All too often when discussing environmental issues, I see people throw their hands up and say, “there’s just too many people.” That sentiment could not be more wrong.
Seeing the world population crack 8 billion on November 15 while a long list of issues around climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss pile up, it’s tempting to think the two are linked. After all, more people means more mouths to feed, homes to heat, clothes to manufacture, etc. But this idea completely leaves out the idea of sustainable development — where we innovate, grow our economy, and use our resources at the same pace that the environment regenerates them.
The issue is not how many people there are. It’s how we manage ourselves.
The economy or the climate? Why not both?
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In 1798, English economist Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population, which formed the foundation of population theory and posited the idea that we now call “overpopulation.” Malthus suggested that food production grows linearly, but population grows exponentially. That set up his belief that the population will eventually outgrow the food supply.
But food production, if planned well, could absolutely grow exponentially. Nature is quite remarkable — one apple seed can grow an entire tree, one fish can lay a thousand eggs, etc. New innovations and technology in the agriculture sector to fertilize soil, manage pests, conserve water, and withstand extreme weather only magnify nature’s abilities.
Of course, there’s a limit to the amount of space we have on Earth, but we’re nowhere near exceeding that. In fact, we already produce more than enough food to feed our world population, but around 14% of food produced is lost between harvest and retail and an estimated 17% of total global food production is wasted. Many regions face food insecurity due to conflict, income, drought, natural disasters, or lack of transportation infrastructure, but these are distribution issues, not production issues.
Proponents of Malthusian theory sometimes argue that, historically, some of the famous civilization collapses lend credence to his ideas. For example, in my very first environmental course in college, we were taught the story of Easter Island: an island off of Chile where, as the tale went, the inhabitants called the Rapa Nui cut down all the trees, precipitating an ecological reaction that killed off the entire human population on the island. Another example I’ve heard is the Anasazi in what is now the American southwest, where they cut down their very few trees, managed their water poorly, and then were hit with droughts and the like and their population collapsed. Even the Mayans, some argue, collapsed due to changes in the climate and environment.
But that’s not why these societies collapsed! All three populations dwindled around the time European colonizers arrived, who brought diseases, invasive species, and a long list of human conflicts to otherwise well-functioning regions. And I hesitate to even use the word “collapse” when all three regions are still home to many living descendants today. It seems “overpopulation” or “overconsumption” were not to blame for any of these situations.
This misconception of overpopulation isn’t just inaccurate — it’s also damaging.
For example, look no further than China’s one-child policy. Instituted in 1980 by a government fearful that fast population growth would lock the country into future poverty, the policy led to forced abortions, the confiscation of children by authorities, and a horrifying resurgence of female infanticide to the point that by 2016, China had 30 million more men than women. This gender imbalance has also been linked to increased crime and violence in the country. Only recently did China recognize these unintended consequences and update the policy — to two children per family in 2018 and three children per family in 2021. But the psychological effect of the limit has already taken hold, and today’s families in China still rarely exceed one child. Policy interventions like this one highlight how harmful it is to blame overpopulation for all our actual problems.
That’s not to say population growth can’t present issues at all. The world population is becoming increasingly concentrated. In 1950, 29% of people lived in cities. Today, 56% of people live in cities, and nearly 70% of people are projected to live in cities by 2050. If managed well, ballooning metropolises can sustainably spur innovation and economic growth. But today’s speed of urbanization may be outpacing our ability to build housing, grow transportation systems, and create jobs, leading to large homeless populations, slums, and unsustainable urban sprawl.
But even in these cases, the issue is not overpopulation — it’s how we manage ourselves. Working to raise quality of life in rural regions and improve urban planning and development could hamper environmental degradation and amplify the benefits of urbanization.
It’s natural to get overwhelmed by today’s environmental issues and try to find one simple thing to blame. But as it stands now, population growth has yet to present our downfall. If the world were to embrace the concept of sustainable development and allow nature to continually regenerate, we would have no issue hosting a growing population for decades to come.
Ethan Brown is a contributor for Young Voices with a B.A. in Environmental Analysis & Policy from Boston University. He is the creator and host of The Sweaty Penguin, a comedy climate podcast presented by PBS/WNET’s national climate initiative “Peril and Promise.” Follow him on Twitter @ethanbrown5151.