In 2015, 141 million people were born – 44 million more than was recorded 65 years earlier (Ritchie, 2019). Our current population stands at over 7 billion, and could reach 9 billion by 2050. This puts a lot of strain on our planet’s resources, and leads many to believe that with fewer mouths to feed, a lot of our environmental issues would be less significant. But is overpopulation really the problem?
“If human population growth is not controlled voluntarily, it will eventually be controlled coercively. The death rate will catch up with the birth rate–through starvation and famines, through diseases (e.g., AIDS, which is already ravaging Africa), or by wars and genocide” – Oskamp (2000)
The idea of overpopulation was initially brought to public attention through the work of the British economist Thomas Malthus. His report, entitled “An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society” (1798) criticised the idea that life would improve indefinitely for people on Earth, instead predicting how unlimited population growth would outstrip food production, leading to a number of checks on population as a result, namely disease, famine and war. Advances in medical and agricultural technologies have already led to the huge population we have today (Hanauer, 1998), yet some estimate that the maximum number of people that our planet can support could be up to 200 billion (Toth & Szigeti, 2016). With this many people to cater for, it is hard to believe that any quality of life can be sustained by the majority. In fact, quality of life is already being greatly affected due to the strains of overcrowding, whether it be through strained infrastructure (Welch, 1993), loss of open space or poor air quality (Hanauer, 1998). But is this more to do with over-consumption than overpopulation?
Overconsumption is the idea that we in the Western world, or the richest 1%, are consuming an unsustainable volume of resources. According to recent research, population, which used to be the key driver to environmental degradation, is now one of the least influential factors, having been replaced by consumption (Toth & Szigeti, 2016). This seems obvious, given that the 23% of people living in developed countries consume 66% of the world’s resources (Hanauer, 1998).
“We can conclude that population growth has always been the main driver in our biosphere transformation. But from 50–80 years ago there has been a stronger driver in our growth and biosphere transformation: accelerating consumption.” – Toth & Szigeti (2016)
An average middle-class American consumes 3.3x the amount of food and almost 250x the amount of water necessary for living (Whiting, 2018). If everyone followed this lifestyle, the world could cope with around 2 billion people, 3.5x fewer than today. Scientists mark a day every year known as “Earth Overshoot Day”, which is the point at which all of the Earth’s resources have been used up. In 2018, it was held on the 1st August, meaning all our resources were used up within 8 months (Whiting, 2018).
But according to Hanauer (1998), population remains the critical issue – after all, you can’t have overconsumption without the people to do the consuming. They argue that even if we can decrease our personal ecological footprint, a high number of small ecological footprints will still lead to widescale habitat loss and species extinctions. But this argument is flawed, as it assumes that everyone has an equally sized ecological footprint (or environmental impact), so that reducing population will reduce consumption in a predictable, measurable amount per person– this is clearly not the case. In fact, this line of thinking is damaging, since it pins the blame on nations where birth rates are much higher, even though each individual in many Asian or African countries consumes far less than a single American or British person. Instead, consumption should be the focus for change.
The assumption that constant consumption will lead to economic growth, progress and social stability (Oskamp, 2000) is simply untrue. How can it be considered progress when affluent nations exploit and exhaust the natural resources of poorer nations, leaving them with far less? Overconsumption, greed, and poor resource management might be the real reasons behind some of the key negatives associated with population growth (Active Sustainability, 2019). For example, starvation across some of Asia’s richest rice-growing areas was not because of a lack of food, but instead because of exploitation through colonialism (Welch, 1993).
So what can we do about our impact on the environment?
In terms of population control, a lot can be done. For example, promoting family planning programs has been a successful approach so far – family planning promotes limiting family size, which has been found to increase economic opportunities for women (Oskamp, 2000). In fact, women with a higher level of education have fewer children on average – in Ghana, women who had gone to high school had 2-3 children, when their less educated peers had six on average (Active Sustainability, 2019). But again, this narrative of focusing on population control of poorer nations seems to perpetuate the idea that it is these nations who are to blame for the problems we are facing – instead, it is time for more concrete action to be taken to limit consumption in the Western world.
Individual behavioural choices are shaped by societal and political norms. It is therefore crucial that institutions do more to encourage pro-environmental behaviour (Oskamp, 2000)– not an easy task, considering how business makes money through encouraging consumption. A lot needs to happen before overconsumption is regulated, and a lot of challenges remain – How can society change to promote environmental protection and reduced consumption? How can money be diverted from technological fixes to encourage behavioural change?
“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Many of us are highly concerned about the state of our environment – it is long past the time we did more to fix it.
Learn more about….
Hanauer, M.G. (1998) Overpopulation and overconsumption: Where should we focus. In NPG forum, March. Negative Population Growth, Washington, DC.
Oskamp, S. (2000) A sustainable future for humanity? How can psychology help?. American Psychologist, 55(5), p.496
Ritchie, H. (2019) How many people die and how many are born each year? [online] Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/births-and-deaths (Accessed: 12/08/2020)
Rosenberg, M. (2019) Thomas Malthus on Population. [online] Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/thomas-malthus-on-population-1435465 (Accessed: 12/08/2020)
Toth, G. & Szigeti, C. (2016) The historical ecological footprint: From over-population to over-consumption. Ecological Indicators, 60, pp.283-291
Welch, A.M. (1993) Health in the developing world. Overpopulation and overconsumption. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 307(6900), p.387Whiting, K. (2018)David Attenborough: The planet can’t cope with overpopulation. [online] Available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/10/david-attenborough-warns-planet-cant-cope-with-overpopulation/ (Accessed: 12/08/2020)