Overpopulation: More Myth Than Science?


Another year has turned, during which there are approximately 62 million more people in the world.  The 7 billion mark was passed in March leading up to 7.062 billion people as of today. Given this seemingly never ending growth of the human population, do you agree with the often expressed sentiment that all the problems in the world are because there are too many people? For instance, do you think that climate change, extinction, and loss of biodiversity is due to an unsustainable number of Homo sapiens on the planet?

In my conservation circles I often hear over population spoken of as if it is the root of all evil.  “If we could just solve this problem all would be well!”  Yet we had extinction long before we have our current human population.  The Carolina Parakeet and Ivory-billed Woodpecker went extinct in North America when there were only about 100 million people, compared to the 315 million we have today.  Indeed, the massive extinction of North Americas megafauna occurred when there were only 1 million people. The causes of this extinction are controversial, but “evidence suggests that the intersection of human impacts with pronounced climate change drove the precise timing and geography of extinction in the Northern Hemisphere,” as I suspect it will in the future.

Even today the overall impact of humans on the earth is debatable. For instance, calculations for ecological footprints that resulted in the widely quoted number that we are already using up one and half times what the earth can sustain has been found to be flawed.

Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy proposes that what leads most of us to say there are too many people are on the planet is not concrete evidence, but the thwarting of our personal happiness by people around us.  We don’t like it when we get stuck in traffic during the long distances we have to drive to get to natural areas, only to find too many people on the trails and in the campgrounds.

He confesses that he is in this camp, for he thinks there are probably too many people on the planet.  “I know there is no clear analysis behind that conclusion and that it is to some extent a reflection of the fact that occasionally I like to get away from people.”

Walton Ford’s “Falling Bough, which depicts the now-extinct passenger pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius

Let me confess too that I think there are too many people on the planet as well.  I yearn for looking up and seeing the skies full of life, the abundance of which I can only read and that existed hundreds if not thousands of years ago.  Yet I cringe when I hear others say that decreasing human population should be a conservationist’s first concern.   Most of the people who tell me this are folks like me who are situated in a cultural setting of relative power and privilege.  Rarely do those who live close to the earth or of low economic means speak of human population as a problem. Instead they emphasize the need to improve the human condition.

Kareiva postulates that what conservationists should be discussing isn’t population, but quality of life.  We should be asking, “What quality of life do we want all people on the planet to share? And how can we achieve that quality of life while preserving as many species and ecosystems as possible?”

So I think the next time I hear that there are “too many people on the planet and that those people of some other geographical, economic, or ethnic group should have fewer children,” I will respond with this…

However many of us that there are, I desire for us of all species to live well. Specifically, we humans would live so well that we need not go pell mell into the future mindlessly acquiring power, privilege, and unnecessary economic and material resources.  Instead we guide our consumerism in ways that lead to the greatest number of species and individuals profiting.  We do this to improve the profit for those on the margins, not just to improve our own profit margin.

So here’s to 2013 being a profitable year!