The theory of overpopulation has been around for centuries. Since then, the rationale has, astonishingly, remained relatively constant; as the population increases exponentially, food production only increases in a linear fashion. As a result, the Earth will ultimately exceed its alleged carrying capacity. Food shortage, war, and general trauma will follow if we do not do something to keep the population in check. But under serious scrutiny, do these doomsday predictions have merit?
The Malthusian Debate
One of the first advocates of the overpopulation theory was Thomas Robert Malthus, a British scholar who specialized in the political economy. In 1798, he published his seminal work, “Essay on the Principle of Population”. He believed that eventually, human reproduction would overtake the increase in available food. Due to this, there will be too many people and not enough resources, and to keep the population in check, widespread famine, war, and disease would become inevitable.
Malthus, though, was spectacularly wrong. In 1800, the world population was roughly 1 billion. He firmly believed that this was the largest number of people that the world could carry, but this was obviously false.
As the population increased, so did farming efficiency. In 1965, Danish academic Ester Boserup proposed the idea that population changes actually drive the intensity of agricultural production. Opposing Malthus, her ideas saw a greater degree of reality; as our population skyrockets forward, food security is only increasing. Likewise, civil safety is increasing; the number of war deaths has drastically and consistently decreased since the end of World War 2. A modern overpopulation theorist, then, has a very difficult job; he or she must prove that despite strong evidence running contra Malthus, we are suddenly carrying too many people on this planet.
Food Insecurity and Overpopulation
The most prevalent argument in regards to overpopulation, as I stated above, is that the increasing number of people will lead to a decreasing amount of resources per person. However, stats from Our World In Data appear to prove the exact opposite; as the Earth’s population rises, every person also has more resources available.
The above graph displays the number of calories that the average person consumed per day, as far back as data exists. Clearly, all three countries show a general increase throughout the span of available data.
Specifically, the UK’s points since 1800 are of interest. Just two years after Malthus wrote his essay, caloric intake was at 2,436 per person, per day. But two centuries later, the number has risen by over 1,000. The 2004 peak of 3,445 calories per person, per day, shows a 41.4% increase during these two centuries. Population, on the other hand, spiked from fewer than 10 million people in 1800 to nearly 50 million by the turn of the 21st century.
Despite a roughly 400% population increase, per capita calories still managed a substantial increase. This shows that the gross amount of food consumed in the UK has grown by a factor of 5.64, which is 1.41 times the rate of population growth. Clearly, Malthus was incorrect that an increase in population would cause an increase in hunger in his own country.
A Reflection of the World
These figures do not perfectly mirror those of the rest of the world. Despite this, most countries have seen substantial movement in a similar direction. As a general rule, population increases have led to an increase in food per person.
In the past half-century, every region’s figures have increased. Overall, global calorie consumption per person has risen from 2,196 to 2,884 in the fairly narrow timeframe. In just 52 years, this is an increase of 31.3%. The population, meanwhile, more than doubled from 3.07 billion to 7.19 billion in the same timeframe. Overall, therefore, the number of calories in the world increased by a factor of 3.08. And as the below graph shows, this was not just due to inequality. Even the poorest of the poor have seen astronomical improvements in the quality of life since 1800. As income rises sharply, it’s extremely likely that food intake does, too. After all, food is a high priority for those with very little, falling on the bottom level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
The direct relationship between population and calorie supply has been present since the dark ages. Perhaps this data was not available to Malthus when he was writing his theories. If it was, though, it remains fairly unclear why a billion people would be the magic number to reverse a historical trend.
Other Checks on Overpopulation
In addition to food insecurity, Malthus predicted that war and famine would also grow more frequent as the population increased. Moreover, he believed that families would choose to have fewer children to limit population growth. Once again, though, there is little evidence for any of these statements. In fact, the first two have strong data suggesting exactly the opposite.
The top graph shows the frequency that major world powers have fought each other over the last 500 years. Though the world population has rapidly increased throughout this period, conflict has declined. Just this century, the world has seen the first 15-year period in hundreds of years where major world powers have been at states of relative peace. Though the world is far from free of conflict, the frequency is certainly declining, as is the number of battle deaths, as the bottom graph shows.
Famine has followed a similar pattern. Famines are still sometimes present today, without a doubt. But over time, they have occurred less frequently, and when they do, they generally take fewer victims than they previously had.
As an additional factor, Malthus mentions the idea of family planning as something individuals may positively and voluntarily do to combat overpopulation. Out of each of his ideas, this has the greatest degree of truth. As a country develops, it goes through something called the demographic transition.
Essentially, this theory proposes that a country begins with a high death rate and a high birth rate (Stage 1). Over time, though, advances in medicine and technology decrease the death rate, spiking population (Stage 2). Then, family planning comes in, reducing the birth rate (Stage 3). By the time a country develops, the birth and death rates are nearly equal once more, maintaining the population at a higher number (Stage 4).
So, Malthus is correct that as the population increased throughout the world, family planning occurred. However, the evidence does not necessarily provide a causal link between the two events. Before modern medicine reaches a country, many children simply do not reach adulthood. For this reason, parents may have 6 to 7 children, knowing that only 2 to 3 may reach child-bearing age themselves.
Moreover, families in Stage 1 countries are more likely to have jobs in the primary sector (agriculture, mining, etc). So, having more children serves as an economic advantage because the children can work in the family business. In more developed countries, though, having more children creates a greater economic burden. Children are no longer free labor and the cost of raising them increases. So, socio-economic factors appear to also discourage families in developed countries from having a large number of children. Though a desire to reduce overpopulation may sometimes be a part of a family’s decision, it appears to be a secondary factor that probably doesn’t go through many families’ heads.
Modern Overpopulation Theory
Despite strong evidence against Malthus and his ideas, overpopulation is still a popular theory in the modern era. Paul Ehrlich, American biologist and author of The Population Bomb, still warns of the dangers of limited resources and a growing population. He has used these alleged risks to advocate for the forced sterilization of fathers and heavy taxes on products essential to child-rearing, such as diapers and cribs. This forced population control is expected from authoritarian states like China or perhaps the Marvel villain Thanos, but it has no place in a free society.
Malthus, at least, lived in an era in which datasets such as these were either nonexistent or hard to find. He proposed an interesting theory which ultimately did not pan out, but clearly did his research and closely examined the happenings in his own world to deduce his conclusion. Ehrlich and his supporters, however, have no excuse. Their doomsday predictions simply contradict observable reality. In the modern day, with data at everyone’s fingertips, those proclaiming a dire future should know that the facts disagree. Just like in Malthus’s day, the trends show no signs of suddenly reversing. Could there be another factor that we’re missing?
Climate Change and Overcrowding
Without a doubt, climate change poses a threat to humans in varying capacities across the globe. From rising sea levels to carbon emissions, it’s a modern issue that our world must face straight on. But does it impact the food supply enough to counteract increasing innovation? So far, this is not the case, as proven by the steadily increasing calories per day and population levels. It may do so in the future, but current evidence for this is relatively slim. Climate change is real; its effects on overpopulation theory unproven.
Another possible issue with overpopulation is the notion of overcrowding. There will come a certain point where, even if we can provide food for everyone, there simply will not be enough physical space for everyone to live on. Yet, it appears that we are nowhere near this level. In New York City, 8.623 million people crowd into 302.6 square miles of land.
Though this is certainly crowded, it is nowhere near the level of the world’s most densely populated city, Manila. In the tiny Filipino capital, there are 111,002 people per square mile, roughly four times that of New York’s 28,496. If the entire world’s population (7.53 billion) lived only as densely as New York, they would require 264,247 square miles of area. This is 4,000 square miles less than the state of Texas alone. So, the entire population could currently fit into the state of Texas if they lived as densely as people did in New York City. Though this is an incredibly undesirable hypothetical, it nonetheless shows that physical Earth space is not yet an issue.
The Demographic Transition: A Stage 4 World
Thanks to family planning and a reduction in birth rates, the overcrowding theory is likely to never become an issue that most of humanity faces. Of course, there are some obvious exceptions, such as the small, densely populated country of Bangladesh. However serious this may be for Bangladesh, though, calling it a threat to the world is a stretch. The demographic transition model all but guarantees that most of the world will never have to deal with this issue, and it will not threaten life on planet Earth.
Though the current trend in this graph (darker blue) appears exponential, it is highly unlikely that this pattern will remain. Based on the demographic transition, which has successfully explained the falling death and birth rates for many countries, the world as a whole currently falls under Stage 3 (a low death rate and a high but declining birth rate).
Though the population is still increasing, the rate of increase is slowing, as families have fewer children in developing countries. Eventually, that figure will taper off almost entirely, as the population growth rate falls to 0.06% by the turn of the 22nd century. At this point, the world as a whole will have reached Stage 4 of the demographic transition, with an estimated population between 10 and 11 billion people. And as food production continues to rise, evidence strongly suggests that the available food supply is in no risk of failing to meet the needs of the world’s citizens.
Food Waste: Preventing Hunger
Though overpopulation is not the culprit, world hunger is nonetheless a serious issue. One in nine people currently does not have the food to live a healthy and active lifestyle. This amounts to nearly 800 million people worldwide, more than double the population of the United States.
Despite this, consumers in North America and Europe, on average, waste between 210 and 250 pounds of food every year. This is more than 10% of the 1,996 pounds per year that the average American eats.
Reducing food waste could serve as an excellent way to limit hunger worldwide. Rather than throwing away food, be conscious about waste. Buying the same amount of food, but reducing waste by 50% and donating the other 50% to a food pantry could give a homeless person four pounds of food a day (a generally recognized standard amount) for an entire month.
Feeding the Homeless
Moreover, personally feeding local homeless people can mitigate the effects of hunger in your community. Though police have tried to prevent this kind act from occurring numerous times, the actions of these selfless individuals have helped to supply countless individuals with the essentials of life, even if only on one occasion. Both of these acts reduce hunger without inventing problems such as overpopulation to explain it.
All in all, the theory of overpopulation is misguided. The data suggests that though food insecurity is an issue, overpopulation does not explain this. Modern overpopulation theorists have even gone so far as to threaten to violate fundamental principles of bodily autonomy in an attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist on a universal level. Though poor cities may experience local overpopulation, the planet is not running out of space. Our global food security is actually increasing continually, and with generous and voluntary action, we can bring these benefits into our own communities.
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