy 50%.
The wealthiest 1% of the world’s population were responsible for the emission of more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorer half of the world from 1990 to 2015, according to new research.World’s richest 1% cause double CO2 emissions of poorest 50%, says Oxfam
Apart from that wealthy 1%, wealthier countries in general are responsible for more emissions per capita than poorer countries, and many wealthy countries have growing populations from immigration, and powerful lobby groups pushing population growth as being essential for economic growth.
Even if the global population is stable, then just migration shifting people from poorer counties to wealthier counties will increase total emissions, and those in poorer countries also feel entitled to lift their own emissions.
Lobbying for population growth are essential is pervasive, despite being so clearly unsustainable on a planet when the total amount of all life is falling.
There is even a Wikipedia page pushing the position that no society would be able to keep feeding housing and providing services for their population unless they keep increasing the number of people for which the society must provide food housing and social services. There are obvious errors on that page like it is not the total services provided that is important but the services per capita, but disinformation like this is going to keep being repeated.
The push to continue population growth in wealthy countries with the highest per capita emissions is not about to stop. Not all such countries will continue population growth, but many including examples such as Australia, Canada and the USA will continue to grow. These same counties often push reductions in emissions per person measures, which may have little impact with growing populations. Maybe people will adopt smaller cars and living smaller houses and use less airline travel, but rarely by enough to counter the effect on population growth.
There is also the issue of that wealthiest 1%, and as populations in wealthy countries grows so does wealth inequality and increasing the size and wealth of this 1% group can have a far larger impact than you would expect.
With climate action already inadequate, population growth ends up empowering the very groups that lobby against climate action.
The Economic Impact of population growth.
“Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.”Attributed to Kenneth Boulding in: United States. Congress. House (1973)
Yet, much of the current economic system was built during the centuries of the recent population explosion, on the false assumption that this was just a continuation of previous population growth and able to continue, at least for many centuries, into the future.
There is a label for system built on growth: Ponzi scheme.
The problem with Ponzi schemes is that when the growth stops, they don’t just stop providing returns, they collapse.
Our population future: alternative scenarios.
UN stats view: population levels will gradually stabilise and there is no problem.
The UN is highly political, and the agenda is set by whoever has the most influence. Even though nations can become more equal in terms of a voice in the arena of the UN that in typical global media, they are still not equal. The problem with the UN “business as usual” predictions, is that need to be significant change and evolution of “business” to avoid major disruption, but it is not diplomatic to discuss it.
An Environmental dream: A natural fall in the taboo subject of population.
Most discussion on the environment does not even mention population, and it is only the most dedicated and emboldened like David Attenborough who would even dare mention overpopulation.
Yet, the outrage and the protests will just need to continue while they do not include any focus on managing the impact of population.
None of this means the population will not begin a decline, it just means there will be panic a decline rather than recognition as being a natural response to the need for sustainability. It means that any fall in will likely be unplanned, just as the fall in birth rates leading to “peak child” was totally unplanned and can been as either totally fortuitous or a natural response.
Economists & billionaires dream: population growth as a path to economic growth.
The rich and powerful seek have throughout history sought to grow the population of their realm. Techniques for this growth vary from the more patient anti-birth-control approach of the Catholic church to the more direct conquest approach of Vladimir Putin and other would-be emperors throughout history, but the goal is a constant. The greater the population, the greater the empire, and the greater the wealth of the emperor and their mignons.
Empires may have evolved into those with less clear borders with Google, Apple, Meta/Facebook, Musk and Murdoch et al, but the quest to earn a “tax” from those in the realm continues, and the more in the realm, the greater the wealth still applies.
All empires, historic and current, are built on the ability to influence, and as population growth ensures their growth, they are going to have the promotion of population growth as one pillar of their influence.
The problem is that on a finite planet, with no new lands to conquer, and population numbers already beyond sustainability, even with “the masses” accepting a “righteous environmentalism“, further growth has limits.