The Causes of Poverty (17): Overpopulation

According to Malthus, food and other resources are limited, and a population growth that exceeds a certain pace will inevitably hit a resource ceiling, and will result in decreasing standards of living, poverty, conflict over scarce resources, famine etc. (This is called a Malthusian catastrophe). Ultimately, population growth will halt because if this, and population levels will return to the “normal” equilibrium possible within the limits offered by nature (the so-called “carrying capacity”).

And if these disasters aren’t enough, active population control is necessary, including measures such as the abolition of social security (social security doesn’t incite people to birth control, see here) and even more extreme policies (many of which proposed by Malthus’ more enthusiastic followers rather than by himself).

Malthus agreed that humanity was capable of increasing its productivity, but believed that population growth would necessarily outpace this increase. The facts are, however, different. Standards of living have risen enormously over the last centuries, notwithstanding large increases in population numbers. GDP growth has even been faster than population growth, giving, on average, every human being more resources than ever before in history. Of course, these resources aren’t equally distributed, but that’s a problem of justice, not of population.

Blaming everything on overpopulation is simplistic. All major problems in life are multi-causal, and population isn’t a real or major cause in many cases (bad governance is often a more important cause). And when it is, population control isn’t the answer. Technology, productivity, consumer adaptation, better governance etc. are more promising solutions.

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27 thoughts on “The Causes of Poverty (17): Overpopulation

      1. I am doing a project on overpopulation and what are somethings being done to solve these problems? like are there any laws about it? What can an individual do to help?

    1. ALL PROBLEMS IN SOCIETY ARE TECHNICAL PROBLEMS. Over population is an unavoidable problem that will need to be address in the future, by achieving a technical solution. The true capacity for humankind’s population on earth is unknown. Based on our current food and water supply it could be calculated to be =”x”…but if those supplies amounts change then you compute a different amount of human capacity =”y”. Therefore we must use all available resources in the most effective ways possible and develop the technologies needed to insure the survival of all mankind on land or other wise.

      1. I don’t think more technology is the answer. Technology is what accelerated this problem. There is no way that we can develop another source of energy in time to beat out the inevitable. Population will out-pace our ability to produce the energy to farm enough to feed everyone. Even if we came up with a new source tomorrow, there will eventually be more people than the planet can support. Regardless of whether you side with Thomas Maltus, or Bill Catton (to name a few) we have to take action. I think it will require changes in social attitudes towards population, as well as technological advances in new and cleaner sources of energy. Increasing crop yield will be an important factor. The diet of those in the wealthy countries will have to adjust. Why should the poorer nations have to eat nothing but rice while the rich eat whatever they want?
        Something to ponder…

  1. I disagree. There really is no problem I can think of currently affecting the quality of human life that can’t be directly traced back to overpopulation. It’s not simplistic, it’s just obvious. There is no compelling reason to have more than a billion people on this planet, especially if they are going to be generating a lot of industrial junk.

    I think that what is simplistic is the idea that human populations can reproduce exponentially and indefinitely without sacrificing the value of the individual lives. Malthus was right, he was just premature. If you look at what has happened to the quality of life in the last thirty years – beyond the superficial measures we have contrived to perpetuate our cultural myths, I think you’ll find that for hundreds of millions life has not improved but rather stagnated or devolved. There is no magic replay button for the 20th century, and the solutions of that revolutionary time will not likely hold us over for long enough to develop new ones to transform the outlook significantly.

    To imagine what the consequences of overpopulation might be, we have only to look to our actual circumstances. Increasing delays and competition in navigating cities, growing concern and conflict over resources, rising paranoia and irrationality in political discourse, threats of pandemic… These things don’t happen with people who are getting happier, who have more space and time and resources to share and to call their own. These are the signs of debt and despair, suffocation and rage which come from there being too many people to care about.

    1. “These things don’t happen with people who are getting happier, who have more space and time and resources to share and to call their own. These are the signs of debt and despair, suffocation and rage which come from there being too many people to care about.”
      !!!SIMPLY FALSE!!! -Most, if not all problems of society(crime) stem from the corruption of the monetary system that perverse social values, waste resources and devalue human life…this is the real problem! Rage and feelings of suffocation or depression are the results of individuals forced to work jobs and live lives they find meaningless(and in some cases, actually are)in order to fuel the system so the elite can continue living off them. Research the monetary system, educate yourself on Capitalism (US’s current social structure), investigate new technologies, investigate The Zeitgeist Movement and inquire and ask questions about The Venus Project. Get all the facts, review history in all aspects. OPEN YOUR MIND TO THE POSSIBILITIES…don’t restrict your mindset due to delusions of scarcity….let peace and love for all rule your thoughts and soul.

      ALL PROBLEMS IN SOCIETY ARE TECHNICAL PROBLEMS. Over population is an unavoidable problem that will need to be address in the future, by achieving a technical solution. The true capacity for humankind’s population on earth is unknown. Based on our current food and water supply it could be calculated to be =”x”…but if those supplies amounts change then you compute a different amount of human capacity =”y”. Therefore we must use all available resources in the most effective ways possible and develop the technologies needed to insure the survival of all mankind on land or other wise.

  2. You’re right, most of the problems do stem from perversion of the monetary system, but it’s the exploding population that makes that perversion inevitable. Certainly you can have corruption at any scale of population but the pressures exerted by the existence of billions of disposable people have proven to be too great for the fragile individual human psyches charged with maintaining overwhelming power and status over the rest of the world. It’s the corruption that is inevitable, not population growth.

    I agree with what you are saying about the illusion of scarcity and I’m intimately familiar with Zeitgeist and other Truther info streams. They provide valuable glimpses beyond the veils but also are corrupted with disinformation, speculation, and inverted egotism. It actually makes me sad, it’s like we are so starved and desperate to explain this tragic situation that we have to reach for apophenia and magical thinking to project a heroic possible future for ourselves out of the grim banality of our current state.

    The problem isn’t scarcity itself, it’s the ontological devaluation of individual lives. Supply and demand is unavoidable in any economic system, and when the demand for fully developed human beings plummets below zero as it has in recent decades, more and more people choose money over each other and over themselves. For all ‘our’ professed concern for the common good, more and more people treat those below their social station, at best as competition, but more typically as vermin.

    We simply can’t go on producing billions more people for no reason forever. The time to solve that problem was thirty years ago, not in the future. You should open YOUR mind to the possibility that just because overpopulation seems unavoidable to you doesn’t mean it’s not the only viable solution. This isn’t a science fiction story, and there’s no reason why our civilization won’t follow every other collapsed human experiment when it exhausts the principles that hold it together. Resources are the last thing we’ll run out of – it’s the depletion of civility that has no technical solution without population curbs.

  3. I have pushed to outlaw human reproduction since my teenage years in the 1970s. All the technical and distribution problems in the world, and their solutions, will not solve the core problem of uncontrolled human overpopulation. Men need to be forcibly castrated, if they are found guilty of having more than 3 biological kids. Let them adopt if they want more.

  4. Anonymous3 is 10000% right on everything.
    (Not anonymous with his – yes, his – pointless “gay” remark.)

    THINK! obviously doesn’t.

  5. As populations increase productivity and living standards increase. This is evident from the last century.

    One of the main reasons why families in the 3rd world have so many children is because these children can help their parents ‘feed the family’ and look after them as they grow old. As a result of increased living standards, families in developing/developed countries have less children because they are no longer as ‘necessary’.
    Take Germany, for example. Germany has an unsustainably low birth rate with an ever ageing population. This is leading to an overall population decrease (ignoring immigration). The same holds true for many other developed countries and birth rates in developing countries are also declining. There is obviously no need for population control, which is a brutal way of enforcing somebody’s opinion on a nation.
    As third world countries develop, we are seeing the world population increase at a diminishing rate. At some point in the not-too-distant future the world population change will be negative and we will face other issues such as declining economies, insufficient labour and ageing populations. Thus we will have decreasing standards of living. The world population is estimated to peak before the end of the 21st century at around 9-10 Billion.

    Relax!

    1. I don’t think that the last century is a good indicator of future trends. Population increase may level off eventually, but it will be far too late. The additional billions of destitute people being added to the population in the 21st century won’t have a vast supply of natural assets to exploit using cheap labor from other, less developed countries. Instead they will compete with existing commercial-industrial empires for scarce resources and highly leveraged political access. This is the century of Lagos, not Los Angeles. It’s like filling a bus designed for 50 passengers with 300 people and saying that the next 300 won’t be a problem.

      Nations with a growth rate below replacement are on the right track. They are adjusting to the reality of the future liability that additional people present. It’s not like Germans are now sterile. There’s no danger of running out of people who can and will reproduce should conditions become more favorable. In contrast, regions which host exploding population rates are moving to cities – yes they will have fewer children, but they will also have trucks, air conditioning, refrigerators, and all the modern conveniences which are wiping out non-renewable resources at an incredible rate already. It’s not that the world will explode from holding too many physical bodies, it’s that the quality of life will be impacted severely for everyone. A world with the equivalent population of 1000 Tokyos, presided over by a diminishing caste of paranoid wealth-guardians and super elites.

      Doesn’t sound relaxing.

      1. Why would the last century not be a good indicator of future trends? The birth rate over the last century has fallen rapidly and still is
        (http://www.indexmundi.com/g/g.aspx?c=xx&v=25).
        As for resources, I don’t believe they are nearly as scarce as you think, as shown in the above video link. The problem is not lack of resources, but corruption, war, neocolonialism and inadequate education. These problems will not be solved by getting rid of people. Rather, people need to learn to live in peace and unity, and developed countries need to do more to aid and improve undeveloped economies. I believe it’s our responsibility.

      2. As I mentioned, the next century looks nothing like the last century. There are no new Amazon forests appearing to clearcut. There are no Fourth World masses desperate to prop up developing nations with their cheap labor while they move to the cities. We invented industrial agriculture in the last century, which runs on petroleum. That’s running out, not tracking with population growth.

        The causes mentioned in the YouTube – war, poverty… these are population related. Competition over resources and land and economic leverage over an oversupply of labor are what war and poverty are made of. As population increases, so does political pressure. We don’t learn to live in peace and share, we just hoard what we have and exploit our advantage.

        A world of 500 million people with modern technology could be a paradise. Civilization doesn’t need any more human beings than that. Zero unemployment. Free fertile land. No pollution. Fossil fuel use would be absorbed by the environment. People are their own worst problem. Their quantity and productivity is now the only meaningful threat to their quality of life. Videos claiming that the problem isn’t there don’t help.

  6. I found your blog post through a google search of “overpopulation pictures.” I’m currently writing a post about the implications of future generations and the decision to have children. Now that many news sources believe we have reached 7,000,000 people, efforts to curtail social, political, and economic inequalities must be greater than ever before.

  7. Thank you for the article. I’ve been googling for overpopulation pictures and found your post. I also found another great picture that is pointing out one more reason why population is growing – overfertility = having more offsprings than replacement rate – http://annystudio.com/show/0012/ – overpopulation pictire “Overpopulation due to overfertility”. I’ve a t-shirt too, looks great!

  8. The source link for the graph depicting population growth and GDP is broken. Could you tell me where this information comes from? Thank you.

  9. DUSTY says:
    The source link for the graph depicting population growth and GDP is broken. Could you tell me where this information comes from? Thank you.

    Sorry, I’m repeating this message so I can click the box for an email reply. Could you please reply to this post so it will alert me? Thank you again.

    1. Sorry, but I can’t fix the link since I’m unable to find a secondary source. Google image search is of no help either.

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