Monday, November 2, 2009

Overpopulation Essay

This is a research paper I wrote waaaaay back in my "research paper" class in my Freshman year of college. Enjoy!

14 July 2005
On The Union of Concerned Scientist Warning to the World
Concerning the Threat of Overpopulation

In November of 1992, one thousand seven hundred scientists affiliated with the Union of Concerned Scientists1 signed the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” which was written by Henry Kendall. In this ‘warning’ Kendall says that:

"Pressures resulting from unrestrained population growth put demands on the natural world that can overwhelm any efforts to achieve a sustainable future. If we are to halt the destruction of our environment, we must accept limits to that growth. A World Bank estimate indicates that world population will not stabilize at less than 12.4 billion, while the United Nations concludes that the eventual total could reach 14 billion, a near tripling of today’s 5.4 billion. But, even at this moment, one person in five lives in absolute poverty without enough to eat, and one in ten suffers serious malnutrition."

How true is this? Is the world really approaching overpopulation? I decided to research the topic and find out, dividing the topic into several basic questions. First, what constitutes overpopulation? Second, is the world facing overpopulation as a problem today? Third, what solutions have been suggested to prevent overpopulation or to at least slow population growth? For those solutions that have already been implemented, what has worked, what has not worked, and why? Lastly, if in actuality population decline is the modern problem (as much of my research has suggested), how did we get there, what problems does it pose, and how do we get back into population growth (if that is needed)? With these questions in mind, I began my research.

What is overpopulation? According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, it is “The condition of having a population so dense as to cause environmental deterioration, an impaired quality of life, or a population crash.” Kendall and the world scientists seem to agree with this definition. But the problem with this definition is that one can almost say they “feel” the world is overpopulated, or a city is overpopulated, because in their eyes it may fit the aforementioned description. Take, for instance, Salt Lake City. If one is used to a small town atmosphere, the city atmosphere can feel so uncomfortable that it lowers one’s quality of life. The crime rate (especially the murder rate) that naturally rises with the population density might be labeled as a type of population crash. And to top it all off, the air pollution is undoubtedly worse than in places outside the city. So if such conditions are natural for any areas with high population densities (or even medium population densities, such as Salt Lake City), when does one say that there is overpopulation? For my own research, I have decided that severe environmental damage, engendering the over-consumption of resources to the point that the surrounding areas have become barren, and severe changes in quality of life for the residents of an area (such that the majority of people are without food, water, and shelter) are required to call it overpopulation. With this clarification, places like Los Angeles (which I have visited) are not overpopulated because people in those cities have a high quality of life (while there are hungry homeless, they are far from being a majority), the pollution is not so bad as to seriously affect the surrounding environment, and crime is not so bad as to kill a noticeable percentage of those cities’ populations. To call a place overpopulated, then, would require: a) severe negative environmental impact; b) people with little to no quality of life, where any food and shelter is scarce, and quality food and shelter is non-existent; and c) a mass die-off from malnutrition and starvation (death from disease has too many extraneous factors for use as a good criterion).

Now that we have a definition of what overpopulation is, and more importantly, what conditions would exist to suggest overpopulation, is the world overpopulated? Do we have enough resources to support our current world population? Well, from what Tweeten and Zulauf, authors of the Futurist study “Feeding the World: the Long-term Outlook,” say, the world is still harvesting resources, most countries have surpluses of these resources stocked up, and there are more than enough resources to support the current population. Tweeten and Zulauf make this clear when they point out that farms in general are yielding far more per acre now than ever before, even to the point that many plots of farmland are being re-zoned as residential or commercial areas.2

While there are certainly places that have few resources now, such as sub-Saharan Africa, it is not as if they’ve run out of resources. Thomas Sowell, in one of his columns for, makes clear that Africa’s problems are bad leadership, bad geographical location, and bad foreign aid policies from other nations rather than just too many people with too few resources. This is made even clearer when Sowell contrasts the centrally-planned governments of some African nations with the free-market economy of the Ivory Coast. Under then-president Felix Houphouet-Boigny’s democratic government, that country evidently prospered. This shows that overpopulation is, if even a factor, not the decisive factor in causing sub-Saharan Africa’s various problems.

As for environmental problems, who’s to say that the problems we have now, or think we have now, are directly related to overpopulation? I’ve heard lots of arguments by environmentalists that things like deforestation and the loss of species to extinction are caused by rapid human expansion. At the same time, there are many people who I’ve heard claim that the Earth can handle anything that humans do to it, even so far as nuclear winter. And there are, of course, lots of people (myself included) who hold opinions that are somewhere in between. So which argument most accurately describes the state of the environment, and the causes for that state? The main question remains whether or not the environment shows signs of devastation due to human overpopulation. Mark Lynas, in an article for the British magazine New Statesman, claims that because of human overpopulation one fifth of bird species, forty percent of mammals and fish, one third of amphibians, and up to one half of all plant species are threatened with extinction.3 He says, in his title even, that “The Biomass of Human Bodies Now Exceeds by a Hundred Times that of any Large Animal Species that Ever Existed on Land.” So there is a lot of people on the planet Earth, and a lot of lower species are facing extinction. While there is evidence that human encroachment might force certain species’ habitats to be changed (leading to possible extinction), that alone doesn’t show overpopulation. I found nothing in Lynas’ argument that gives evidence of environmental damage due to human overpopulation.

Thus, it can be seen that there is not an overpopulation problem today, but what about the future? The United Nations Population Fund’s most recent studies show that the current world fertility rate4 is about two and nine tenths, and steadily decreasing. According to Micheal Meyer, a two and one tenth fertility rate is required for population stability, so it appears that the world population will soon move into decline. The studies indicate that Europe’s native populations are already in decline, with Italy and Spain leading with a rate of one and two tenths. Those studies also show that France and Ireland have the highest averages in Europe, with a fertility rate of one and eight tenths. They find that Germany’s fertility rate, and the average in Europe, is at one and four tenths.5 Another interesting fact illuminated by the United Nations Population Fund studies is that, along with Europe, all the developed nations in SE Asia as well as China are already in a state of native population decline. Furthermore, it seems that America is the only developed nation with a fertility rate above replacement levels, but it is barely so. The United Nations Population Fund goes on to estimate a worldwide fertility rate drop below two and one tenth by the year two thousand fifty. Even the nations in the Middle East and in sub-Saharan Africa (which currently have rates well above replacement, according to the UNFPA) are expected to have below replacement levels of fertility rates by that time.6

So what, then, are the effects of population decline? According to Meyer and Boorse, those nations whose leaders were misguided enough to start social security programs (or similar policies) will be in for deep economic troubles. Meyer and Boorse say the worst problems will arise in China, which is expected to have the so called ‘4-2-1' situation. That is, four grandparents and two parents dependent on the income of one child. According to Meyer, this problem arises mainly from the population decline (which means less labor available in every generation, leading to less prosperity, leading to less wages), along with bad health policies (which lead to people retiring at a younger age). More importantly, Meyer says, this will force the government to lower whatever benefits are provided by their social security system, or to raise the taxes on the workers, or both.7 The same problem will undoubtedly occur in every country with a social security system or social security-like policies.

But what of the positive effects of population decline? Tweeten and Zulauf suggest that negative population growth (that is, decline) will alleviate any fears of global food crises. All of the sources I’ve read agree that there will be less crowding, greater per capita income, healthier living, and a healthier environment after a population decline.8 Do these outweigh the problems? While it might be good for China if its financial policies force a government collapse (as discussed earlier), recessions and/or depressions rivaling, or even surpassing, that of black Thursday’s are a bleak future to think of. Granted, not every nation will face this (as not all nations have social security or like programs, and there is the possibility that those countries that currently have social security might rid themselves of it, seeing the coming population decline), but for those that will, are the positive effects worth potential economic ruin? What worries me even more is the idea that in this situation, humanity might see the complete loss of one culture or another (which, to me, is worse by far than the extinctions of any animals). Whether the good effects of population decline outweighs the negative effects is something I suppose people will need to consider themselves.

So now we are left with the question: What led to the change of a world worried about overpopulation to a world worried (or relieved) about population decline? And, at the same time, What were the solutions that led to decline? Potts gives the blame (or credit, if you prefer) to the increasing availability of contraceptives. He claims that without the further spread of contraceptives, the fertility rate will not decrease swiftly enough to meet United Nations Population Fund estimates by the year two thousand fifty.9 Interestingly enough, Spain and Italy, which have the lowest fertility rates in Europe, also have majority populations of Roman Catholics, a sect of Christianity that is strongly against any usage of contraceptives.10 So Potts’ thesis that contraceptives are the main force in decreasing worldwide population is questionable. In China, there is the one-child per household policy11, which has undoubtedly cut down on births in that country. Add to that the tradition that Chinese families carry on their name through male children (much the same as many cultures), and you get a lot of families with only one child, and that child is a boy. Thus, the current generation and the next generations of Chinese males will find it very difficult to find a mate. One other factor mentioned by Potts is that richer people tend to want fewer children, for which he gives Bangladesh as an example. Potts says that Bangladesh decreased from a fertility rate of over five to a little above replacement rates in under five years, alongside rapid economic development and the increasing availability of contraceptives. At the same time, however, one can imagine that materialistic philosophies began to take root, and Christian missionaries were given more freedom to evangelize (which has happened in every nations that has ‘westernized’ itself in the past).12 Which particular event (or set of events) caused the decrease in fertility rate is hard to determine. According to Tweeten and Zulauf, a decrease in fertility rate (and thus, a negative population growth) is just one of the things that characterizes a developed nation. Meyer points out that even in developed countries where the government is supporting systems that promote fertility rates (such as Singapore, which has a subsidized dating service), the rates are dropping. Ultimately, the cause of the change from explosive growth to slow decline is probably not contraceptives, but is hard to determine otherwise. China’s one-child policy was definitely a force for that country, but for Europe, America, and developed Asian countries, the decrease in fertility is still, to me, an unanswered question.

In conclusion, overpopulation is not one of the modern world’s problems. The Union of Concerned Scientists was wrong in that, at least. The real issue seems to be negative population growth and the problems it brings with it. Countries with social security will be devastated by the decrease in available labor and the increase in the number of retirees. These governments will face a very real problem unless some major changes are made. On the other hand, population decline will bring some positive effects for the environment, for individuals, and for some economies. It will undoubtedly reduce the output of pollution and the consumption of resources. Land will be freed up so that houses will be cheaper (as mentioned by Nicholson-lord) in general. Some animals that are currently threatened by human encroachment in their environments may possibly return to nominal population levels13. There will be no worries of a food crisis or any sort of famine. Production of agricultural goods might even increase as the population declines. All these things and more good will probably come of the decrease in population. Whether the economic problems discussed earlier will be worth it (for some nations) is not something I can answer.

But what of the policies that caused the change? China’s one-child policy was a factor for that country, without a doubt. The spread of contraceptives is often tied with lowering fertility rates, but is of questionable viability because it in turn raises wanton promiscuity, which in turn raises illegitimacy. Removing the responsibilities attendant with intercourse is simply an unwise decision no matter how you look at it. Perhaps it’s as Tweeten and Zulauf claim, that population decline is simply a sign of development? If that is the reason, there is an uncountable number of causes for the effect of population decline. Among them may very well be contraceptives, certain religions and philosophies, even prosperity might be a cause. I can’t really point out a definitive reason why populations have started to decline, but I suppose that’s not really what’s important. What’s important is that the UCS’ “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” was wrong, and instead of considering solutions to population growth, humanity should now start looking for solutions to a completely opposite concern: population decline.

1 The Union of Concerned Scientists, from what I can determine from their website, is an organization that’s been around since the seventies, based at MIT. It tends to be slanted toward environmentalism, but the argumentation it uses tends to be well sourced, if not entirely logical (to a conservationist like me, anyway). One of the problems it has, especially with the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” is that it boasts several Nobel laureates among its body, which adds precisely nothing for its credibility, considering the amount of politics involved in the awarding of Nobel Prizes. Though it may be off-topic, it is notable that Zork, a landmark in computer gaming history, was developed by students at MIT, so I tend to like that particular institution.

2 This is undoubtedly an unwise move. In my own valley, while there is certainly a lot of fertile land that has yet to be used for farming, there is even more land that has the qualities most people look for when they want to build a home (a nice view, clean air, etc, etc) in areas that are not so apt for agricultural uses.

3 What Lynas fails to mention is which animals are threatened, and where he gets that information. He doesn’t even provide any evidence that it was humanity that caused those species to become threatened with extinction. Furthermore, the fact that his whole argument is heavily based on evolutionary theory lends very little credibility. Of course, me being a Christian, and creation being the most logical explanation I can find, using evolutionary theory for reasoning purposes would lend little or no credibility to an argument, at least for me anyway.

4 Fertility rate is based on how many children born per woman in a country. So for Sanpete County (where I live), with its average of five to six children per mother, the fertility rate would be about 5.5.

5 All these rates are originally from studies of the United Nations Population Fund, and are mentioned by Tweeten & Zulauf, Potts, Boorse, Nicholson-Lord, and Meyer.

6 According to Potts’ article in Scientific American, this estimate assumes that developed countries will continue to pay for undeveloped and developing countries’ contraceptives. This despite the fact that, logically, contraceptives in general tend to encourage promiscuity. This is in turn results in higher fertility rates. Furthermore, while the ability to perform abortions might result in lower populations (mainly because abortion often kills the mother along with the child, either at the time of surgery, or from complications; especially when you consider that in undeveloped/developing countries, quality surgeons are not exactly in high supply), birth control pills and injections only guarantee that if there is a resultant child it will be defective in some way or another. And it is very seldom that a mother that knows the risks involved in an abortion (which are multiplied by being in a undeveloped/developing area) will have an abortion anyway. (Please make note that this argument is my own reasoning, based on my personal observance of teenagers at a public high school I attended a few years ago, as well as studies and things that pop up in the news every so often and become something like common knowledge).

7 This may actually be, in my humble opinion, a good thing, not only for China, but for the rest of the world. It may end up getting rid of social security forever. If humanity is really lucky, it may end all of the ineffective government entitlement programs. Unfortunately, my experience suggests that even given the obvious failures of those programs as of yet, many politicians are completely oblivious to the idea of getting rid of them. Furthermore, it is probable that they will continue to ignore the problem even after it completely destroys the economy, blaming the economic devastation on something else.

8 Nicholson-Lord especially extols the increasing availability of a home with a view.

9 Potts is an obstetrician by profession so it is expected that he would extol the usage of contraceptives.

10 I know this because I remember reading it somewhere, though I can’t pinpoint exactly where I read it. Should be common knowledge, assuming everyone remembers their high-school history courses.

11 This policy, which you can google if you wish, basically makes it so that every family in China can have one and only one child. If they want more, they have to fill out several papers to get approval, and approval is not given to very many. Being a major violation of human rights, it is a controversial policy that is often discussed on TV, the internet, and in periodicals (which is where I get my information, though I am regrettably unable to pinpoint any specific sources).

12 For example, when Japan started to westernize, the people that came to teach them were Jesuits (again, this should be common knowledge to anyone who attended high school World History).

13 Again, Mark Lynas never did give specific info to relate the decrease in the number of particular species to overpopulation. He didn’t really prove, per se, that it was even human encroachment, but we can probably assume that human encroachment is at least one of the factors.

Works Cited
Borse, Dorothy. “Overpopulation: Ecological & Biblical Principles Concerning Limitation.” Worldviews: Environment Culture Religion. 7.05 (2003): 154-170.
Kendall, Henry. “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” Union of Concerned Scientists. 29 Oct. 2002. Union of Concerned Scientists. 8 July 2005 .
Lynas, Mark. “The Biomass of Human Bodies Now Exceeds by a Hundred Times that of any Large Animal Species that Ever Existed on Land.” New Statesman 23 Feb. 2004: 23-25.
Meyer, Micheal. “Birth Dearth.” Newsweek 27 Sept. 2005. 8 July 2005 .
Nicholson-Lord, David. “The Fewer the Better.” New Statesman 8 Nov. 2004: 24-26.
“Overpopulation.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
Potts, Malcom. “The Unmet Need for Family Planning.” Scientific American 282.1 (2000): 88-93. Vocational and Career Coalition. 8 July 2005 .
Sowell, Thomas. “The Tragedy of Africa.” Ed. Johnathon Garthwaite et al. 12 July 2005. 13 July 2005 .
Tweeten, Luther and Carl Zulauf. “Feeding the World: the Long-term Outlook.” Futurist Sep. 2002: 54-59.
United Nations Population Fund. July 2005. United Nations Population Fund. 8 July 2005 .

Update: Wow that did not copy and paste as well as I thought. Edited for better white spacing and line breaking.


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