Is Overpopulation a Dire Problem?

A new book makes the case oft-repeated. Does the evidence support his conclusions?

Niger has the world’s highest fertility rate (about seven births per woman), maintained in part by the persistence of human slavery. The Philippines have a glut of fishermen, but are running out of fish. Pakistan is set to become the world’s fourth-most-populous nation by 2050. “We’re praying that Pakistan only doubles,” the director of a Pakistani health organization says. “We are a crowded, underdeveloped nation — more a crowd than a nation. So we’ll have more illiterates, more youths without productive jobs and more chaos.”
The question mark that ends the book’s subtitle is as significant as what precedes it. If we dramatically reduce the planet’s human population, we might have a future here. Then again, it might already be too late. Weisman raises the example of the passenger pigeon. During the 19th century it was one of the most abundant birds on earth, with as many as five billion in America alone. The passenger pigeon went extinct in 1914, but it was doomed long before then, even as it still numbered in the millions, since its habitat and food supply had already dwindled beyond sustenance level. “Was it possible,” Weisman writes, “that my own species might also already be the living dead.” Earth Control, Review of Alan Weisman’s book, Countdown


13 thoughts on “Is Overpopulation a Dire Problem?

  1. simonliuu says:

    Freedom is important. I’ve always supported the right of people to choose how they want to live their lives. With that being said, laws exist to benefit society as a whole. I believe that the freedom to choose how many children you have is not an essential freedom.

    As controversial as it may be, I am a supporter of China’s one-child policy. I believe it is helpful in developed nations, where families don’t need children to help out on the farm, to have a policy for population control. With a large portion of the world suffering from hunger, poverty, as well as abandonment, is it still necessary for developed countries to have more children?

    The article mentions Japan’s aging population towards the end. However, this is only a short-term consequence to a long-term goal.

  2. jmmorgan242 says:

    Having lived and traveled extensively in very crowded countries, overpopulation is definitely a worrisome issue, but I don’t think it’s an unsolvable one. The birth rates of developed nations are in decline. Some countries such as Korea and Japan offer incentives to their citizens to have more than one child, because most couples nowadays stop at one. Many European nations are also experiencing population decline. If you look at the countries with the highest population growth, they are generally the ones who have not yet achieved the same standard of living as most developed nations. We could go to extremes and put a China-esque cap on the amount of births we allow global citizens to have, but that would be infringing on people’s personal and/or religious freedoms. We could go even more extreme and offend religions everywhere by requiring women to take contraceptives or men to undergo vasectomies after the age of 30, this will both cut down the global population as well as prevent children with a higher likelihood of physical and psychological issues from being born to older women. We’ve all grown up reading dystopian literature where the elderly are killed off at a certain age, babies born with defects aren’t allowed to live, those who speak out against the system are summarily executed. I don’t advocate this in any way shape or form (I’m rather fond of my grandparents), however I feel that if we, as more advanced societies, don’t do something now to help advance the development of other countries, we will be driven to extreme measures to control populations. This past summer I taught English to a bunch of Saudi Arabian men. I learned a lot about their families. The ones who came from the countryside usually came from families with multiple wives and children in the high teens. However the ones who came from the developed cities of Saudi Arabia generally came from families of only one wife and 5-6 children. If we could encourage modernization and development in these areas, then childbirths would decline naturally and no one would have to feel like their personal or religious freedoms were being infringed upon. I know this is idealistic, and is taking politics out of the picture. But like this book predicts, if drastic measures aren’t taken, we may cause ourselves to go extinct.

  3. Though scientists and many politically motivated people have urged population control and stressed the issue of overpopulation and its effects, their predictions fail to recognize the uncanny ability humans have to increase their carrying capacity through technological advancements and increased productivity and efficiency. Unlike simonliuu, I believe that the freedom to choose the number of children you bring into the world is an essential freedom. This pervasive idea that having more than one child is selfish, irresponsible, and unnecessary has lead to the lowest birth rate in Europe in history. However, just this year, Russia’s pitiful, negative birthrate surpassed the United States. Low birth rates yield small, weak labor forces in the future. In my opinion, one of the surest ways that the United States can reduce its power in the decades to come is by not having enough children. That is not to say that the extremely high birthrates of developing countries should not be seen with concern. But population explosions in Pakistan and Niger should be fought with education and measures to empower women, not with destructive “one child policies”.

    Here is a link to a very well written op-ed talking about why overpopulation is not the issue.

  4. simonliuu says:

    I like the point evanscatherine93 brings up regarding technological advancements in helping to sustain the growing population. However, I’m curious to hear how you plan to use efficiency to combat scarce resources. I suppose having more efficient engines in our cars can help us run on gas fumes too. All joking aside, I agree that technology will help us make use of limited resources more efficiently. All I’m saying is that maybe we should ease off the gas before we reach the next Renaissance. Regarding your other points, you cited “the lowest birth rate in Europe in history” as a standalone fact as if it were in itself a tragedy. I’m not sure where you were going with that. The last point you make is that the US shouldn’t lower its birthrate because that will lead to a weaker labor force, which will lead to a reduction in its power. If your only concern is the relative power of the US, then maybe the US should also pull its humanitarian efforts abroad. After all, helping others is only wasting our own resources.

    To jmmorgan242, I agree that the most explosive population growth is seen in developing countries. Which country, though, didn’t experience a population spike following industrialization? I’m not advocating anyone’s grandparents to be killed or for babies to be slaughtered. It’s simply my opinion that maybe population control policies can have a net benefit for the world.

    No one can argue that overpopulation, unopposed, is becoming a problem (Not even Erle, the author of the op-ed evanscatherine93 linked, who essentially says it isn’t a problem because we’ll find a solution eventually). Yes, technology could solve overpopulation. Yes, education and empowerment for women and children could solve overpopulation. But with a traffic jam fast approaching, is it really the time to gently tap on the breaks? As jmmorgan242 says, “If drastic measures aren’t taken, we may cause ourselves to go extinct.”

  5. Megs says:

    I think overpopulation is more a symptom than the real problem. The real problems, as mentioned, are lack of contraceptives, lack of education, unsustainable use of resources. You can solve the overpopulation problem, but give it a few generations and we’ll be back where we started. In many global issues, not just overpopulation, I find the obvious answer is often education. Teach people about the consequences of their actions, make them care enough to want to change. Otherwise not even the most ingenious methods will stick.
    Here’s two more cents from a different perspective. Recently I heard someone say of the overpopulation issue (I wish I could remember the source), “God’s commandment to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force.” As Latter-Day Saints, we believe that God is in control. That is a concept that can’t really be adequately expressed across the table at a meeting of world leaders, and it doesn’t mean we should just write the problem off. But for me at least, it offers some comfort in the fact that our Heavenly Father isn’t about to let the human race spiral into extinction.

  6. madythorn says:

    This may be naive of me to say, but I think that they actions this author is asking the human race to take are a bit ridiculous. I understand that overpopulation is a problem, and that we are quickly using and abusing the resources that the Earth has to offer, but that does not mean we should get essentially get rid of the human race. I think it would be a good thing to implement population controls in the way of empowering women and providing them with education and access to contraceptives. As mentioned above, we will eventually find a solution. We have impressive technology and the ability to improve our technology to account for the number of people on the Earth. Economically speaking, if we drastically cut off the number of children being born every year, then we will have an economic crisis on our hands when the older generations can no longer work and care for themselves.

    Yes, we do need to be more aware of the natural resources that we are consuming. As the article mentioned, One thousand Americans use as many resources and take up as hundreds of thousands of people from a developing country. Instead of drastically cutting down births, I think our focus should be on drastically cutting down or use of natural resources. No one person, entity, or government should be able to decide who is allowed to have children and how many children they are allowed to have.

  7. natmyrrha says:

    In most countries people have the right to choose how many children they will have. However, in all of them, the government has the power to incentive population reduction or population growth. This incentives will hardly ever be as direct as the one adopted by China. For instance governments can adopt laws that make immigration easier, or they might change working laws for women. Whichever be the case, governments should be striving to reach an optimal population growth rate for their specific country. Problems that reach one side of the globe might not reach the other. In other words, countries face different situation when it comes to population. What we see in a lot of European countries today is a population growth bellow replacement rate. Is that the answer for all the problems? No! One only needs to look at their social security programs to see how they are collapsing and the problem that generates. Overpopulation is not the answer either, but neither is underpopulation.

    • Every time this issue is brought up my mind goes back to my AP environmental science class in high school when we studied the population pyramids and the issues regarding population growth. It is clear that the earth right now cannot sustain 20 billion people. It is also clear that it is a problem when we have half the population over 70 years olds. The creation of a delicate balance would be ideal, although as we generally accept, it is obviously not an easy feat. Personally, I believe that as society progresses, this problem moves more and more towards solving itself. Like it was mentioned above, the advances of technology, etc allow us more and more of us to fit on the earth and live at least semi-comfortably. I add that the progression of society and its views/morals will also lead to the slowing down of population growth. As the general eye and mind of society as a whole becomes more and more secular, less and less people desire to have children, (as terrible as it is) more abortions are performed, as homosexual marriage becomes more legal and more common this will also add to the lowered number of births. Forcing the elimination of full families and multiple – children would be nothing but detrimental to the already secular society.

  8. Jake Dayton says:

    This argument may seem a little hyperbolic to some, but the exaggeration is necessary because the argument I am countering is equally excessive: that the human race could go extinct because of overpopulation. Although I share simonulu’s concern over a vastly overpopulated world, I feel that his argument (and the article summary’s) fails to take into account one thing: we are not passenger pigeons. And because we are not passenger pigeons but are self-aware beings, we will be able to find a way out, even if it requires grisly means. In the worst case scenario, where humans needs are stretched far beyond what the earth can give them, it would probably result in one of three things: war or famine. Both of these things would solve the problem of overpopulation. War would happen between countries or coalitions in order to claim the supplies necessary to live. In this case, they would inadvertently solve the problem of overpopulation by killing off enough people to reach an equilibrium. The other (and possibly simultaneous) situation would be a huge lack of food because of an excessive exploitation of the earth to feed explosive populations. In this case, an equilibrium would also be reached, because if there isn’t enough food, you simply die. This would happen until there was enough food to sustain the population.
    In either extreme case, famine or war, the human race would survive and continue to propagate. In any less extreme situation that might occur because of overpopulation, humans have an advantage over birds; they can think for themselves. I believe that no human is so self-interested that they are willing to watch their entire race die.

  9. dbaker24 says:

    Overpopulation is a real problem, however it is one that I believe is resolving itself. As more and more countries are becoming developed, we see a general decline in the number of women having large families. This is primarily due to the fact that in developed countries women have more of a choice as to what they will spend their time on: careers and self-interests. The question then is, will the population problem balance itself before as stated, “its too late”? If predictions hold true, eventually resources will be depleted. Therefore it is not necessarily I believe wrong for a government, thinking of future generations, to limit the population of their country through peaceful means.

  10. I think that population is a very real and very pressing concern. The human population is growing extremely quickly, and I personally don’t feel that such growth is sustainable for our current global culture. The following is a graph of past, current, and future population trends for our world.

    I’m not entirely sure what we can do to prepare for the unprecedented influx of humanity apparently looming on the horizon, but I do have a friend in Taiwan who once suggested to me that the US begin preparing to do what Taiwan has been doing for quite some time: “Build up instead of out. At least it solves the spacial problem.”

  11. As unpopular as this opinion may be, I believe that overpopulation is a problem and birth control should be used and taught as a pregnancy prevention method everywhere. Especially in third world countries. I believe that a small family is a good family. I respect everyone’s own freedom to have large families, but I believe that small families are important in being able to provide adequately for each member of the family, etc. However, I do not support China’s mandated one child policy just because of the many many problems it has resulted in. Many more problems than anyone ever expected. However, the one good thing, having lived in China and seen this in action, is the better ability of parents to provide for their children and give them more opportunities. If every poorer country (the rich countries are already taking this mentality, for better or worse) was educated on the good effects of a smaller family, maybe poverty would be a more fightable problem.

  12. madeleineolewis says:

    While I think it’s silly to compare human being to pigeons (we don’t just rely on evolution to survive. We have our brains, our ingenuity, and ever-new technology), I do think overpopulation is an issue. Birth control and other population control methods are appropriate and i’d argue necessary, especially in overpopulated places. But even as we have overpopulation and crowding in some countries, other countries’ populations are dwindling and getting older in places like Europe. Immigration might be another answer to the overcrowding situation.

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