Overpopulation indicates a scenario in which the population of a living species exceeds the carrying capacity of its ecological niche. In common parlance, the term usually refers to the relationship between the human population and its environment (the planet Earth). (For a discussion on species other than humans, see the article on animal overpopulation.)

Overpopulation is not a function of the number or density of the individuals, but rather the number of individuals compared to the resources they need to survive. In other words, it is a ratio: population over resources. If a given environment has a population of 10, but there is food and drinking water enough for only 9 people, then that environment is overpopulated, while if the population is 100 individuals but there are food and water enough for 200, then it is not overpopulated.

Resources to be taken into account when estimating if an ecological niche is overpopulated include clean water, food, shelter, warmth, etc. In the case of human beings, there are others such as arable land and, for all but tribes with primitive lifestyles, lesser resources such as jobs, money, education, fuel, electricity, medicine, proper sewage and garbage management, and transportation.

Every year the world's human population grows by approximately 80 million. About half the world lives in nations with sub-replacement fertility and population growth in those countries is due to immigration.


Malthus's theory

Early in the 19th century, Thomas Malthus argued in An Essay on the Principle of Population that, if left unrestricted, human populations would continue to grow until they would become too large to be supported by the food grown on available agricultural land. He proposed that, while resources tend to grow arithmetically, population grows exponentially. At that point, the population would be restrained through mass famine and starvation. Malthus argued for population control, through "moral restraint", to avoid this happening. As the population exceeds the amount of resources the population decreases, since the lack of resources causes mortality to increase. This process keeps the population in check and ensures it doesn't exceed the amount of resources.

Over the two hundred years which followed, famine has overtaken numerous individual regions; proponents of this theory state that these famines were examples of Malthusian catastrophes. On a global scale, however, food production has grown faster than population. It has often been argued that future pressures on food production, combined with threats to other aspects of the earth's habitat such as global warming, make overpopulation a still more serious threat in the future. Perhaps the best-known example of such an argument is The Limits to Growth, a report produced for the Club of Rome in the early 1970s. More recent examples also exist [1] (http://www.ku.edu/~hazards/foodpop.pdf).

Population as a function of food availability

Recent studies (http://www.ku.edu/~hazards/foodpop.pdf) attack the contemporary belief that human populations are a naturally explosive independent variable. Thinkers such as Professor David Pimentel (Cornell), Dr. Alan Thornhill, Russell Hopffenberg and author Daniel Quinn propose that like other animals, human populations predictably grow and shrink according to their available food supply- populations grow in an abundance of food, and shrink in times of scarcity.

Proponents of this theory indicate that every time food production is intensified to feed a growing population, the population responds by increasing even more. Some human populations throughout history support this theory, as consistant population growth began with the agricultural revolution, when food supply began consistantly increasing- and continues to do so today. This can be observed in cultural contexts, as populations of hunter-gatherers fluctuate in accordance with the amount of available food and are significantly smaller than populations of agriculturalists, who increase the amount of food avaible by putting more land under agriculture.

For some, the concept that human populations behave in the same way as do populations of bears and fish is troubling to believe; for others it indicates a feasible solution to population issues. In either case, since populations are made of the food they consume, it seems that discussion of populations should not take place without considering the role played by food supply.

Critics of this idea point out that birth rates are voluntarily the lowest in developed nations, which also have the highest access to food. In fact, the population is decreasing in some countries with abundant food supply. Thus human populations do not always grow to match the available food supply. Factors cited in the decline of birthrates include: increased access to contraception; later ages of marriage; the growing desire of many women in such settings to seek careers outside of childrearing and domestic work; and the decreased economic "utility" of children in industrialized settings. The latter explaination stems from the fact that children perform a great deal of work in small-scale agricultural societies, and work less in industrial ones; this interpretation may seem callous, but it has been cited to explain the drop-off in birthrates worldwide in all industrializing regions.

Food production has outpaced population growth, meaning that there is now more food available per person than ever before in history. Studies project that food production can continue to increase until at least 2050. Using modern agricultural methods, FAO has predicted that developing countries could sustain a population of 30 billion people [2] (http://www.kqed.org/topics/news/perspectives/youdecide/pop/overpop/2yes.html). At the same time, world population is predicted to voluntarily stabilize at 9 billion. [3] (http://www.un.org/esa/population/unpop.htm).

The optimist's viewpoint on population growth

Other studies have countered with the claim that the current population level of over six thousand million may be supported by current resources, or that the global population may grow to ten thousand million and still be within the Earth's carrying capacity. Buckminster Fuller and Barry Commoner were both proponents of the idea that human technology could keep up with population growth indefinitely. The assumptions that underlie these claims, however, have been strongly criticised. One criticism is that poor people can't afford such technologies.

In any case, many proponents of population control have averred that famine is far from being the only problem attendant to overpopulation. These critics point out ultimate shortages of energy sources and other natural resources, as well as the importance of serious communicable diseases in dense populations and war over scarce resources such as land area.

A shortage of arable land (where food crops will grow) is a problem. About 21% of the earth's land is arable. In the past, 160 acres (650,000 m²) of farm land crops fed one person. Hydroponics in autonomous building gardens and greenhouses grow more food in less space. Most food production experiments have used vegetable farming because it can support an adult from as little as 15 m of land. High yield vegetables like potatoes and lettuce do not waste space with inedible plant parts, like stalks, husks, vines, and inedible leaves. New varieties of selectively bred and hybrid plants have larger edible parts (fruit, vegetable, cereal) and smaller inedible parts. With new technologies, it is now possible to grow crops on some unarable land under certain conditions. Aquaculture could theoretically dramatically increase available area. Hydroponics and food from bacteria and fungi, like Quorn, may allow the growing of food without having to consider land quality, climate, or even available sunlight.

It is hoped that technologies and methods which follow the concepts of sustainability will allow better lives for more people.

Fossil-fuel subsidies in agriculture

One of the strongest criticisms of an optimistic outlook is that of the fossil fuel subsidy of modern agriculture. The extremely high agricultural outputs of modern farms depend entirely on immense fossil fuel (mostly petroleum) subsidies in the forms of fertilizers, equipment fuel, and other chemicals such as pesticides. With proven reserves of petroleum steadily falling from year to year, fossil-fuel subsidies would seem to be ultimately doomed.

Effects of overpopulation

The world's current agricultural production, if it were distributed evenly, would be sufficient to feed everyone living on the Earth today. However, many critics hold that, in the absence of other measures, simply feeding the world's population well would only make matters worse, natural growth will cause the population to grow to unsustainable levels, and will directly result in famines and deforestation and indirectly in pandemic disease and war.

Some other characteristics of overpopulation:

  • Child poverty
  • Birth rate is high
  • Life expectancy is low
  • Low level of literacy
  • High rate of unemployment in urban areas (leading to social problems)
  • Rural people are not gainfully employed (caught in cycle of poverty)
  • Insufficient arable land
  • Little surplus food
  • Poor diet with ill health and diet-deficiency diseases (e.g. rickets)
  • GDP per capita is low (under US$765 per annum)
  • Many live in unhygienic conditions
  • Government is stretched economically
  • High crime from people who steal resources to survive
  • Mass extinctions of plants and animals as habitat is used for farming and human settlements

The demographic transition

However, others contend that within a generation after the standard of living and life expectancy starts increasing, family sizes start dropping in what is termed the demographic transition. In support they point to the contention that every estimate of maximum global population since the 1960s, when the "population explosion" became a worry, has been significantly lower than the previous estimates. Among those holding this view are the ecologist Paul Colinvaux, who writes on the topic in Why Big Fierce Animals are Rare, and The Fates of Nations.

Today about half the world lives in nations with sub-replacement fertility. All the nations East Asia, with the exceptions Mongolia, the Philippines, and Laos are below. Russia and Eastern Europe are in most cases quite dramatically below replacement fertility. Western Europe also is below replacement. In the Middle East Iran, Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey, and Lebanon are below replacement. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are similar to Western Europe, while the United States is just barely below replacement with about 2.0 births per woman. All four of these nations still have growing populations due to high rates of immigration. The countries having the lowest fertility are Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore and Lithuania.

The status of women

Another point of view on population vs. the standard of living is that of Virginia Abernethy in Population Politics, in which she shows evidence that this effect only holds true in nations where women enjoy a relatively high status. In strongly patriarchal nations, where women enjoy few rights, a higher standard of living tends to result in population growth. She argues that foreign aid to poor countries must include significant components designed to improve the education, human rights, political rights, political power, and economic status and power of women.

"Survival of the fittest"

Some approach overpopulation with a "survival of the fittest," "laissez-faire" attitude, arguing that if the Earth's ecosystem becomes overtaxed, it will naturally regulate itself. In this mode of thought, disease or starvation are "natural" means of lessening population. Two particular objections to this argument are that a) in the meantime, a huge number of plant and animal species become extinct, and b) this would result in terrible pollution in some areas that would be difficult to abate. As well, it obviously creates certain moral problems, as this would cause great suffering in the people that die.

Others argue that economic development is the best way to reduce population growth. Many developed countries in the world today, such as Italy, now have declining populations (ignoring the effects of immigration).

In either case, it is often held that the most productive approach is to provide a combination of help targeted towards population control and self-sufficiency. One of the most important measures proposed for this effort is the empowerment of women educationally, economically, politically, and in the family. The value of this philosophy has been substantially borne out in cases where great strides have been taken to this goal: where women's status has dramatically improved, there has generally been a drastic reduction in the birthrate to more sustainable levels. Other measures include effective family planning programs, local renewable energy systems, sustainable agriculture methods and supplies, reforestation, and measures to protect the local environment.

Medicine shortages

The largest shortage for important resources is of medicine. A shortage of educated people can lead to a shortage of doctors. Fewer doctors in a population causes the price of medical services to rise. This can either cause a government subsidised healthcare system to be unsustainable or lead to increased medical bills and health insurance costs to rise.

US immigration policy

Some overpopulation activists have taken the position that population growth must be dealt with on a country-by-country basis, and therefore support a reduction in immigration into some countries, including the United States, in order to stabilize their population. Others disagree with this approach and believe that population should be addressed only as a global issue, not through immigration restrictions. Regardless of differing views on immigration policy, most population activists agree on the need for birth control, family planning, and the empowerment of women. Among the groups who take a position in support of immigration reductions is Negative Population Growth; among those who do not take a position on immigration and concentrate instead on birth control and family planning is Population Connection, formerly Zero Population Growth. This debate has also been ongoing in some parts of the broader environmental movement, especially Earth First! during the 1980s, and more recently has become an especially contentious issue within the Sierra Club.

Overpopulation as a social issue

The density of population has an impact on a broad range of social and economic issues, such as land prices and housing costs. For example, relatively densely populated countries such as Japan have higher land prices than less densely populated countries such as Australia, and even in that country, land prices have doubled and redoubled as the population has increased. It is sometimes argued that reducing the populations of some areas, such as large cities, would have positive benefits for these reasons.

Population projections

Missing image
United Nation's medium variant population projections by location.

The United Nations projects that world population will stabilize in 2075 at nine billion due to the demographic transition. Birth rates are now falling in most developing nations and the population would decrease in many developed nations if there was no immigration. [4] (http://www.un.org/esa/population/unpop.htm)

David Pimentel, a Cornell University professor of ecology and agricultural sciences, sees several possible scenarios for the 22nd century: A planet with 2000 million people thriving in harmony with the environment; or, at the other extreme, 12,000 million miserable humans suffering a difficult life with limited resources and widespread famine.[5] (http://www.utne.com/web_special/web_specials_archives/articles/799-1.html)

See also

External links


de:berbevlkerung fr:Surpopulation he:התפוצצות אוכלוסין id:Overpopulasi nl:Overbevolking pl:Przeludnienie zh:人口爆炸


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