The Causes of Poverty (5): Overpopulation

Some blame overpopulation for many of the world’s problems such as poverty, famine and war (which are obviously rights violations). There are supposed to be too many people for peaceful coexistence and sustainable food production. The areas of the world which are inhabitable and useable for agriculture are too small compared to the number of people living in them. These people are followers of Thomas Malthus or of malthusianism, and often even predict major catastrophes which will reduce the population significantly. They also advocate some quite draconian measures for limiting the human population.

In scientific terms: overpopulation occurs when an organism’s numbers exceed the carrying capacity of its habitat; carrying capacity = [available sustainable resources > current and projected needs of the organism].

For example, imagine a population of 10 living in a habitat of 10 square kilometers. These 10 square kilometers can produce food, drinking water, shelter etc. for 15. Then there is no overpopulation. But if the population grows or is expected to grow at a rate of 10% annually, without an equal or superior growth in resources, then overpopulation threatens. There would also be overpopulation if the material resources are adequate but other needs such as space, privacy etc. are not met. For example if the available space is too small to guarantee peaceful co-existence.

So overpopulation can result from changes in the population (increased births, reduced deaths, better healthcare, migration etc.) or from changes in the resources – material or psychological – in the habitat (for example desertification, natural disasters, technological innovations etc.), or from a combination of both.

The current state of the world’s population is the following:

  • Present world population – 6,500,000,000 but unequal distribution of world population (see graphs below). The main population clusters are East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Europe.
  • Average world growth rate – 1.4% annual, but also unequal distribution of growth rates: fastest growing areas are the Middle East – over 4.0% annual – and the slowest growing areas are Central and Eastern Europe – 0% or less. Southern Africa even sees negative growth rates as a result of the HIV epidemic.
  • Forecasts are notoriously difficult but the world’s population is expected to rise by 40% to 9.1 billion by 2050.



Blaming everything on overpopulation is misguided and reductionist. Problems such as poverty and war have a complex set of causes, including in some but not all cases overpopulation, government policies, cultural factors, repercussions from colonialism, religion etc.

One can also question whether there is indeed a problem of overpopulation. Per capita food production has risen the last 50 years, and poverty (expressed as the number of people living on less than 1$ a day) has decreased while the population has increased. So poverty and war may not have anything to do with the size of the world’s population. However, ecological problems may have something to do with it. If so, the solution would surely not be population control, which is much too difficult and often dictatorial. Changes in consumption patterns are a much more promising route.

18 thoughts on “The Causes of Poverty (5): Overpopulation”

  1. Not just that, but if China is an example then population control fails to protect the environment. China has been building 1 new coal power plant per week alongside its 1 child policy. And yes pollution rates have been rising as the birthrate falls in China. It doesn’t look like population control is a solution.

    But, here is something to think about, why do so many Malthusians say we need to take act according to his theories to avoid misery when doing just that caused misery in the past (19th century Ireland under British rule serves as one example.)


  2. Although the simple mentioning of controlling population can be a bit too disturbing for some of us ‘civilized’ people, the phenomenon didn’t come out of thin-air.

    In a world made up of competing people who, in turn, make up competing nation-states, the mad dash to industrialization has produced, aside from all of the commodities we now consider inseparable to us, the bloodiest century in recorded human history, as mentioned above.

    In other words, ladies and gentlemen, the seemingly subconcious yearning implanted in our psyche to help ourselves before we help our neighbor, to empower our ouwn nations before helping our diplomatic counterparts, has taken a higher seat on the priority ladder than upholding our innate sense of morality.

    It seems that doing what is right is doable if, and only if, doing so does not interfere with our grotesquely, inhumanely individualistic perspectives of life. Doing what is right is treated as secondary to the REAL law of “civilization:” I must make sure I can indulge in my comforts first and, only then, see if I can give anyone a piece of bread.

    We claim to be a civilized people, yet with every passing day, more and more babies are being born into a world that they are destined to see crumble as a result of our ‘civilization.’ We have employed our reason — that singular element unique only to human beings — and have used it to turn ourselves into unsatisfiable animals, treating our environment like an organic trash can and instructing our own to follow suit.

    Some desperate people, having ackowledged that true harmony with our planet is impossible because of our need to continue consuming savagely, have turned to population control, a solution as horrifying as the events that made its mentioning necessary.


  3. Look at the world…. there are too many people.

    Get out from behind your little computer and look at what we are doing to the planet and our quality of life…. it’s all going downhill. For a simple example, there is not enough copper in the world to provide phone lines for everyone…. there sure as hell isn’t enough oil for everyone to drive… so WHAT THE GOAL? WHAT’S THE PLAN??? I’d LOOOOVE to know what we hope to accomplish as a species. Hmmm… let’s see… a miserable, polluted world with extreme competition for resources… WOW, GOTTA LOVE IT!!!

    Simple fact, we are too stupid as a species to do anything about it. We want fewer people but we lack the personal responsibility to hold back on having our selfish little “miracles”.


  4. Absolutely true….where is personal responsibility? I would have loved a child but chose not to because I feel we all should make choices for the good of all…I am so fed up with religions preaching to produce more children, and ignorance not being addressed! Stop the babies, for everyone’s sake!


    1. I feel the same way, bringing a child into the world is not only my responsibility but how is the system supposed to provide for another human being. It’s not right to be so selfish just because you want to have a child, plan ahead if you will and be responsible.


  5. Wishmaster and Julie. Who says the number of people determines if we want more items than we need, or that we would waste and pollute?

    The number babies you have does not determine if you use renewable energy, have an SUV, and so on.

    Having less children does not mean pollution disappears. Pollution is the exhaust from machines and devices we use, not us personally. Change the number and/or type of machines and the exhaust changes. Not the number of people.

    And wishmaster…. about oil. Burning it releases Carbon into the air (and the Carbon cycle on the surface of the Earth). The problem for us as humans is not if there is much or little of it. It is that using it as we do now pollutes. If there was enough oil that it could be used for a billion years into the future the problem doesn’t change.

    The human race was around long before oil was used for fuel and can be around after. You shouldn’t define if we can survive or not by this one resource (which may be a bad to use anyway).


  6. This is a big copy and paste I’m going to do that people who believe in “choice” should think over.:

    When you’a0deal with’a0money-based rewards and sanctions you’92re bound to run into issues.’a0
    Check these out.’a0
    ’95 The Kaum Ho Tire Industrial Company in South Korea,’a0 offers incentives for the use of birth control in the form of ’93priorities for houses and loans (and) paid holiday after a vasectomy.’94 Company-provided maternity care, on the other hand, is withheld after the birth of a third child, and workers wither’a0large families are not promoted.’a0 Employees with more than 4 children must leave the firm.
    ’95 This report shows that these employment-based fertility reduction campaigns are becoming common practice in much of the developing world. In the Philippines, for example, workers at the Hawaiian-Philippine Company are visited at home by family planning motivators and are obligated to attend lectures on the ’93need’94 for birth control as part of their work schedules. At the same time, the workers are promised paid leave for undergoing permanent surgical sterilization (p. 82).
    ’95 Several large companies in India have similar programs. The Alembic Group of Industries, Ltd., in Bombay uses hired promoters to encourage sterilizations among workers, and requires that those refusing to be sterilized attend orientation sessions until they change their minds. And the company pays rewards to those workers to submit to surgical sterilization.
    ’95 Another large Bombay employer, Godrej and Boyce Manufacturing, offers both paid leave and bonus money to employees who choose sterilization, while delivering specific punishments to those having three or more children.’a0 Disincentives (include) no maternity benefits after 3 children, no housing for those with 3 or more children unless the worker was sterilized, and the fourth child would not be admitted to the company school.’a0 This is common’a0for workers at major plants in many parts of India.
    ’95 Some projects in other countries put the pressure directly on motivators instead of employees. For example, family planning ’93field workers’94 in Bangladesh are given ’93expected targets’94 to meet. They receive referral fees for every employee brought to a clinic either for sterilization or for the insertion of an intrauterine contraceptive device (IUCD).
    ’95 The Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka works with labor unions to discourage births, employing thirty trained, professional family planning advocates to convince skeptics at participating work sites to undergo sterilization. Employees are required to complete questionnaires and to take part in unspecified ’93motivational activities,’94 and companies offer cash awards to those accepting sterilization. According to the World Bank report, the thirty paid motivators are ’93given 4 days/month to educate their fellow employees.’94
    ’93It can be all but impossible for employees to stand up to such pressure. Even those who stubbornly resist an employer’92s incessant ’93motivational’94 exercises may find the ’93incentive’94 payments the only option available to them in a financial emergency.’94’a0 Sooooo?’a0 Annnnnnd the problem is what?’a0 India’92s population at 1.2 Billion is well on the way to ridiculous when compated against it’92s rising poverty.’a0 Come on, stemming the tide with economic rewards is par for the course.
    Western Involvement
    Many of these ’93private sector’94 population projects are funded by government ’93aid’94 dollars from the West. For instance, the Pathfinder Fund, which masterminded the Bangladesh target-setting activity, is the beneficiary of a five-year contract with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), worth $136 million (U.S.). USAID has also backed a family planning ’93benefit’94 package for workers at Lectrol Lima and MIOLPO in Peru and an experimental activity at the Lever Borthoter plant in Nigeria to evaluate the reactions of workers to various tactics for persuading them to undergo sterilization.’a0 The U.S. has provided financial assistance to employment-based family planning promotional activities in Bolivia, Indonesia, Brazil, Thailand, Ghana, and the Dominican Republic, among other places.

    Here is the link I got most of it from:

    Disturbing to think your boss can decide how many children you are allowed have.


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