Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Full yet? II: The problem

The problem: Population Growth and Resource Depletion
Since Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, warnings about overpopulation have been added to the list of dire catastrophes faced by humanity. Malthus' predictions (and those of many others) have proved wrong; indeed, the Industrial Revolution in Malthus' day and Green Revolution of the middle of last century have yielded a more or less unbroken increase in the amount of food per person in the world each year since the 19th century. Furthermore, birth rates in the developed world are generally below replacement levels and many parts of the two-thirds world are considered underpopulated by some experts. So why the fuss?

At one level, it is a matter of simple mathematics: our planet is finite and contains finite resources. It is not possible to sustain indefinite population growth (particularly when much of the world assumes we can and should also be sustaining indefinite economic growth). Human ingenuity can and has impressively expanded our resource base. Yet human greed, short-sightedness and ignorance has not only led to unnecessary suffering through inequitable resource distribution (the world produces enough food each year to feed everyone, yet 850 million people are malnourished or starving), but has depleted, polluted, consumed or destroyed significant portions of key non-renewable resources.

Here are a few of the problems associated with or exacerbated by human overpopulation:

• Inadequate fresh water for drinking water use as well as sewage treatment, industry and agriculture.
• Depletion of natural resources, especially fossil fuels, upon which so much of contemporary agriculture depends to sustain the huge food yields achieved since the Green Revolution.
• Increased levels of air pollution, water pollution and soil contamination pollution.
• Deforestation and loss of ecosystems that sustain global atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide balance; about eight million hectares of forest are lost each year.
• Changes in atmospheric composition and consequent global warming.
• Irreversible loss of arable land and increases in desertification: a quarter of the world's topsoil and a fifth of its agricultural land has been lost in the last fifty years.
• Mass species extinctions. from reduced habitat in tropical forests due to slash-and-burn techniques that sometimes are practiced by shifting cultivators, especially in countries with rapidly expanding rural populations; present extinction rates may be as high as 140,000 species lost per year.
• High infant and child mortality.
• Increased incidence of hemorrhagic fevers, HIV and other infectious diseases from crowding, disturbance of ecological systems and scarcity of available medical resources.
• Starvation, malnutrition or poor diet with ill health and diet-deficiency diseases (e.g. rickets).
• Poverty coupled with inflation in some regions and a resulting low level of capital formation.
• Low birth weight due to the inability of mothers to get enough resources to sustain a baby from fertilization to birth.
• Low life expectancy in countries with fastest growing populations.
• Unhygienic living conditions for many based upon water resource depletion, discharge of raw sewage and solid waste disposal.
• High rate of unemployment in urban areas (leading to social problems).
• Elevated crime rate due to people stealing resources to survive.
• Conflict over scarce resources and crowding, leading to increased levels of warfare.
List edited from Wikipedia article on Overpopulation. References can be chased up from there.
Five points each to link to previous posts with very similar pictures.
Series so far: Series so far: 0; I; II; III; IV.


Mandy said...

Chasing the points. this one is from the same direction

byron said...

Yes, five points. There is another one...

michael jensen said...

I confess that series alarms me rather (especially as someone who is contributing to the alleged problem!)

...hmm, yes, Wikipedia. The cause of those problems is extremely debateable though in most instances, though, isn't it? And you need to proceed from some more certain facts about overpopulation in this series if you are to prove to a sceptic like me that it is a problem at all. In the AIDS era, a certain amount of readjustment is sadly inevitable.

The 'finite resources' point is somewhat more complex than it sounds. Things on the planet grow (just as we are). They have enormous potential to sustain and grow life.

I think the problem is greed, not overpopulation.

I really find the trajectory of your though here rather alarming...

byron said...

The causes of most of these problems are indeed complex (notice I said overpopulation contributes to or exacerbates them). The point is that having more people means using more resources. Sure there is plenty of room for the rich (us) to use less and yes, God has abundantly provided and yes, there is no need for fear or to buy the myth of scarcity, but isn't there a limit to the number of people it is possible to responsibly fit onto a finite planet? Esp since not everything grows (and many of the things that do grow require things that don't - for every calorie of food we eat, we currently use ten calories of oil. Cheap energy, esp oil, is behind the Green Revolution which enables the planet to grow enough food for 6.5 billion people. Without the oil?).

And you have not yet seen the outcome of this trajectory. I am setting up the problem as traditionally understood. I hope I have a few surprises in this series...

byron said...

The effects of overpopulation are noticable at the local/regional level, even if the global situation is more complex: for instance, India's water table is rapidly declining through overuse. This doesn't seem to be reducible simply to greed (though I am sure there is probably mismanagement there as well as here).

michael jensen said...

Ah, sorry. Yes my alarm was partly because I was writing at 4am...

And of course, I should let you get on with the train of thought before jumping down your throat a bit

cyberpastor said...

Perhaps the "probelmatic" aspect of over-population is that humans are the only (as far as we can tell) species who have "some" insight into ecosystems. Most other animals simply die off when there is an imbalance. Is it because we have an overblown view of our ability to control the world in which we live that we get caught up in these discussions. The reality may be more like the environment in which we live will only tolerate so much stress before it starts to move in the opposite direction towards equilibrium.

I guess what I am saying is that the problem of over population is not one that will be sorted by humans.

Adam Gonnerman said...

Were we to manage our land and waste better, this wouldn't be such a big concern. My father was a farmer, and from experience I know that no one is better at taking care of land than someone whose livelihood depends on it. The problem with a lot of our pollution is that it does not directly impact us on a daily basis, and does not impact our personal income and resources. Further -- and I know this sounds geeky -- if there were more of a market for space exploration and development of natural resources in the solar system, we'd be able to move closer towards getting communities set up off planet.

The only thing I won't accept is mandatory birth control.

byron said...

Cyberpastor - are you really that pessimistic? If humans are the only animals to have 'some' insight into ecosystems, might we not also be the only animals who have 'some' ability to avoid the worst kind of population overshoot?

Adam - Good point on better management, though do you think there would still be a limit on population growth even with better management?

How would you avoid the space market having prohibitively high overheads? The amount of energy required to obtain commercial-sized yields of natural resources from elsewhere in the solar system is enormous. Currently, just to get something into earth orbit costs between $4,000 and $40,000 per kilogram.

The only thing I won't accept is mandatory birth control.
I'm curious - why is that?

cyberpastor said...

I suppose it sounds pessimistic but I prefer to think of it as realistic. We do have bigger brains it is true but have shown little evidence of it being to our advantage. We are only a small part of the ecosystem that is the world in which we live and when any life-form exceeds its place in the system, the system fights back.

Dave Barrie said...

Adam, I don't see how setting up communities "off planet" is going to ease the pressure of overpopulation on Earth.

In order to take the pressure off Earth we would need to relocate several billion people to another planet! Which is certainly not going to happen any time soon.

If humans do end up colonising other planets I think it will probably be through relatively small communities of pioneers making the journey and then trying to fill the new planet the old fashioned way. This will do nothing to ease the pressure of overpopulation on Earth.

peter j said...

Sorry, don't know how to link stuff and not sure if I understood the task properly.

These entries had many similarties:

11/8/07 The end of grace I - The end is a free gift for humanity.

19/7/06 The good is not (always) the enemy of the best

28/5/07 Faith, hope and love

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Byron, thanks for this. I have tried to teach this kind of analysis as part of courses in Christian ethics. It runs smack-dab into the problem from your first post in the series: The beliefs that "be fruitful and multiply" is a divine command to EVERY human (except those with vocations to celibacy??), that every married couple is under divine obligation to have as many children as possible, that any family planning is an evil associated with abortion on demand, and with bad eschatologies such as you've worked hard to debunk on these pages. These beliefs seem intertwined and they form a formidable barrier to responsible family planning as well as to ecological responsibility.
In my view, the industrial and green revolutions only postponed Malthus' predictions because the finite nature of earth's resources are real. UNLESS, we can voluntarily limit our own reproduction--and our own resource use.

Anthony said...

Is the other photo this one? It seems to be just well zoomed back.

byron said...

Anthony - Mandy already linked to that one. There is a second.

Anthony said...


Anthony said...

Was that last comment too easily overlooked...?

byron said...


byron said...

Pete - sorry for not replying back in February. I would have given you the points, except you didn't provide the actual link. I've linked myself a number of times to tutorials on how to write HTML links (or here).

Michael Canaris said...

This one?