“Elbow Room”: A Look at Overpopulation

| June 25, 2019

In 2016, A Public Health Brief on Climate Change titled, “Toward a Small Family Ethic”, made the argument that overpopulation is propelling earth to a catastrophe. The author, Rieder, claimed that the planet is being depleted of food, water, and other resources to the point where we will soon run out. Moreover, the abundance of people on Earth is disastrous to the climate, and the only way to save the world is to reduce the number of people on it. These unfortunate circumstances bring him to the conclusion that people need to have smaller families. He argues that parents have a moral obligation to procreate less to protect the greater society. Additionally, Rieder sees the opportunity costs of having more than two children as impossible to justify and more than one as difficult to understand. Thus, the brief finds that there are too many people to survive; so, we must reduce the supply of people to have a livable world.

As my previous blog, “We Have a People Problem”, pointed out, having two or fewer children is detrimental to society and will bring about a crippled and underpopulated world. Indeed, the threat of overpopulation sparks a lot of rhetoric which all begs the question, who is correct, are we overpopulated or underpopulated? The truth is that it is more complicated than one or the other. The low global birth rate is alarming and is trending society towards underpopulation; however, poor human systems create misconceptions by producing the byproducts of overpopulation. We don’t have enough people, yet we have built illusions that show we have too many. A closer look at Rieder’s arguments shows this misguidance.

The idea that Earth does not have enough food for everyone is a misconception. It is easy to see the presence of starving people and pockets of food shortages as warning signs; however, these reflect a different problem. According to the United Nations, around 33% of all food produced in a year goes unconsumed. Wasteful practices and poor distribution spoils a lot of resources and keeps it from getting to everyone. People are not going hungry because the planet does not have enough food, they are suffering because people are failing to get it to them. With the amount that we currently can produce, along with new developments in GMOs, lack of food should not be a threat to the population.

Population density tells a similar story. Sitting in New York City, it is easy to believe that the world is too crowded. However, the issue that we are facing is not overpopulation, but a horrendous distribution of people. In the United States for example, 42% of the country’s land is completely uninhabited. Also, there are massive sections of the country with a population density of fewer than 4 people per 100 square miles. Clearly, this is not a country that is running out of room, it is a country that does not utilize its space.

With regards to running out of resources, while many fossil fuels are being overexploited, our inevitable future with less of them is not guaranteed doom. Several decades ago, it was difficult to imagine a functioning modern society with no coal, oil, or other key resources. Today however, many of these energy sources are being replaced with renewable solutions. Electric motors are improving every year, solar, wind, and natural gas are monumentally more significant than they were just a few short years ago, and hydrogen technology is quickly approaching on the horizon. The overconsumption of a few resources is not apocalyptic because humans are able to adapt to problems.

On that note of human ingenuity, demographics are not the problem of climate change, but our best chance at a solution. Rieder proposes that the only way to solve the problem of green house gas emissions is to reduce the number of people able to make them. However, population and harmful emissions are not directly correlated. Just in the last 20 years, Europe and the United States have had growing populations and declining CO2 emissions. Cutting people off at their source will not solve the problem but navigate around it. Meanwhile, it is an increasing number of educated people who are concerned for the wellbeing of their children, who are coming up with good ideas and proactively trying to solve the problem. Thus, the world is not threatened by overpopulation; however, it needs people, and better ideas to fix the problems that it faces.