This article was last modified on April 14, 2011.

Is World Population a Concern?

In the groundbreaking and popular book The Worldly Philosophers, economist Robert L. Heilbroner discusses a variety of topics related to the history of economics and its more colorful patrons. In one chapter, “The Gloomy Presentiments”, Heilbroner discusses the opinions of Thomas Malthus, adds to those thoughts as necessary, and brings the idea of Malthusian thought up to speed for the 20th century. Essentially what we have is an optimistic reinterpretation of the work of a classic pessimist. Following in Heilbroner’s footsteps, I wish to comment further on the subject matter, bring it even more up to speed, and (unfortunately) shoot down Heilbroner’s gleaming optimism [1].

This seemingly broad and abstract problem is, in actuality, a real and observable problem. To stress the seriousness, I cite Julian Huxley in 1955 (and the problem is greater today) where he tells us that 90,000 people a day are added to this planet. This number by itself is large and hard to imagine, and when dispersed we might not think much of it. But as Huxley asks us to picture, and I stress that you do this yourself, if these 90,000 people were born in one location, that would constitute a large town. Imagine a town that size; you likely live in one or have been in one. And then remind yourself this is the amount that springs forth each and every day.

If ever you doubt the magnitude of this issue while reading this piece, I call upon you to remind yourself of this imaginary town.

World Population

World population is an interesting visual when placed on a graph. If we are to believe scientists (rather than fundamentalist religion), people have walked this planet in one form or another for millions of years. Yet, throughout all this time the increase in population remained relatively low. Millions of years were necessary to reach millions of people. Thousands more years were needed to reach the first billion. But what about these days? Within the last thirty years, we have seen the fourth, fifth and even sixth billion arise. As I write this, the world has edged past the seventh billion (China alone recently “celebrated” 1.3 billion). Let us take a closer look at the past few decades and where we are headed.

In 1973, projections for world population ranged from a conservative 6.5 billion to 20 billion by the year 2050. [Frejka 1973] We now know that the lower estimate has passed, and the higher one might have been closer to the mark. The world population in 1980 was 4,453,831,714 (4.5 billion). Heilbroner (1980) quotes the United Nations as estimating the population would level off just before 10 billion. Even thirty years later, this prediction seems fairly close, but probably low. The United States Census Bureau predicts the world population as of February 3, 2005 to be 6,416,557,818 (6.4 billion). Estimated for the year 2050 is 9,346,399,468 (9.3 billion). By this time the rate of growth (2040-2050) will be only 5.6 percent. Currently this rate (1990-2000) is about 12.6 percent. If the rate continues to decrease, the plateau might not be much higher than 10 or 11 billion — Heilbroner’s 1980 estimate, still seemingly accurate.

American Population

Of particular interest to myself and those around me is the specific population increase of the United States. Despite being an Englishman, Malthus took interest in this country, as well. In 1830, he said that the population of America was doubling every twenty-five years, and he was confident that this rate of growth would continue. Heilbroner supports him in stating that the rate of growth was a doubling every twenty-five years, but “corrects” Malthus by further adding the rate was even faster (close to fifteen years) in backwoods areas.

Whether Heilbroner was merely clarifying Malthus’ prediction or misunderstanding it is unclear. Heilbroner seems to want to say Malthus saw twenty-five years as the standard rate everywhere, but that was not at all his point. He was merely analyzing the population of the country as a whole. The idea of certain areas reproducing faster than others was not addressed, nor was it the point.

Malthus studied the census in 1790 and found the total white population to be 3,164,148. By 1800, the population was 4.3 million. In 1810, 5.9 million. And lastly, in 1820, 7.9 million. As mentioned, this was the overall population of America (not including slaves) and was not conducted on a state-by-state basis. Malthus merely took these figures and noticed a trend of population crease ranging from 34 to 36 percent, which translated to a doubling every twenty-five years. I do not deny that Heilbroner’s addition is interesting, although I am disheartened that he seemingly meant to undermine Malthus’ groundwork.

If this trend of doubling every quarter century continued indefinitely as Malthus had supposed, the population today would be enormous. I think Heilbroner succumbed to optimism, and did not fully believe the rate at which Americans were capable of reproducing themselves. In 1980, he predicted a 2020 population to reach upwards of 250 million. However, this peak was reached more than twenty years before Heilbroner suspected. According to the Census Bureau, the population of the United States on April 1, 2000 was 281,421,906. By February 2005, the estimate was up to 295,389,177. If this continues (and I believe we can safely assume it will), the actually 2020 population might be closer to 350 — not 250 — million Americans.

Frederick Osborn made a similar prediction as Heilbroner in 1960, asserting that America could sustain 250 to 300 million people (which turns out to be a low guess). He saw this happening between 1985 and 2010. Although we have to dock him some credit for his vagueness, we might also want to applaud his efforts being more accurate than Heilbroner with an even wider time gap. Given the passing of Heilbroner, perhaps we should consider a passing of the torch?

As near as can be determined, the estimates of current or modern American population are based on official records and do not include the illegal immigrants from Mexico or the people visiting from Canada. My colleague, James Skemp, conjectured that if the population of America were increasing while the population of Mexico were decreasing, there would sort of be a sense of balance. While this may be true, the point is merely hypothetical; there is no reason to believe Mexico’s population is decreasing or that the increase of American population is due in any large part to immigrants (though we must admit that a small percentage would be covered by immigration, legal or otherwise).

English Population

If we were to compare the population growth of America to that of any other country, England (and Great Britain as a whole) seems a likely candidate. The countries have similar histories (considering America was an English property) and the religious and cultural makeup of both nations is roughly the same. Some differences exist: England is much older and positioned on a much smaller area of land, but it is exactly these differences that make the population worth comparing.

If we look at the earlier censuses examined by Thomas Malthus, we see the population growth of Britain slowing down already at a time when America was just beginning to pick up. 1801 featured a population of 10.9 million (which might be odd to picture as more populous than all of America) and this only increased to 12.6 million by 1811. The doubling time? Approximately forty-nine years! And by 1821, this only increased. The population was now 14.4 million, with the doubling time of fifty-two years. Why was the growth slowing down?

We could say that the English were leaving to settle in America, but this seems unlikely as the bulk of English settlers should have already arrived years before the revolution of 1776. We could also say the English were leaving for other settlements worldwide (as it was in those days a great empire), and surely this accounts for some of the slowing. But could it be that populations naturally slow down as space is diminished and can only grow as much as the area provides? In a time before contraception was acceptable or women were being properly educated (these issues will be examined later), this is an interesting hypothesis. Can a population slow its growth on its own without “modern” intervention?

The answer to that is speculative, and largely unknown. What is known, however, is that growth certainly did not stop. By 1971, despite its small size, Britain was the third most populous country in Europe with 55,344,851 people. Today’s population 30 years later? Only 60 million people as of the year 2000. While still packed very densely, the current figures are promising.

Japanese Population

If we are to compare America to England, we may also compare England to Japan. Both countries share the attributes of being very old nations and surviving on relatively small strips of land. The differences are more cultural, and in this light we will make this second (and last) comparative study.

As of 1955, the population of Japan was 90 million people (almost twice that of Britain in the 1970s). These citizens were in a country that is only 1.5 times the size of Britain and highly mountainous. Each person, if divided up on the land equally, would have one seventh of an acre to call their own. Unlike wealthier and more spacious countries (such as the United States), the Japanese are not as well fed and consume an average of 2000 calories a day (the bare minimum recommended to retain homeostasis). One fifth of this food is imported, adding to Japan’s economic troubles. After the Second World War, this food came mainly from the United States, because China had adopted a strong isolationist stance. The Political and Economic Planning organization of Britain wrote, “Japan is undoubtedly the most overpopulated great country thee has ever been.” This was fifty years ago.

The Japanese government decided to pursue population control aggressively, and started encouraging both birth control and abortions. The effects were seen immediately, with abortions rising dramatically from a quarter million in 1949 to over a million in 1953 [3]. In other words, a quadrupling in only four years. But even this can only have so much effect on births, because simply telling people to have small families does not make it so. Although the encouraged abortions might be the closest parallel in the world to China’s notorious one-child policy (see footnote 2).

Another factor in Japanese fertility rates is the statistic that Japanese women tend to marry much earlier on average than women of other nationalities. A study was done in 1930, on women aged 25 to 29. In Japan, only 8.5 percent of these women were bachelorettes. Compare this with the Netherlands (38%), England (41%), Norway (52%) and Switzerland (48%). Where marriage is the norm in Japan (and with marriage, children), the women of Norway find the thought to be something to put off until later.

Where has this push for birth control taken Japan in terms of overall population? By 1970, they had reached 103.7 million people (an increase of 11% in fifteen years). The density had reached a level of 727 people per square mile, a figure twelve times that of the United States. Today, the population has reached roughly 128 million (the ninth most populated in the world), and the population is actually expected to begin declining as early as 2006. Japan’s birth rate is down to 1.29 children per mother.

Population and Land Use

When we are talking about population, the topic of land use inevitably arises. The more people exist on this planet, the more land will be required to hold them. As we have seen, the Japanese are a perfect example of this. How does the amount of land compare to the amount of people?

In short, the equation is poorly balanced. People continue to multiply while land available for use does not increase (land does not “breed”, so to speak). No new land has been discovered for use since the “discovery” of the Americas some five hundred years ago. Land could be created artificially by moving high mountain soil to low valleys and filling in lakes or oceans. This idea is both impractical and unaesthetic, however. Land could also be “created” by colonizing the moon or other planets. This idea has many possible flaws, as well. The greatest flaw being that the technology necessary to accomplish this will not be evolving as fast as we are able to continue creating new humans.

When the land continues to stay the same size, but the amount of people grow, we are forced to have smaller and smaller amounts of land for each person. Already in populous areas people will live in apartment complexes that do not adequately meet their needs. One science fiction story I read in high school, “Billennium”, pushed this idea even further to the point where people would be renting out rooms the size of prison cells just to have a place of their own (which makes you wonder how prison could be any worse). We have not completely reached this yet. Many people still live in spacious farms, and even the majority of us have comfortable houses. In America, we have not even begun to tap the land in Wyoming or Montana if the necessity arises.

Living space is not the only issue, but dying space is, as well. Cemeteries take up a large amount of acreage by people who are not even using the land in any productive manner. Some European countries, notably France, have moved to change burial plots from “an eternal resting place” to a rental. The usual time is fifty years, under the theory that by then anyone you knew will also have passed. This idea, although morbid, might have to be instituted as a regular worldwide policy if we are to fully utilize the land at our disposal.

Like the aforementioned Wyoming, we could argue that many untapped resources exist in African nations and other third world countries, as James Skemp points out to me. I will not deny that these countries can presumably hold many more people and the accommodations (housing, commercial property, etc.) people are accustomed to. However, this has three problems (if not more) that revolve around the theory. First, the overpopulated countries are not likely to move their people to Africa — this goes against people’s personal preferences to live within their native country, and it also encourages job outsourcing, which is largely frowned upon. Second, the people already living in these countries do not desire the land which is rightfully theirs, or do not have the desire to change it as is also their right. Third, the environmental picture must be taken into account; the areas with the least people (such as rain forests) are valuable to humanity as undeveloped land, and we might be wiser to leave it as such.

From an economics point of view, we must always consider supply and demand. In this case, the supply is constant (land neither increases or decreases) while the demand always goes up (as long as people continue to breed). What does this tell you? The price of land will always go up, as will anything that is placed on that land. With this in mind we can see why the best investment of all is to become a landlord. Regardless of where your parcel is or what is on it, the land is always guaranteed to increase in value.

Population and Agriculture

The 1967 report of the President’s Science Advisory Panel on World Food Supply estimated that malnutrition affects 60% of the population of the underdeveloped nations, leading to physical and mental retardation. 20% suffer from undernourishment. Whether this has improved or worsened, the point is clear: a lack of food has serious consequences on the population. And population relates to agriculture just as agriculture relates to land use. We will discuss both.

As populations grow, they require more food to survive (because there are more mouths to feed). However, the amount of crops grown is less than that of people. Why? People have an increased growth rate, meaning that more people inhabit this earth all the time. Plants, however, do not have the same growth rate, as plants tend not to produce considerable amounts of offspring and are not given the proper amount of space were they to do so.

Related is the connection of agriculture and land use. As the population increases, the land is increasingly used for housing, industrial purposes, or commercial purposes. Any of these three reduce the amount of valuable land that might be used for agriculture. Urban sprawl is the name for areas that were recently farmland but have since become housing as communities continue to grow outwards (“sprawl”) rather than upwards. This demand for housing is created by growing communities in a sense through increased population. A more serious threat, though, is the desire that individuals have to live in large areas. A one-story house in the 1950s could accommodate a family of six or more. Now we see two-story houses designed for families of four. Talk about poor use of available space.

On a side note, I mentioned the cure to urban sprawl as growing upwards rather than outwards (and will address this again later when we talk of schools). Tye VanDyck, a Wisconsin geologist, pointed out to me that an overlooked third option exists — growing downward. Rather than covering the surface or blocking the skyline, VanDyck posits the belief that underground dwellings and offices would work equally as well. When I confronted him with my concerns over earthquakes, he informed me I was mistaken in my outlook and that the bulk of tremor-related problems occur on the surface rather than underground. While I still feel the idea of giving up natural light might have some drawbacks, his idea is thought-provoking and fresh if nothing else.

Returning to the general idea of urban sprawl, the family farmers must also be considered partially responsible as they are willingly selling the land to be used for non-agricultural purposes. More and more farmers (or often times, the children of farmers) are moving into non-agricultural businesses and office settings. This means that as the population is increasing, the farmland is decreasing (both from lack of supply for new mouths and from old farmers discontinuing the tradition). I should point out, in all fairness, the image of the farmer fed up with working a farm and preferring a city job is not an accurate picture of farmers as a whole. But I can state with some conviction that the majority of farms fall to disuse from a lack of interest rather than from any corporate buy-outs.

Another problem, and probably a more pervasive one, is the ability of corporate farms to undercut the family farmer. This is an interesting irony. The corporate farm is using less land than the family farm and producing the same quantity. Less land and more product seems like an ideal way to assist in proper land use. However, as pointed out, these corporate farms lead to the closing of family farms. The land that had been “green” will likely be changed to suburbs, completely contrary to proper land use.

One problem is that even if enough farmland was available, which is unlikely, there would probably not be enough fertilizer to grow the crops. Paul Ehrlich claimed in 1972 that “if India were to apply fertilizer as intensively as the Netherlands, Indian fertilizer needs alone would amount to nearly half the present world output.” [Ehrlich 1972: 119] Put another way, if India is going to provide their people with quality crops, they would need access to record levels of fertilizer. And that is just not realistic.

Four Ways to Lower Population

There are four primary ways to reduce the human population: war, disease, famine, and planned parenthood. Malthus sorted them not into four, but rather three: vice, moral restraint, and misery. While I shall go over the classifications of my preference, I will also touch upon the reasoning for Malthus sorting each item as he did.

One: War

War lowers the population by eliminating people who would otherwise have gone on to live full and lengthy lives. In many instances, these young people are killed off before marriage or child bearing, removing both them and any potential offspring. This was once a significant factor, as evidenced by the millions killed in World War II (some in combat, some in concentration camps, some in Russia); a total of well over 20 million on the low end of the estimates. However, this is no longer the factor it once was. New technology has led to wars being primarily fought from a distance and more often than not for shorter periods of time. As of this writing, the Americans are involved in a war with Iraq. Between March 2003 and February 2005, there have been the deaths of 17,884 Iraqi civilians and also the loss of 1,613 Allied soldiers’ lives. While this number is still a large figure, it pales in comparison to the figures of past wars.

War holds the distinction of being the only thing Malthus mentions as being both a vice and a misery. The difference depends simply on which side you are on — the offensive or defensive, the victors or the plundered. If your country is being slaughtered, this is a great misery. If you are the invader, you are committing a vice (mass murder). Listing war as a vice seems almost out of character for Malthus when we take into account this is “a man who defended small-pox, slavery, and child-murder,” according to his biographer, James Bonar.

Two: Disease

Disease is not a large factor in modern society. While most people die from some disease (usually heart disease or one of the various cancers), everyone dies eventually and these deaths are mostly later in life. Epidemics like the bubonic plague are not common and have not been known to occur in a very long time. The closest thing we have today to an epidemic (or some might say “pandemic”) is the AIDS outbreak. And while AIDS is certainly a huge problem (the BBC estimates 42 million people infected), it is also easily preventable. With proper prevention and the likelihood of a cure within our lifetimes, this virus will cease to create the dent many fear it will cause.

The lack of disease, combined with improved medicine and surgical practices, has increased the life expectancy rate in western countries. As of 1998, the life expectancy rate of America was 76, and we are seeing people celebrating their hundredth birthday more and more often. This is a large contributor to overpopulation. While the extra years of life probably will not mean an increase in children, the increase in age could be termed, somewhat morbidly, a “low turnover” rate. These older people present other issues — decreased housing and in some cases job availability. James Skemp points out that longer life does not always mean a better life. The fast food craze, if not stifled, is estimated to lead to one third of the children born today developing diabetes. Many people will have their life prolonged for years by machines, draining funds from their children and the health care system, all the while going on living without any reason to live left in them. Old age leads to numerous social issues as well, such as increased divorce rates, but these issues are unrelated to the topic of population control.

Malthus also credits disease as a misery, for the obvious reasons that people suffer from it and the cause is that of either fate or God, but hardly ever from any human malice (although an argument could be made many illnesses result from poor self-respect).

Three: Famine

Famine was once a feared phenomenon. When the food supply is gone, the people are soon to disappear with it. Malthus predicted that the rate of population to that of food be a ratio where people double (1, 2, 4, 8, etc) while subsistence would only grow in a linear fashion (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.). This prediction meant that the rate of people to food in 2030 would be 256:9. By 2130 it would have risen to 4096:13. However, famine and food shortages are less likely now than ever before. Genetic engineering has prevented many diseases and made plants invulnerable to certain insects. Also, the yield of crops has increased dramatically over the past few decades. Malthus never imagined genetic engineering, and even Heilbroner never saw this coming. Heilbroner quotes an expert in the 1970s who says that the crops will be wiped out and “in ten years” people will have to begin eating each other in Pakistan. To my knowledge, there was no massive wave of cannibalism in Pakistan in the 1980s.

Ironically, Thomas Malthus credits poor farming as a primary reason we are not all starving to death today. He says that poor planning, ignorance and bad government led to a misuse of the land which could have been handled in a more efficient manner. Basically, this slow rate of agricultural process meant we were given more land to lose. With proper technology, less land would have been required and today with shrinking farms we would have little or no usable soil left. An interesting hypothesis to consider that our ancestors’ stupidity leads in some ways to our prosperity.

Famine is the last of the three miseries I have listed. As with disease (and these are very closely related many times), this falls as a misery because famine is largely outside of our control. Other things Malthus credits as being miseries, but fall outside the scope of this section, include: unwholesome occupations, severe labor, exposure to the seasons, a shortage of food or clothing due to poverty, bad nursing of children, excesses “of all kinds” and infanticide. These topics are too vast and numerous to be covered on an individual basis here, but I believe the reader can deduce why these might lead to misery and a decreased population.

Four: Planned Parenthood

While these three options no longer have the effect they once did, the fourth option — planned parenthood — is having an effect like nothing else could. Planned parenthood is the option of waiting until later in life to have children, often resulting in people having fewer children and sometimes no children at all. This is not to be confused with “birth control” or “contraception” which are closely related and aid planned parenthood, but are separate ideas (one can plan their parenthood without using any contraception at all, for example). Women are going to school more now than ever before, pushing family (both children and marriage) back several years. Some women become involved in careers and decide to have only one child or none at all. Any time a couple has one child or less, they are helping to decrease the world’s population. And even if they have two, they are still maintaining zero population growth (ZPG). Families larger than two are becoming more and more rare in industrialized society.

Is planned parenthood something observed in third world countries? Not as much as we could hope for, as the next section better outlines. Due to religious views, ignorance, or other reasons, people continue to have kids in much larger rates in undeveloped areas. In all fairness, however, if the family is able to provide for the children then we cannot say that issues such as land use will be as much of a concern there as they are and will become here.

Whether “planned parenthood” is considered by Malthus to be a vice or an act of moral restraint depends on how we were to apply the concept. Malthus was raised in a strict (or at least less flexible) Christian environment and all attempts to prevent conception by artificial means are vice. Condoms, pills, injections and withdrawal (“coitus interruptus”) are all sinful in the eyes of Thomas Malthus. As you have likely deduced moral restraint is found in the act of reserving sexual relations until the time of marriage and then only when proper. It is not clear whether or not Malthus viewed sex as strictly procreation without pleasure, but he leans heavily in favor of using the act of love as a primarily progenitive procedure.

Population and Wealth

Just like land, there is a limited amount of wealth on this planet. For simplicities sake, let us say that wealth is money (though many other things are also wealth). Having a lower population increases personal wealth. The Waltons are a fine example of this. Sam Walton (the founder of Wal-Mart) had five children. Upon his death, his estate was divided five ways creating five of the wealthiest people in the world. However, this point can go two ways. If Sam had only had one child, they would have inherited the lump sum and given Bill Gates a run for his money (no pun intended). At the same time, when the five Waltons pass on, their wealth will be divided up amongst their children. Assuming they each had two or more children (and this is only an assumption, I have no idea) the wealth will be divided up even more to the next generation, watering it down more and more (although when you reach the point where even a small percentage is still many billions, it hardly matters).

A more practical application for this theory is the elimination of poverty. There are many causes of poverty, but population is one the most fundamental. If a couple is poor and they decide to have children, those children will likely grow up to be poor (though exceptions exist). The more children these poor folks have, the more destitute the children will likely be. The solution is to keep the number of children to a minimum. Poverty could be eradicated completely by simply not having children the parents are unable to raise [2].

In general, we can state with some certainty that wealthier people have fewer kids and poorer people have more. The increase in children creates the increase in poverty. At the same time, the increase in poverty seems to lead to more children being born. This vicious cycle must be broken to eliminate poverty. Also, reforms in welfare programs would be beneficial, but those are issues unrelated to population.

General Services

As the amount of people increases, the amount of needs these people have will increase alongside them. We have discussed the need for land and food, but James Skemp asks, “what about general services? Education? Medical?” He places special emphasis on the problem of people who do not pay taxes (expecting the benefits without adding their share of the contributions).

Unfortunately, I will not be addressing the issue of taxation. I confess the ability to adequately provide for people relies on taxes and on everyone pitching in when the time comes. However, the issues of how to tax people, what to do with people who do not pay, and the overall issue of people living within these borders illegally are political issues more in line with general economics and less to do with the population crisis. That is, as far as I can tell — if there is some relevance I missed, I hope to become enlightened on that.

The problems of medical and educational facilities is no problem other than the problem of land use, as already addressed. The placement of a school depends on the ability to use land properly. The same can be said for hospitals and clinics. Many times, we find that schools (and sometimes hospitals) are left abandoned because the city has grown away from them. Schools are generally built in young subdivisions where smaller children will be raised. In time, the children grow up and the need for a school in that area diminishes and the building is left collecting dust. Many school issues can be resolved by re-using these schools rather than building new ones. Also, not enough schools consider the possibility of building a second story to the existing building rather than relocating. Expanding the size will prevent another building that was placed on farm land, and also keeps the current building from becoming obsolete.

If we are concerned about staffing, I think this concern is the least of all. An increase in people leads to an increase in staff. While some teachers or nurses might have to move to find buildings in need of them, the issue of not having enough staff is a minimal one when resources are allocated properly. Along these lines, we might consider one benefit of population growth — the trend towards specialization. More people leads to each person focusing on specific issues and occupations. A century ago we would have one teacher for an entire school. Now we have teachers who teach only one subject and one grade. A century ago a family doctor treated us from birth to death. Now, we have doctors who spend all their time on one area of the body so we can be sure they are experienced and knowledgeable. [This conversely leads to less of a personal approach in both professions, but there is always a trade off when we try to improve anything.]

The issues of water and electricity, two very fundamental services affected by population, will be addressed independently.

Potential Water Shortages

Water is something we consider essentially unlimited. The planet is covered with roughly two-thirds water. However, most water is simply not usable or fit for human consumption. Salt water cannot be used without a desalination. The water we do use requires a thorough cleaning, as well. Unlike animals who simply drink the water and urinate the same water out in a self-purifying cycle, humans tend to add all sorts of things to the water. Pollutants from mills, hygiene products, human waste. The water we think of as endless is decreasing all the time by the way we use it.

I asked Tye VanDyck, an area geologist, about the water shortages worldwide. He was able to respond clearly and paid special attention to this issues that affect the people of northeast Wisconsin. VanDyck says, “Continually increasing population raises serious concerns with respect to available clean drinking water. Much of the water being used in many places comes from underground aquifers. These aquifers do recharge over time but at a rate much slower than that at which they are being tapped. The Green Bay area is already experiencing problems with drawing out water faster than it recharges. Despite purely political objections, the current plan of the Brown County Water Authority to extend a pipeline to Lake Michigan to service the communities involved will be an effective solution for a number of years to come, though it will likely be used in conjunction with the [existing] wells until such a time as they either become too contaminated or the aquifer is drained beyond practicality of use.”

Even the wells (aquifers) he speaks of are not guaranteed pure. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a warning that the radium levels are higher than legal limits. Arsenic has been known to be found in Wisconsin wells. And northeast Wisconsin, known for its paper mills, has long been dumping PCBs into the Fox River, with a clean-up project that may take decades to complete. Add this to the lead found in many lakes from fishermen (old bobbers were lead-based) and it is no wonder that water purification is not keeping up with the rate we use the resource.

Electrical Shortages, Blackouts

How many of us remember August 14, 2003? This was the day when the lights went out for 40 million Americans (1/7 of the population) and 10 million Canadians (1/3 of the population). The 2003 North America Blackout left many people wandering the streets and handed down financial losses estimated to be over $6 billion dollars. One hundred power plants (22 of them nuclear) were forced to shut down. Wikipedia also states:

“The phone systems remained operational in most areas, however the increased demand by people phoning home left many circuits overloaded. Water systems in several cities lost pressure forcing boil water advisories. Cellular telephones experienced significant service disruptions as cellular transmission towers depleted their reserves of backup power. Television and radio stations mostly remained on the air with the help of backup generators, or by relaying their broadcasts through the Grimsby transmission towers, which were online throughout the blackout. Most interstate rail transportation in the United States was shut down, and the power outage’s impact on international air transportation and financial markets was widespread.”

The cause of the blackout was debated, and some speculation still exists on precisely where the problems began. But two things were key factors here, regardless of the starting point. One was outdated equipment, using a massive grid that had not been kept up properly and fell far behind European standards. And the other was too many people using too much power at once causing a grid to overload and cause a virtual domino effect throughout North America.

A temporary solution is, of course, to update the equipment so the massive amounts of energy are better handled. However, as stated, this would only be temporary. With a population expanding daily, the amount of electricity demanded and pushed through the circuits increases daily, and it is a safe assumption that this was not the last or worst blackout we will ever see.

A long-term solution? Other than the decrease in people, there is no guarantee of a long-term solution. A shift from electrical grids relying on coal generators to other forms of power such as hydroelectric or solar would help decentralize the energy. But unless we find a way for each person to generate all their daily electricity by themselves, a grid of some sort must be in place and the possibility of overload always exists.

The Human Germ

Throughout this essay, we have considered the effect of human population upon other humans. But what of life outside of humanity? The socialist industrial band Snog, fronted by David Thrussell, propose the idea of looking at people in terms of “the human germ”. Picturing the Earth as a living organism, we are slowly devouring the resources and eliminating all other sources of life on the planet. While many of these problems can be traced back to a variety of problems (pollution, poaching, and more), the root of these is always the same thing: overpopulation. We can never truly become a part of this Earth until we realize we are but one part, not the only part. There is a balance to all things, and we have ignored it.

Will We Become Doomed to Overpopulate?

As pointed out in the world population figures above, the rate of growth has been decreasing and the estimates show it should continue to decrease over time. Yet, despite the growth rate decreasing, growth in general continues. Famines should become less common, wars should become less violent, and diseases in general will become more and more treatable. Will overpopulation become a problem and will the Earth be able to sustain us? Conflicting forces are at work here, and sorting them out is no minor task.

However, after weighing the evidence, my conclusion is simply that overpopulation is not the threat it appears to be, despite all these looming problems. As the population increases, so does technology. And we have finally reached a point where technology speeds along faster than population. By the time that population plateaus or even reverses, the technology will have far surpassed our needs and in this author’s opinion a near utopia might be born. Wealth will increase, supply will increase, demand will decrease. Essentially, if trends continue, we are heading for a land of plenty.

A lull will happen in our near future, and we will likely see the effects of overpopulation at play. But not long after this point, the population will have subsided and the effects will begin to reverse. Given the growth shrinking and technology improving, the reversal should take considerably less time than the buildup of such problems. Fate clearly has the upper hand here and the cure to the human germ is inevitable.

Just as long as nobody decides to start a nuclear war in the meantime…


[1] Heilbroner successfully argues that Malthus’ views are pessimistic and ultimately false. However, Heilbroner’s predictions are far too optimistic. My hope is that I’m able to present the objective truth here in a positive manner, balancing these two men in some fashion.

[2] I am speaking strictly in theory here. Obviously, putting this theory into practice or law would create a slew of ethical issues. China, for example, has a one-child law. While this law has done wonders for the Chinese economy, does it infringe on a person’s “right” to have children? Do people have this right? The can of worms is just waiting to be opened.

[3] Frederick Osborn hypothesizes an interesting theory. The abortions performed in 1953 were numbered at 1,068,000. Births were recorded at 1,862,000. Osborn supposes that given people’s general unwillingness to report an abortion, the actual number of abortions could have been even higher than the actual number of births. What would the Pope say?


“2003 North America Blackout”, Wikipedia. viewed February 17, 2005.

Ehrlich, Paul and Anne. Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment. W. H. Freeman, 1972.

Frejka, Tomas. “The Prospects for a Stationary World Population”, Scientific American, March 1973.

Heilbroner, Robert L. The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers,” 5th Edition. A Touchstone Book, 1980. [Note that this is not the most current edition, so the possibility exists I may point out flaws Heilbroner himself later accounted for.]

Huxley, Julian. “World Population, ” Scientific American, March 1956.

Malthus, Thomas. A Summary View Of The Principle of Population 1830.

Osborn, Frederick. Population: an International Dilemma Princeton University Press, 1958.

U.S. Census Bureau, various charts and statistics from their website, viewed February 3, 2005.

VanDyck, Tye. Internet communication via America OnLine instant messenger, February 15, 2005.

Also try another article under Miscellaneous
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

One Response to “Is World Population a Concern?”

  1. The Framing Business » Interviewed on Overpopulation Says:

    […] While researching for a paper he had to write, student Justin T. Dobson contacted me on May 2, 2007 with a handful of questions about overpopulation. Presumably, he found me via my essay “Is World Population a Concern?“. While his questions (and my answers) are by no means anything Earth-shattering or unusual, I am presenting them here for the sake of preservation. Also, I think this makes a nice contrast with the essay since this presents my viewpoints in more of a conversational and less of a professional style. […]

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