Covering Issues The Way The Media Should

Search our Site:

sitemap | IMPACT home

Current Issue


Music Reviews


Advertise in IMPACT

E-Mail Us

Join the Mailing List


Buy IMPACT T-Shirts


Back Issue Information


Wanna Write for IMPACT?

Where to Find IMPACT


Population Control:
How Many Are Too Many?

by Morris Sullivan
illustration/Eachean Edmundson


There are at least three more people in the world now than there were when you began reading this sentence.

There are now 5.8 billion human beings on the planet, and according to the United Nations, the population of earth is expected to grow to around 7.9 billion by 2050. [For the most up-to-date numbers,] In a world that currently wrestles with such serious problems as global warming, the thinning of the ozone layer, increasing crime rates, toxic chemicals in our food, and starvation in developing nations, each of which is at least partially due to growing world population, it's hard to imagine anyone opposing restraints on population controls.

However, such people exist. Some are well-meaning optimists blinded by their denial. Economist Julian Simon, for example, stated in 1981 that, "There is no meaningful limit to our capacity to keep growing forever." Many religious and industry leaders embraced this statement, using it to justify their anti-control ideologies and their commitment to their stockholders.

Others, however, have more pernicious motivations--like greed and religious fanaticism. Motivated by religious-right attitudes, family planning opponents in Congress have attempted to limit funding for the activities of foreign family-planning organizations by forcing them to renounce abortion and to withhold information on the subject.

In July of 1998, family planning opponents in the House considered an amendment appropriations bill that would define contraception (for distribution in foreign countries) in such a way that it would exclude oral contraceptives, Norplant, and the IUD. At the time, Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) declared that RU486 and other contraceptives were "baby pesticides," a notion which would surprise the 30 million American women who use the pill, Norplant, and the IUD to prevent pregnancy.

These restrictive policies follow the example of the "Mexico City Policy," named for the site of the 1984 international population conference. During that conference, held in a city in which hordes of unwanted children survive by picking scraps off of our heaps of garbage, the United States announced that it would end funding to private family planning programs overseas if they had any involvement with abortion. (Clinton repealed the restrictions in 1993.)

Those, like Simon, want us to believe that our population-related problems are all due to overcrowding, not overpopulation. Overpopulation and overcrowding are different. Overcrowding does not necessarily mean that people live shoulder-to-shoulder. Rather, it occurs when there are too many people crowded into one space--crowded to the point that a high percentage of the population must live in substandard conditions because of the lack of living space and lack of opportunity to make a living. It's like having a dozen people trying to crowd around a small fire‹someone is bound to be left out in the cold.

"Substandard" means that one's ability to be productive, safe, and healthy are impaired due to cramming too many people into too small a space. The level at which overcrowding exists varies according to cultural and economic factors. For example, Japan has far more people per square mile than the United States. However, the Japanese are better adapted to crowded conditions than we. The crime rate is lower than ours, the streets are, for the most part, safe at night, and the traffic, while congested, is better managed than ours. Most important, however, their industrial and economic structure provides enough work and income for most Japanese to afford food and shelter.

Land is expensive in Japan, but people are used to living in tighter spaces than we. America was settled mainly by farmers, and land was cheap, therefore most of us feel cramped if we don't live on an eighth of an acre or more of land. Most Japanese, however, live in large multifamily dwellings, and aside from farmers, few have land of their own. Since much of the land is not arable, Japanese have concentrated themselves into tight spaces for centuries and have adapted culturally to that condition--there is no "road rage" in Japan, for example.

Mexico City, however, is clearly overcrowded. Land is too expensive for any but a handful of wealthy people to own, food is relatively scarce, and economic opportunities are few and far between. The result is that pollution, crime rates, and the incidence of disease are very high, and much of the population lives in shacks.

Overcrowding can be eased by changing some of the variables. For example, one symptom of the disorder, traffic congestion, can be eased by building new roads. Space permitting, the area can be expanded, such as in Hong Kong, where much of the harbor has been filled in for the construction of housing, airports, and hotels.

Overpopulation, on the other hand, occurs when there are so many individuals in an isolated area--one in which the population must subsist on their own resources--that the resources necessary to their survival become depleted at a rate faster than those resources can be replenished and when the waste generated by the population exceeds the ability to dispose of it faster than it is created.

In other words, as some anti-control groups point out, everyone on earth could fit in the state of Texas. However, while we might all fit in Texas, we couldn't all live there without bringing in food, water and energy from elsewhere. It would be impossible for the land to produce enough food to feed the population, especially with every square foot of arable land already occupied by someone¹s feet.

The population of the United States will have increased from around 272 million currently to around 276 million by the end of the year 2000, and to around 330 million by the end of 2025. Eight states have growth rates that exceed 2 percent, meaning that their populations will double in less than 35 years.

At times, areas of the United States have already become overpopulated. For example, during the 1970s, the underground supply of fresh water in Florida had been drained to the point at which sinkholes appeared in some inland areas and salt-water intrusion occurred in some coastal areas. Both conditions occur when groundwater is being consumed at a rate faster than it can be replaced. At the same time, coastal areas became polluted when communities disposed of their waste by dumping it into the water faster than the ocean could naturally dilute it to safe levels and carry it away.

Like overcrowding, overpopulation varies, in this case according to the rise and fall of resources as they are replenished. It is not possible to look at a given geographical area and say, "more than X-thousand individuals of a given species in this area are one too many," because it is usually possible to bring in water, food, etc. from another area.

If a resource can be replaced more quickly than it is consumed, then at least relative to that resource, an area is not overpopulated. Some resources can be replenished faster than others. Food, for example, usually requires only a growing season; as long as one growing season can produce enough to feed a population, then the area has a sustainable population.

The same is true of pollution; a community is not overpopulated as long as it can dispose of its waste products more quickly than they build to health-threatening levels.

As Simon points out, technological changes can make it possible for more people to live in a smaller space. Sewage treatment plants and scrubbers that remove pollutants from smoke before it enters the atmosphere have all made it possible for our populations to grow, yet become relatively unpolluted. Improved farming methods, irrigation, and the development of faster-growing, higher-yielding hybrids have increased the amount of food that can be grown relative to the space required to produce it.

All too often, however, the damage to the environment is simply moved into some other back yard. Virtually every attempt to enforce conservation and restrict pollution has been met with resistance from big business on the basis of its expense and inconvenience. Often, after failing in the attempt to avoid these regulations, business will simply move the problem to some developing nation where they don't have to deal with those annoying and expensive rules.

When the United States enforced regulations against environment-damaging pesticides, for example, it became cheaper to import some produce from some South American countries where regulations are far more lax. Unfortunately, that means that Americans are eating vegetables treated with pesticides outlawed for use in the US.

Our coastal areas, where the bulk of our population lives, are among the most densely populated areas in the world. The Northeast averages 767 people per square mile; Haiti averages 580.

The longevity of an ecosystem is a constant exercise in balance--a seesaw in which species alternately overpopulate and die back. In a North American wooded area, for example, the population of deer might explode over the course of a few seasons. In time, however, the deer will strip the area of available forage and some individuals will die from hunger. The predator population will increase, too, and soon the deer population will return to a more stable, sustainable level.

That sustainable level will fluctuate with variations in annual rainfall, temperatures, and other things. A wet, warm year will increase the amount of food available and allow the population to rise; a dry summer followed by a cold winter will cause it to fall back.

For humans, it's more difficult to predict how many are too many. We have the ability to expand beyond our immediate geographical boundaries and so increase the level of resources available to sustain population growth beyond those our community could otherwise accommodate. We can also take steps to preserve and conserve the available resources.

For example, when the depletion of Florida's groundwater supplies started to become apparent, legislators hurried to enact laws that would slow the removal of the ground water while protecting water recharge areas. The result is that Florida's population has continued to expand without the state running out of fresh water or crumbling into a depleted aquifer.

Over the course of one year, the world¹s population will increase by over 78 million.

When you shift your focus from localized to global overpopulation, the situation becomes much more frightening. The earth may already be overpopulated.

Humanity is not in danger of running out of food; with improvements in agricultural methods in developing countries, we should be able to feed many more people. Today, the main cause of starvation is not lack of food production, but inadequate distribution and misguided government policies.

However, many other resources upon which we depend may be depleted more rapidly than they can be replaced. For example, much of our economic base--as well as our mobility, which makes it possible for us to expand our boundaries--depend on oil and coal. Replenishing an oilfield takes millions of years. We do not have a million-year oil supply. Eventually, we will run out, but how soon is anyone's guess.

Similarly, the ozone layer is being depleted faster than it can be replaced, as the pollutants that cause the greenhouse effect are building up faster than they can be neutralized. Conservation and regulation may stem the tide, but how quickly we can reverse these conditions is hard to measure, especially when the situations that create the problems continue.

For a couple of decades, it has been trendy to support conservation of the rain forests. In spite of this, their destruction has been largely unabated. Most Americans want to preserve the scenery and fauna that live in rain forests, but the preservation of these ecosystems is vital for reasons much more important than the extinction of a few relatively unnecessary but exotic species. Both the depletion of the ozone layer and global warming are partially due to the disappearance of these vast wilderness areas.

Most ozone is created by lightning and falling rain, for example. While regulations against releasing ozone-destroying chemicals may slow the thinning of the layer, replacing it might be a very long-term proposition.

1998 was the hottest year ever recorded since record keeping began in 1886, and the 14 hottest years have occurred since 1980. We owe the global warming trend to the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Plants "inhale" carbon dioxide and "exhale" oxygen. Auto and industrial emissions emit carbon dioxide, but its reduction is slowed by the removal of the rich store of CO2-removing, oxygen-producing plants of the rain forest. Again, regulations against CO2 emissions can slow the process, but how long will it take to reverse?

Florida's population has grown over 600 percent in the last half of this century‹from 1.9 million to 15 million.

Two primary factors cause overpopulation and its related problems. Immigration--the movement of people into an area which offers a greater economic and/or political climate can overload the resources necessary to sustain the growth. In many cases, the effects of local overpopulation can "spill" over and create global problems. The overpopulation and over-farming of Florida's Everglades, for example, affected the quality of water in Florida Bay, which was a rich estuary. The net result had a negative impact on the surrounding fisheries.

The U.S. fertility rate has risen over the last decade from 1.8 births per woman to 2.0.

The second factor causing population-related problems, of course, is the increase due to birth rates. This is probably the factor that has received the most global attention, with groups such as Zero Population Growth, Planned Parenthood, and the World Health Organization focusing on it. The solution to the problem, they contend, is to lower the birth rate to two children per family, at most.

The potential of the ZPG program to control population has already been demonstrated: after Mao took over China, the "two children per family" guideline was instituted. In China, which was in some areas severely overcrowded and potentially overpopulated, the restriction of birth rate slowed population growth until economic changes could take effect, with the result that the country now has fewer related problems.

In contrast, Hong Kong (in spite of the filling-in of the Harbor) has numerous problems directly relating to overpopulation and overcrowding. The harbor is virtually bereft of sea life, so that few people are able to make a living fishing--once an important source of income. The limited available land created even more immediately dramatic threats to life. In a desperate attempt to gain a few extra square feet of living space, many families--some of them very large, and living in tiny apartments--attached hanging porches to the walls outside their apartment windows to expand their living space by a few square feet. The hanging rooms were finally outlawed in the 1980s after a series of catastrophes in which the hanging rooms fell and killed their occupants and some very unfortunate pedestrians.

In both the United States and the developing world, economic incentives restrain industry from recognizing or supporting the need for population control and its effects. On a localized level, economic growth is often a fortunate side effect of population growth. As more consumers move into an area, business improves. In developing nations, an overabundance of humans equals cheap labor.

Recognizing the inevitability of overpopulation would force government to enact tougher, stronger conservation and anti-pollution measures. Julian Simon predicated his contention that the earth can sustain an infinite number of humans on the idea that technology would adapt to diminishing resources. As the world runs out of oil and gas, he says, alternatives will become relatively cheaper.

Simon and his followers also attest that we can become more and more efficient in our use of resources. We still have an enormous, largely untapped ability to recycle virtually everything (recycling aluminum cans in 1996 saved enough energy to power a city the size of Philadelphia for one year.)

Simon makes some good points, and the world population may eventually stabilize as global warming, AIDS, and food-borne carcinogens cull some of us from the population. Let's hope we can forestall that as long as we can. •

Population Control Resources

Email your feedback on this article to

Other articles by Morris Sullivan on this website: