The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Fall 2015

"How Should We Understand Overpopulation?" by Varun Joshi


Christiana Figueres, the head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, mentioned earlier this year that we should make “every effort” to curtail the growth rate of the global population.[1] This call to reduce the human population can be traced back to the United Nation’s recent finding that by 2050, the world will be populated by approximately 9.6 billion people, an alarming surge from the current figure of 7.2 billion.[2] This presents a problem because, according to Figueres, we are “already exceeding the planet’s carrying capacity.” [3] 

The current population growth rate marks a worrying trend, encapsulated in the word “overpopulation”, which implies there are a greater number of people living on the planet than is sustainable. However, sustainability is a vague descriptor for such a complex issue. The problem of overpopulation is difficult to solve because it requires us to take both the sustainability of the human population and the environment into consideration when developing plans to combat it. 

An unsustainable population is one of which a significant portion of the population is unable to meet its basic needs for survival. The human population meets this criteria as at least a seventh of the global population, one billion people, is “malnourished or starving.”[4] Even the maintenance of this dismal status quo is predicted to require around 900 million more hectares of land to be deforested for agricultural purposes – a far cry from the 100 million hectares that are currently available for deforestation.[5] 

A straightforward solution to overpopulation may be to decrease rates of human procreation, allowing for the planet’s resources of water, land, and space to be spread out more evenly amongst those that are living. However, there are ethical issues involved in such practices, as many would argue that unrestricted human procreation is a human right. A more ethical starting point would be contraception, women’s rights and education, and family planning. The Guttmacher institute mentions that 215 million women in the developing world who would prefer not to become pregnant do because they lack access to modern contraception.[6] Furthermore, by setting educational agendas for women, advancing women’s rights, and increasing family planning, unplanned and coerced pregnancies would decrease and people would be able to make more informed decisions regarding the conception of children. However, if the goal of sustainable population growth is not to limit population growth but rather to accommodate a growing population, there lies promise in technological developments. For Professor Erle Ellis, humans have always altered their environment through technology to meet their needs, from building cities to using genetic engineering to increase crop yields by 22%.[7] There is no reason why we cannot use technologies in the future to increase agricultural yields, build complex skyscrapers to increase housing, more efficiently manage space within cities, and solve problems such as global warming. Technology would allow us to meet human needs around the world, as it has done in the past. 

However, one may inquire about whether there is ever an “optimum” population. Jesper Ryberg, a professor of Ethics and Philosophy of Law at Roskilde University in Denmark, defines the “optimum” population as one which, under a defined area and state of affairs, “maximizes well being over time.”[8] Creating an “optimum” population, defined by the ability of its members to support their well being over time, contrasts with establishing a system that sustains the status quo of having access to basic needs. There is a distinction between meeting one’s needs and fostering one’s well being, as the latter allows for human flourishing and growth while the former simply aims to provide access to shelter, food, and water. If the goal is to create a world where every human flourishes, perhaps population control will be necessary. This is because human flourishing would likely involve access to not just food but variety in food, not just education but quality and personalized education, not just living spaces but homely living spaces, and not just access to social benefits but also supportive social institutions. Even if technology can meet our needs, surpassing them and enabling flourishing over the next few decades will likely require population control. 

While overpopulation threatens human sustainability, one should also consider its impact on environmental sustainability. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, the past century or so has been renamed the “Anthropocene Epoch” because of the massive damage that humans have caused to the Earth’s natural environment, such as a dramatic increase in the amount of CO2 released, and a species extinction at a rate up to 1000 times the natural rate.[9] Population growth is also causing damage to the world’s coastlines, a catastrophic situation for marine organisms.[10] Human overpopulation is crowding out other species, depleting common resources, and harming the atmosphere. 

Using environmentally friendly technologies or geoengineering could curtail the effects overpopulation has on the environment, but this might not be the best solution. Alan Weisman, former University of Arizona professor, notes that technological development can only go so far because it requires resources, which are finite.[11] Furthermore, technologies may result in unintended, harmful consequences. Perhaps both population control and new technologies will be needed to create a sustainable environment.[12] However, to create a flourishing Earth we will have to curtail how much of the environment we use for our own ends, requiring a radical decrease in human consumption in all areas of life, from energy to clothing.[13] 

Population growth threatens the sustainability of both the environment and the human race, and even though the creation of new technologies has great promise, saving one will likely come at the expense of saving the other. Furthermore, should we expand our focus from simply sustainability to the flourishing of humans and the environment? Does such a goal make population control morally right? These questions will guide us in our quest for solutions to the problem of overpopulation.


[1] Bastasch, Michael. "UN Climate Chief: We Should ‘Make Every Effort’ To Reduce Population Increases." The Daily Caller. April 16, 2015. Accessed December 2, 2015. 
[2] "World Population Projected to Reach 9.6 Billion by 2050." United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. June 13, 2013. Accessed December 2, 2015. 
[3] Bastasch, Michael. "UN Climate Chief: We Should ‘Make Every Effort’ To Reduce Population Increases." The Daily Caller. April 16, 2015. Accessed December 2, 2015. 
[4] Biello, David. "Another Inconvenient Truth: The World's Growing Population Poses a Malthusian Dilemma" Scientific American. October 2, 2009. Accessed December 2, 2015. 
[5] Ibid. 
[6] Kristof, Nicholas. "The Birth Control Solution" New York Times. November 2, 2011. Accessed December 2, 2015. 
[7] Klümper, Wilhelm, and Matin Qaim. "A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops" PLOS ONE. November 3, 2014. Accessed December 2, 2015. 
[8] Ryberg, Jesper. "The Argument from Overpopulation: Logical and Ethical Considerations" JSTOR. May 1, 1998. Accessed December 2, 2015. 
[9] "One Planet, How Many People? A Review of Earth’s Carrying Capacity" United Nations Environmental Programme. June 1, 2012. Accessed December 2, 2015. 
[10] De Sherbinin, Alex, David Carr, Susan Cassels, and Leiwen Jiang. "Population and Environment" National Center for Biotechnology Information. December 14, 2009. Accessed December 2, 2015. 
[11] Gais, Hannah. "How Many People Is Too Many People?" US News. September 27, 2013. Accessed December 2, 2015. 
[12] "One Planet, How Many People? A Review of Earth’s Carrying Capacity"United Nations Environmental Programme. June 1, 2012. Accessed December 2, 2015. 
[13] "Humans: The Real Threat to Life on Earth." The Guardian. June 29, 2013. Accessed December 2, 2015.

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