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Too Many People?

It seems to be a given in many circles that the earth is overpopulated. I can see how some could come to this conclusion. There are people everywhere we look. Encroachment of suburbs into farmland, increased pollution, and the extinction of many species are just some of the reasons that there are clearly too many people on earth. When I was traveling in India last year, there were masses of people everywhere I looked. Clearly we must drastically reduce the population. That is what we are told. And you know, when someone says there are too many people, they don’t really mean themselves or their friends and family. They mean there are too many ‘other people.’ The concept of ‘too many people’ is an abstraction for most people.

A recent Christian Science Monitor addressed this issue:

Earth’s big problem: Too many people.

“You’ve got to get a president who’s got the guts to say, ‘Patriotic Americans stop at two [children],’ ” says Paul Ehrlich, a professor of population studies at Stanford University. “That if you care about your children and grandchildren, we should have a smaller population in the future, not larger.” Professor Ehrlich wrote the groundbreaking 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” which predicted disastrous effects from unchecked population growth.

Earth’s population is about 6.8 billion people today, or four times the population of a century ago. Even though birth rates are lower than during the 1960s and ’70s, the world is adding 75 million to 80 million people per year and is expected to peak at more than 9 billion by midcentury – far too many, say some population experts.

Whether this growth can be sustained and still provide a decent living standard for people is itself controversial. Some, including Ehrlich and Alan Weisman, the author of the best-selling book “The World Without Us,” argue that even today’s population is too large to maintain without ravaging the environment and creating an inhospitable planet.

The thing is, I don’t like dogma. I like data. When someone argues that we must reduce the population, but then turns around and says this I cringe:

How much would today’s population have to shrink to become sustainable? “I don’t think anybody knows,” Mr. Weisman says. “All I know is, ‘less is better.’ ”

Nobody knows? Are you serious? Shouldn’t we venture an educated guess before arguing for population reduction?

Here is the deal. If we consider the lifestyle of the average Westerner, then the earth is likely overpopulated. In my view, our present lifestyle is unsustainable. The entire world can’t consume resources at the rate of the average Westerner.

I have seen estimates that suggest that the world could sustainably hold around 2 billion people that consume as the average Westerner does (even that seems high to me) but 40 billion if the world consumes what the average African consumes. If the typical Western diet was primarily vegetarian, the carrying capacity would go up. I have seen estimates of arable land in the world between 3.5 billion and 7 billion acres. Therefore, there is around one arable acre on earth for every person on the planet. Is that enough to feed everyone? It is, with the caveat that the number of arable acres per person vary wildly from country to country. But taken as a whole, on a vegetarian diet there would appear to be enough land area to feed the population. To do it sustainably would take a lot of physical labor, though.

Of course that’s only one issue, so the answer to the question is obviously “It depends.” And I am not trying to argue in this essay that there aren’t too many people. But I don’t think we should take it as dogma that there are. Clearly we can’t continue to grow the population forever, but we may spread out to the stars and some day find that the argument has shifted to “Can the galaxy support 100 trillion humans?”

A Note on Global Warming

As some will surely point out, there are parallels between the population argument and the debate over global warming. Human-induced global warming is dogma to many, and those who question that premise are often labeled as ‘deniers’ and such. The difference for me personally is that while I believe humans are at a minimum contributing to global warming, that is not dogma for me. I do listen to the arguments, and I will move off of my position if the data warrant that.

I still have admittedly not dug deeply enough into the data on this one, but my impression remains that there is a broad consensus on this issue in the scientific community. Not being an expert myself, I defer to that unless I personally have sifted through the arguments and counter-arguments, understand them well, and have a different conclusion.

February 1, 2009 Posted by | global warming, population control, sustainability | 61 Comments