The Other Inconvenient Truth: The Effect of Overpopulation

xhan's picture


Although it has taken a long time, the issue of global climate change is finally getting the attention it deserves. Although major technical, political, social and economic issues still need to be resolved, there is now widespread agreement of the need to confront the challenges of energy security and climate change, to counter the harmful effects of global warming. Collectively, we are beginning to acknowledge that our inclinations to use fossil fuels-which has harmed national security, the economy and the environment for decades-needs to end. The question is no longer why, but how.
Yet, there may be a downside to this “national call to action” that was previously unseen. In the rush to portray the perils of climate change, many other issues have been ignored. Climate change has become the “poster child of environmental crises”, but can we afford to overlook the rise of infectious diseases, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies? Although I realize that the impact of climate change may have enormous, and adverse affects on the environment, I am concerned that this collective fixation on global warming as the “mother of all environmental problems” may cause some of us to neglect an equally inconvenient truth: that we now face a global crisis-overpopulation-that affects land use and agriculture-which could undermine the health, security, and sustainability of our civilization.
In 1798, British economist Thomas Malthus proposed the theory that population growth would outrun the ability to produce food. This leads to war, famine, disease, and other disasters. Since then, technology has struggled to keep u with burgeoning populations.  Our use of land, specifically agriculture  is an essential aspect of humanity. We depend on agriculture to supply us with food, fiber, and biofuels. Without a highly efficient, progressive, and productive agricultural system, our society would collapse, and cease to function. Yet the rate of population growth-more than 70 million people are added to the world. We are demanding more and more from our global agricultural systems, pushing them to their limits. The changing dietary preferences, rising energy prices, and needs for bioenergy sources is causing tremendous strains on the world’s resources. At this rate, we would have to double, or triple the agricultural production in the next 30 to 40 years.
In addition, the increased demands of agriculture can have damaging implications on such ecosystem degradation, freshwater decline, widespread pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. According to National Geographics, “35% percent of the earth’s  ice-free surface has already been cleared for agriculture-in fact this area is nearly 60 times larger than the world’s cities and suburbs”. What will happen to our remaining ecosystems, including tropical rainforests, if we need to double or triple world agricultural production, while simultaneously coping with climate change?
Moreover, it is predicted that increasing population and agricultural consumption will increase water demands from 4500-6200 kilometers per year- we are already using a staggering 4,000 cubic kilometers of water per year, from our streams, rivers, and lakes. 70% is used for irrigation purposes, the single, greatest use of water on the globe. Many large rivers have already dried up; increased demands of water will only result in more rapidly declining water tables around the world.  Moreover, agriculture, particularly the use of fertilizers and other chemicals, has upset the groundwork of the entire planetThe use of fertilizers has more than doubled the flows of nitrogen and phosphorus compounds in the environment, resulting in widespread water pollution and the massive degradation of lakes and rivers. According to National Geographics, “excess nutrient pollution is now so widespread, it is even contributing to the disruption of coastal oceans and fishing grounds by creating ‘dead zones’, including one in the Gulf of Mexico”. Given current practices, increases on food demand will dramatically increase water pollution and ecosystem destruction.
Last, but not least, land use is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. Land use and agricultural practices account for more than 30 percent of the total emissions of man-made green house gasses. This is more than the emissions from the world’s cars, trucks, trains and plans, as well as from electric and manufacture companies. Although land use and agriculture are the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases, agriculture has been largely able to avoid the regulations of emissions reduction policies.
One of the greatest challenges would be to provide for the needs of 9 billion people, without ruining the biosphere.  It is still unclear as to how exactly we would be able to find more efficient and more environmentally friendly ways to feed the world, however there are some solutions that we could start with. Quite, simply we should first acknowledge the problem. Even within well-informed circles, the notion that our land use and agricultural practices rival climate change as a global threat comes at a big surprise. We need to raise awareness as with the efforts of Al Gore on global warming, in order to give these issues a chance at being equally heard. We should also strive to invest in revolutionary agricultural solutions. Although there are billions of dollars invested into new technology, research and infrastructure, but shouldn’t there be revolutionary approaches to feeding the world while reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture?
We cannot solve these problems, merely, by increasing agricultural production at the expense of the environment nor can we ignore the growing need for food as population increases. Instead, we must find ways to increase production while reducing environmental impacts. Although this many not be easy, this will be most effect when both consumers and producers are determined to solve the problems of food security and the environment together.
Works Cited:
Braasch, Bary. World View of Global Warming. The Photographic Documentation Of Climate Change < >9, November 2009
Global Warming. Union of Concerned Scientists: Citizens and Scientists for Environmental Solutions  2009 9, Nov 2009.
National Geographics “Global Warming: What Affects Global Warming” 9, November 2009.
World Population Awareness. News Digest. November 8, 2009.<> 9, November 2009



ProfBob's picture


Poverty will only increase with overpopulation. Fewer people are needed to produce the technology that we all use. Perhaps a billion scientists would do! But beyond that, overpopulation is the world's top environmental issue, according to a survey of the faculty at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) published in Science Daily April 20, 2009. "Overpopulation is the only problem," said Dr. Charles A. Hall, a systems ecologist. "If we had 100 million people on Earth - or better, 10 million - no others would be a problem." Current estimates put the planet's population at nearly seven billion. Other faculty at ESF said:
There are some suggestions for reducing poverty and overpopulation in the popular free ebook series “In Search of Utopia” ( but some other information can be found in http://overpopulation,org. But what politician will attack the root cause of most of our planetary problems? And who in the electorate would support a program to reduce population and poverty?
There isn't enough space here to comment on the causes and solutions to the problems created by overpopulation. Climate change is only one. The aforementioned free ebook series goes deeply into the issues. Book 1 states the problems and some solutions. Book 4 looks at the ethical problems in trying to get a unified concern. Book 6 deals with the psychological issues, such as the individual and national drives for power.
Sad to say, the prognosis is not too good for saving us all. Nations want more warriors born, businesses want more customers born, and politicians want more potential workers to pay the retirement benefits for those who didn't contribute enough to pay for their pensions.
Nature will self-correct--but how many humans will be left after that correction?

Paul Grobstein's picture

global warming, population size, and ....

It is indeed interesting that concerns about the environment tend to focus on particularities.  Global warming is in the spotlight now.  Population size was in the spotlight twenty years ago.  Its a good thing to be reminded that population size is actually still a problem.  I wonder though if there is a more general issue - the difficulty humans have in recognizing/accepting their interdependence with the non-human world and in thinking on long enough time spans - that underlies all of these?  And a way to make it more central? 

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