2.3 Overpopulation

In 1798, Thomas Malthus published a short but revolutionary work called “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” Malthus states that future population growth would be determined by two facts and one opinion. The facts were that food is necessary for survival and that men and women would continue to have sex, thus producing offspring. His opinion is that if the population is not restrained by war, famine, and/or disease, population growth will occur exponentially. He also argues that agricultural production of food could only grow arithmetically. The overall assumption is that population growth will quickly grow beyond food production, leading to food shortages and famines.

Malthus’ theory has not come to fruition, yet, due to technological advances in agriculture (fertilizers, insect and drought resistance, and better farming techniques). Some discredit Malthus because his hypothesis is based on a world supply of resources being fixed rather than expanding. Humans have the ability to expand the supply of food and other resources by using new technologies to offset the scarcity of minerals and arable land. Thus, we can use resources more efficiently and substitute scarce resources with new ones. Even with a global human population of 7 billion, food production has grown faster than the global rate of increase (NIR). Better growing techniques, higher-yielding, and genetically modified seeds, as well as cultivation of more land, have helped expand food supplies.

While new technologies have helped to increase food production, there are not enough emerging technologies to handle supply and demand. Adding to the problem is the fact that many insects have developed a resistance to pesticides. These problems have caused a slowdown and a leveling-off of food production in many regions of the world. Without breakthroughs in safe and sustainable food production, the food supply will not keep up with population growth.

Others believe that population growth is not a bad thing. A large population could stimulate economic growth, and therefore, production of food. Population growth could generate more customers and more ideas for improving technology. Additionally, some maintain that no cause-and-effect relationship exists between population growth and economic development. They argue that poverty, hunger, and other social welfare problems associated with a lack of economic development, famines, and war are a result of unjust social and economic institutions, not population growth.

Lately, there has been a rise in neo-Malthusian thought. One notable figure is Paul Ehrlich. In his book, The Population Bomb, Ehrlich argues that population growth cannot continue without controls because the planet will reach the carrying capacity of our species. In short, we must consider environmental factors as we discuss overpopulation concerns. For example, even though humans produce four times the amount of food that we consume, we produce our food at the price of the environment. The rapid population growth of the world has caused massive deforestation in the Boreal Forests and rainforests, increasing desertification that encroaches into arable land, over-fishing of the oceans, mass extinction of species, air and water pollution, and anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change. All of these things have economic and environmental costs that we must consider.

Population Policy

Governments and other entities can dramatically influence population change to increase or decrease population growth in their country by promoting anti-nationalist or pro-nationalist policies. Some countries take dramatic steps to reduce their population. For example, China’s One-Child Policy dictated that each family (husband and wife) could legally have only one child. Families that followed this policy were often given more money by the government or better housing. If a family illegally had another child, they would be fined heavily.

Children born illegally cannot attend school and have a difficult time finding jobs, getting government licenses, or even getting married. Some have reported that the government would force abortions on families with more than one child. One of the significant consequences of this policy was a dramatic increase in abortions and infanticides, especially females. Female infanticide is linked directly to a global cultural trend that privileges males over females, baby boys are desired, especially if the family is only allowed, one child. This specific focus on eliminating women is called gendercide. Half the Sky, written by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, documents global gendercide and what is being done to combat this problem.

After the two great world wars, the United Nations Population Commission and the International Planned Parenthood Federation began to advocate for more global population control. Many groups who advocate for population control focus on:

  • Changing cultural attitudes that keep population rates high (or low)
  • Providing contraception to least developed countries (LDC)
  • Helping countries study population trends by improving census counts
  • Empowering women and emphasizing gender equality

It is believed that worldwide, over 60 percent of women between ages 15-49 use some form of contraception. This varies regionally. In the United States, contraception use is at nearly 75 percent, whereas in Africa, it is around 30 percent. The consensus today is that the focus on population planning should be on gender equality and improving the social status of women around the world. This is the focus of the International Conference on Population and Development.

Religious organizations are also concerned with population growth; however, they focus on contraception issues and not strictly population growth. Some religions and political entities find contraception use immoral which has influenced some governments to make access to and use of them illegal.

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Introduction to Human Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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