When people argue overpopulation is a myth, their arguments typically revolve around the amount of “open” space on earth not yet occupied by humans.
They say things like – “Ever flown across the country and seen all the vacant land between New York and California?” or “Did you know every single person on Earth could fit into the State of Texas?”
But what they don’t realize is it takes a lot more land than one’s house or apartment sits on to sustain a human life. Just because we can cram a few billion more human bodies here, and few billion more there, doesn’t mean there is enough fertile farmland or clean water to sustain all those people.
According to the Global Footprint Network, if every person on the planet were to enjoy the standard of living of the average European – who consumes about half as much as the average American – the Earth could sustainably support about 2 billion people, at most.
If all 7.4 billion people on Earth were to enjoy the standard of living of the average American, we would need five Earths.
So the question we should be asking is not “how many human beings we can cram onto the planet?” It’s “what quality of life do we want the average human to enjoy?”
Once we determine that, we can determine the ideal population and how many babies we should be having, on average. There are several factors humanity needs to ponder in determining this number. Here are some of the big ones:
1. Fossil Fuel Can’t Be Part of the Equation
The first and most important factor is that fossil fuel has to be left out of the equation, as it has already caused us to far overshoot the earth’s long-term carrying capacity for humans, and we are already on track for a massive human die-off when the oil runs out.
It’s important to start with an understanding that the human population never would’ve gotten this big without fossil fuel.
The “Green” Revolution of the 1960s and 70s – in which scientists learned how to fertilize the globe’s depleted topsoil with petroleum – is credited with saving at least a billion people from starvation. But what it hasn’t gotten enough “credit” for is doubling the global population and creating 4 billion more mouths to feed.
Just as the baby boomer generation entered adulthood and were thinking about how many babies they should have of their own, scientists launched a modern agricultural revolution, powered by synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and new high-yield varieties of cereal grains.
So instead of a global population of about 3.5 billion in 1968 dropping back down to a pre-WWII level of 2.5 billion, we enabled the population to double to 7 billion by 2012, and are now approaching 7.5 billion in 2016.
This has been the history of agriculture since it began. Agriculture creates a false sense of food security because of temporary surpluses. So people have more babies. But when the soil has been been overworked after a few years, farmers, or kings, move on to new land, pushing aside anyone with smaller weapons who stands in their way.
Today, instead of warring for new farmland, we just go to war for more petroleum to pump minerals back into our own depleted farmland (and our modern colonial farmland).
But most scientists agree oil production has already peaked and is now declining. So haven’t we only delayed and worsened the inevitable catastrophe when the oil finally runs out?
2. Quantity vs. Quality
It takes longer for Americans to feel the effects of global overpopulation, as each of us, on average, consumes 32 times more resources than the average Kenyan. But if we’d take the blinders off, we’d see that the vast majority of the human species already lives in abject poverty, and it’s only going to get worse as the population grows (we’re expected to hit 10 billion sometime around 2050.)
In non-European countries around the world, people are starving, working in factories like slaves, and living in squalor in crowded, filthy slums.
In European countries, the middle class is working harder and harder each year to keep a roof over their heads in a safe part of town. Most of us can’t afford real food and live with cancer, diabetes and heart disease because of it.
We can tell everyone to consume less, but how much less do we want to consume? And how much space do we want?
“Middle class living standards in the US peaked some time ago,” says The Platonist in an article titled – What is the Ideal Population of the Earth? “The average house now contains much less land than it did in the 70s, when the average person could still reasonably expect to have a whole 1/3 acre of their own (this should be the minimum size for suburban lots, to ensure enough space between the houses, visually, and for the children of the place to run in and feel free from built-up areas). But compare this to the 1700s, when every American could have 100 acres for the taking!”
I for one don’t need 100 acres, but I really enjoy my current third-acre wooded plot, which we can only afford because we have a roommate.
Additionally, our American lifestyle requires a lot more than the land we build fences around.
The average American requires approximately 22 acres of land (and a ton of slave labor) to produce the amount of food and resources he consumes. If all 7.4 billion of us used 22 acres worth of resources, we’d need 163 billion acres of productive land. Unfortunately, there are only 36 billion total on earth.
And of course, the only reason we can have such a luxurious lifestyle from so few acres is because of industrial agriculture. When the oil runs out, industrial agriculture is going to disappear. People are going to have to return to more primitive modes of farming and spend a lot more hours producing their own food.
Unless, of course, we want to return to the ways of hunter-gatherers, who enjoy much more leisure time than agriculturalists and consume far less energy per capita than any type of human being ever. Hunter-gatherer population densities rarely exceeded one person per 10 square miles.
3. How many species do we want to destroy? How many can we destroy before we destroy ourselves?
The more humans there are on Earth, the fewer room there is for every other species. Every time we build a new city, suburb or farm, we are shrinking the amount of space for bison, bears, deer, lions, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, zebra, non-human apes, rabbits, squirrels, fish, insects, trees, grasses, bacteria. You may not particularly care about any of those species, but even the species at the top of the food chain are dependent on those below.
Because of our interdependence, the extinction of one species can create a domino effect, wiping out dozens of other species.
Earth is now losing species 1000 times faster than before modern humans evolved. According to environmental activist Lierre Keith, we will lose more species in the 65-year period between 1980 and 2045 than we have in the last 65 million years.
Some scientists are calling it the sixth great extinction crisis, akin to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.
The Solution? Stop Having Kids
Ok, you can have one. But no more. Until the population stabilizes:
So, why don’t we see big billboards advocating that we all have one child?
The answer, says The Platonist, is economists – and the people with mega-dollars who depend upon them – are terrified of population decline. Why? Because the world economy is guaranteed to grow each year so long as population grows:
“More mouths means more consumers, more consumers means more bottom line, especially for the largest global firms … The gigantic companies like Coca-cola, McD’s, Dow, Bayer, Proctor & Gamble, etc, all depend on having more mouths to buy their products each year for their continued economic growth.”
“To witness firsthand how highly pro-population growth the economics field is, one need only turn to The Economist, where one continually sees editorials on how countries with low projected population growth rates are decried as economic minefields, while places with high population growth are declared to be economic Nirvana, even if, as in Eastern Europe, these places’ spiralling population is leading to a drastic reduction of living conditions and well-being for the average person. Generally, economists aren’t in the business of caring about quality of life per capita.”