This article was last modified on May 8, 2007.

Interviewed on Overpopulation

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.

Let the questions begin…

JD: Please do me the honor of describing a moral way to lower the world’s population.

GS: Lowering the population in a moral way is a very difficult thing to do. I do not feel it is right to force people into not having children, and it is never right to kill someone to lower the population (such as in a war). I think there are probably only two ways to lower the population morally: allow people to decide that they do not wish to have more than two children or offer some incentive (such as a tax break) to encourage people to have fewer kids. Many European countries are now having fewer kids without any incentives at all, so it’s very possible that in the future having one or two children will be the norm and the population will lower on its own.

JD: I have heard that China has/had an effective way to solve the problem at hand through a series of laws passed. Is this true? If it is please describe the way that they accomplished this.

GS: China’s method of population control is effective, but probably very immoral. They did pass a law allowing a couple to have only one child, as you said. This raises the question: does the government have the right to tell a person how many children they can have? Most people would say no. Also, you might have heard that in China males are more powerful than females, so sometimes female babies are killed by their parents so they can have another child. Obviously, any law that pushes people to kill their own children is not a good idea, even if it is effective.

JD: Realistically, is overpopulation an issue that many people think about today? If not, when was it an issue and in how many years do you believe it will be an issue?

GS: I don’t think people consider overpopulation a serious issue. I’m also not sure if they ever did. People will consider it a serious issue when the population reaches a breaking point. However, I think many people are concerned with the byproducts of overpopulation: pollution, global warming, the cost of gasoline, available living space (housing in New York is much smaller and more expensive than in the Midwest). So overpopulation is important to many people who don’t know that it is.

JD: How many people can the planet support?

GS: I am not the best person to ask on how many people the planet can support. I have heard many different numbers. The answer will depend on science’s ability to keep up with the human population. We have modified plants to produce more food and less waste, for example. If we had not done that, it is likely the planet would already be greatly overpopulated. Can we continue to improve science so we don’t run out of food or pollute the air/water to a point it’s unusable? Our diets, in general, do not support a large population: eating animals rather than plants requires far more farm land and waste. We get only a fraction of the raw energy from a cow that we would from the grains that a cow eats. I am not a vegetarian, by the way.

JD: What are a few radical methods to solve overpopulation?

GS: I think anything besides allowing people to make their own choices is a radical method to reduce the population. Encouraging war is radical, letting famines go unchecked is radical, allowing pollution to get out of hand is radical. I think any radical method is probably immoral. Even the Chinese law is probably radical because it goes completely against human nature and the biological urge of humanity. For extremely radical methods, you might consider putting people to sleep at a certain age (see the film “Logan’s Run”) or drawing names from a lottery to be killed. Perhaps make game shows more violent where the contestants might die (such as in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film “The Running Man”). Lastly, maybe a push to have more fetuses aborted. These methods are obviously not going to be very popular and have many moral questions.

JD: What are some realistic methods to solve overpopulation? For example: war, although I understand that going to war for the reason of eliminating overpopulation is not a justified reason, nor is it moral.

GS: For me, a “realistic” method to lower the population would not be any different from a “moral” one (from your first question). If it is moral, it is probably realistic. And if it’s realistic, it is probably moral. I don’t think people would have objections to choosing on their own to have fewer children or accepting a tax credit for holding off a few years to have children. These are both very sane and acceptable choices. Others probably exist, but offhand I cannot think of any — it is not a problem I’ve ever put much thought into.

Further Questions (May 7-8, 2007)

My friend and colleague James Skemp submitted two more questions on the issue of overpopulation in response to this piece. While they could have been placed in a comment at the bottom, I feel they are best addressed as an addendum to the original article. If further questions are submitted by others, I have no objections to adding them on to here, as well.

JS: You don’t think the Earth is overpopulated already?

GS: No. I think at the present time certain parts of the Earth may be overpopulated, but the Earth as a whole is not. There may be more people on Earth than I’d like, but that’s a subjective rather than a scientific issue. As I understand it, enough food currently exists for everyone to be fed if distribution could be perfected. And also, many of the countries with starvation problem could also have improved agriculture if the proper funds and education were provided. As for simple living space, more room no doubt exists. In America, we have congested cities (such as New York and Los Angeles) but we also have entire states (Montana and Wyoming) where if the population were spread out evenly, they would have to walk a mile to see another human being. China and India probably do not have such regions, but as I said as a whole the Earth is probably not at full capacity just yet.

JS: So, what would you consider to be overpopulation? Does the definition include some sort of standard of living?

GS: As with anything, I think the definition of a term is probably the most important aspect of any discussion. So I’m glad you asked this. I was working with the very tight definition of overpopulation: the point at which the Earth can no longer sustain the lives of the people. Basically, the point when it is simply not possible for all humans to survive under the current conditions.

Any good definition of overpopulation should probably rely on some idea of a standard of living. I am using the most minimal standard — what is Earth’s threshold? If there is a particular standard that is used, I am unaware of it. And I think most standards would probably be arbitrary. I am just saying if all humans on Earth can, in theory, intake what they need to maintain homeostasis (2000 calories a day, clean air and water) the Earth is supporting them and I could not say the Earth is overpopulated. I could say it is poorly distributed or mismanaged, but probably not overpopulated under the strictest of definitions.

JS: Should we allow the population to reach the overpopulation point? Should we really be packed in like sardines, or does the very fact that cities like New York and L.A. exist suggest that we should be looking at this problem now?

GS: I absolutely think we should look at this problem now. But as I suggested above and in my earlier essay on on overpopulation, the problem confronting us is not overpopulation directly but rather the byproducts of overpopulation — unclean water, unclean air, living space, urban sprawl, crop yields. These are the issues to deal with.

Whether we “should” allow the population to grow or not I think is a moot point. I don’t control the population, and as I’ve stated I don’t believe it’s morally right to tell people what they can or cannot do with their reproductive desires (generally speaking — a court order to limit children for families who cannot support their own kids may be reasonable). So whether we should or not, I think morally we have to allow the population to grow at the pace Providence allows it to grow. Do keep in mind, I think any decrease in human population is a good thing, so I’m not by any means encouraging people to cover every last inch…

JS: Do you think we’ll resort to moral needs, or radical ones, when the time comes?

GS: With most things, I’m overly optimistic about the human condition. I tend to think things will always get better, even if they temporarily get worse. War will decrease, global warming will be a nightmare of the past. I feel the same way about population control. As I believe I stated above, a number of European countries are actually losing their population. And look at America: as education increases (particularly in women) the age of marriage is pushed back, which reduces the number of children. Couples in general prefer one or two kids today over the large farming families of the past. There’s also the interesting phenomenon of single mothers: young single mothers tend to have only one child, and if they get involved with a man who is not the father, they often will not have a second child. This effectively makes the rate of childbirth 1 child to 3 parents, even lower than married couples.

In short, I have no reason to believe at this point we’ll ever have to resort to radical or moral means to lower the population. In a strictly “what if” situation where such a thing would occur (which I doubt), I suspect we would not resort to moral or radical means: I think it would come down to the simple case of those who can afford food and housing will and those who can’t will suffer. As much as I’m optimistic and would like to think we’re becoming a society where the poor are aided when necessary, I still think they’ll be the first to be left behind if a crisis comes. But I stress a third time, I don’t anticipate any such crisis.

JS: You’re not mentioning “third-world” countries. I can only speak from the small amount that I’ve read, but while it’s true that many countries are seeing a decrease in population, like the U.S. and European countries, that’s not the case worldwide.

GS: That’s a valid observation, and you’re right: the population is exploding in pre-industrialized countries such as those found in the Middle East and Africa. The CIA World Factbook for 2007 (available from their website or they’ll be happy to mail you one upon request) shows that almost every one of the top twenty-five countries as far as birth rates are concerned is in Africa (with the notable exception of Afghanistan in fourth). The countries least capable of supporting their own people are the ones having the most children. And the population worldwide does continue to increase. Note also, that while Europe (particularly Scandinavia) and the United States have low birth rates, the lowest are actually in Hong Kong and Japan. Draw your own conclusions.

The population explosion in the third world is a real concern, and it becomes a global concern because while it’s easy to blame the people of these countries for having children they cannot support, it is also a moral obligation in my mind to assist those less fortunate than us regardless of how they became less fortunate (children do not choose to be born into poor families). Africa does not exist in the minds of most people; the entire continent is more or less useless to the civilized world (with South America not far behind). And this is not good, from a moral perspective.

Once more I’d like to stress my optimism on the overpopulation issue — while these countries are having too many children, the Earth as a whole could support them. And over time these birth rates will decrease, as well. But I should point out that while in the industrialized world there is little to do to lower the population morally, in the third world there is much more we can do: encourage education, push for fair trade (not “free” trade) and other things to help end the third world mentality. Education’s prominence in Europe is the key reason the population decreases in my opinion, and I have no reason to suspect it would affect other places any differently.

In the meantime, reducing the burden of starvation should be something we consciously think about. In America, we have the government buying up surplus crops that go to waste each year while other countries starve. I’m not an agricultural expert by any means, but I think if Ethiopia and Somalia, for example, had better (more “modern”) farming techniques, they could greatly reduce their droughts and famines. I might be expecting too much, but I don’t think so.

So I guess the point I want to make is: third world overpopulation is temporary. Once education increases and global awareness and cooperation increases (which is bound to happen soon with the world shrinking) they will start having comparable birth rates. It would not be unrealistic to say the world’s population will reach it’s peak (and start declining) by 2050.

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

10 Responses to “Interviewed on Overpopulation”

  1. James Skemp Says:

    1. You don’t think the Earth is overpopulated already?

    2. Do you think we’ll resort to moral needs, or radical ones, when the time comes?

    This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past couple months, but generally about for much longer … so I’m glad you brought it up.

  2. James Skemp Says:

    Expanding upon number 1’s response:

    So, what would you consider to be overpopulation? Does the definition include some sort of standard of living?

    And, should we allow the population to reach the overpopulation point? Should we really be packed in like sardines, or does the very fact that cities like New York and L.A. exist suggest that we should be looking at this problem now?

    Expanding upon number 2’s response:

    True, however, you’re not mentioning “third-world” countries. I can only speak from the small amount that I’ve read, but while it’s true that many countries are seeing a decrease in population, like the U.S. and European countries, that’s not the case worldwide.


    As an aside, one benefit of replying, even if only to say “I’ve amended by article.” is that people who subscribed to one of your articles (like me when I replied) get notified of your response, and hence your update.

  3. gavin Says:

    Fine, James, I am replying right now… by the time you check the page it will be updated. :)

  4. James Skemp Says:

    Thank you :)

    I’ve read over your comments but am exhausted, and will get to them in the next couple of days. I can say, with my tired mind, that you haven’t heard the last of me (if nothing else, then to comment on Japan, and ask how you can say one thing but say something similar to the opposite a short time later).

  5. gavin Says:

    I don’t understand where you mean that I say the opposite. What about Japan? If there’s an inconsistency, I’d be happy to try to be more clear or correct myself if I wrote contradictory statements.

    I do thank you, sir, for the questions… as you no doubt imagine, this is benefiting my own thoughts just as much if not more than yours.

  6. James Skemp Says:

    I don’t recall where I was going with Japan …

    Highly advanced civilization, small amount of land to build upon, great culture … ?

    I’m not sure that teaching more people to fish would really help with overpopulation. The earth has in place certain protective measures that keep populations down; it’s balance. What’s the grade school example? If there’s a lot of deer, the wolf population will grow. If the wolves grow, there’s less deer, and therefore the wolf population goes down.

    Man may believe that he transcends nature, but that does not mean it’s so. Granted, man may be starving man in many of these cases – there’s plenty of food, but it’s not being dispersed by those in power – but starvation is, at it’s root, natural.

    Granted, starvation is a bad way to die, and we should work to prevent it. However, I believe we should prevent starvation in our own countries before we help those in other countries. Yes, it may be that in particular cases we could do more world-wide good if we help an outside country, but there’s always another country to help, or the same country to help, if the country itself does not move into action.

    Now, what’s my question …

    “Once more I’d like to stress my optimism on the overpopulation issue — while these countries are having too many children, the Earth as a whole could support them. And over time these birth rates will decrease, as well. But I should point out that while in the industrialized world there is little to do to lower the population morally, in the third world there is much more we can do: encourage education, push for fair trade (not “free” trade) and other things to help end the third world mentality. Education’s prominence in Europe is the key reason the population decreases in my opinion, and I have no reason to suspect it would affect other places any differently.”

    While I agree that education helps decrease an increase in population, I’m not sure that injecting education into a system which has not come upon this knowledge itself will be of any good. After all, there are other factors, like religion, which come into play here.

    More importantly, we have the environmental impact. China and India are becoming / have become countries to reckon with. However, while they have the education, the technology is not respected. Instead, the environment is often lost in lieu of human development.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have numbers, but I would guess that as technology in these countries increased, imports of food stuffs would increase. High-level education doesn’t help people procure food directly, but rather indirectly through the sale of non-edible goods.

    Perhaps some, yourself included, would like to believe that we’re not giving these people high-level education. But, I don’t think you can stop at “here’s how to effectively farm.” Or, if you do, those you’ve educated will naturally (?) move towards more …

    Does any of that make sense, Gavin?

  7. gavin Says:

    I do not object in any way to the deer/wolf example. If nature did not provide enough food for humans and human died, I would say that humans would have to starve. I do not believe we’ve reached that point at all, though.

    The rest of your question I’m unsure how to answer in the piece… it’s rather long to add it in like I have been doing. But I’ll say what I can in this spot:

    I don’t know that religion outweighs education in any real sense. Was there a religion you had in mind? Certain cultures might keep education in check, but I think with regards to having children that education is still the more dominant force. Globalism, likewise, is making education stronger than culture even more so… the “old ways” will fall off like skin from a snake.

    Not clear on where you’re going with the technology v. the environment point. It’s a good point, but I’m not sure where you’re connecting that to overpopulation. (My assumption is you’re implying that a destroyed earth will hurt food and air and water and hurt people, but I don’t want to assume.)

    I understand your point about food producing and food importing, and you’re probably completely correct on that. I wouldn’t bother to dispute it. As far as the levels of education provided, teaching people to farm effectively, etc… maybe you’re looking for more of a point than I was trying to make, or maybe I’m completely off base. Setting aside the levels of education which would lead to a lower population, the first thing to do is to sustain the population you have — through better farming. I have not been to Africa, but I think it’s safe to say that many areas of Africa could be much more fertile if proper irrigation was used, lessening starvation. Just yesterday I saw a piece in Time on how the Gates family is helping Africans to get better crops.

    There are other issues and I’m oversimplifying for the sake of brevity (I didn’t go into this with the intent of justifying every offhand remark). Besides poor farming, such places as Somalia also need to deal with drug addiction and warlords… this situation prevents both the proper farming and better education. Overpopulation, like all issues, is a complex thing. I guess if I were to just make one point, it would be this: every complex issue is made of smaller, less complex pieces. I would rather be hopeful on the smaller pieces than be overwhelmed by the daunting big picture. All problems have solutions, even overpopulation.

  8. James Skemp Says:

    I guess I’m pessimistic about overpopulation; I think it’s going to continue to be a problem, and I’m not sure that Hollywood feeding the starving in Africa, or any other country, is going to be of much help – rather, I think it will only make it worse. Without proper checks in place, survival means continuation of the species (id est, birth), which means more people, which means fewer resources per person.

    It’s horrible to not want to help these people, who are clearly suffering, but (and maybe this is the Schopenhauer in me) aren’t we really just continuing the suffering?

    We’re assuming that human lives should be saved, but I’m not exactly convinced that this is the case. Of course, as a human, an educated one at that, I believe that human lives are important, and that we should do all we can to save lives. Yet, if I step away from my perspective on the world, and think as a philosopher, there’s no real evidence that suggests that man should be saved.

    True, he can create some very beautiful things, but he can also seem quite like the pest. We’re taught through many mediums (see “The Fifth Element”, most religious texts, etcetera) that we’re at the top (of the food chain) and that we … deserve? whatever the word I’m looking for is … to live, but where’s the evidence?

    Anyways, that’s where I’m coming from, and from where I was trying to argue, without saying it outright (albeit unsuccessfully, it seems).

    Religion outweighing education: Abortion comes to mind immediately. Specifically, having morning-after pills available at clinics for women who were raped is under fire because it may be against the beliefs of doctors. A certain vocal and rich minority would prefer that these not be available because of this. In short, religion is not rational; it may have rational aspects, but religious thought != rational thought. In order to preserve itself, it has to make itself above ‘the laws’ of man.

    While not directly related to overpopulation, it is related to birth; don’t have sex, but if you are going to have sex, we’re not going to give you protection …

    Yes, I was going in the direction of low-tech has a disastrous effect upon the environment, something that we can’t even foresee. Man, as a thinking animal, and a striving being, will attempt to survive as long as possible. And, if he can survive in ease, all the better. Of course, this isn’t always to the best.

    I believe Wisconsin Public Television had a special on China’s technological growth; more people driving, less biking, higher standard of living … but the environment is suffering, and so too are the people. Less biking = more weight problems, more factories = more pollution.

    Yes, through technology we can make, for example, swamp land fertile. But, does that really mean that we should?

    Something from Kim’s ethics class comes to mind, “just because we can save a life, does that mean we should?”

    Is man primarily a rational animal, or an emotional animal? What impact does that have on his decisions?

    I’m writing this over lunch, and I’m still fighting off something, so I’m sure the above has gaps, but it at least seemed coherent when I wrote it ;)

  9. gavin Says:

    You have completely given up on trying to be brief, haven’t you? Again, I will answer what I can.

    I see the point on religion (anti-abortion and failed abstinence-only education) but I think it’s overstated. If religion is winning the war on abortion, it fooled me. People of all religious stripes seem to “bracket” their faith when abortion comes into play.

    Yes, Chinese people are biking less, driving and eating more. But as we learned from “An Inconvenient Truth”, they are also driving cars that pollute far less. Does this balance out? No. But I don’t want to think of China as somehow being “behind the curve” of technology. They pollute less per person than Americans do, beyond a doubt. So they’re not the (chief) problem.

    Your last two points, which are really beyond the scope of this article:

    1. Should man be saved? While I would like nothing more than man to become extinct in place of some higher being, this isn’t happening any time soon (though some would say we’re evolving a little each day). And I think there’s probably some threshold to cross in determining if one should be saved. If man CAN be saved and this is capable in some reasonable capacity, I can’t see why not. If things become unreasonable, let them go. (Perhaps you’re talking about such issues as euthanasia, which I support. If there’s a euthanasia for the human race, I would also support that. But I don’t think we’re suffering enough to justify it.)

    2. Is man a rational or emotional being? In my view, man is an emotional being and must overcome tis with rational thinking. Most of us fail. Plato was right when he said that man is more concerned with pursuing his appetites than the truth. I think it’s safe to say if man were rational by instinct, a great many of our problems would have been solved ages ago.

  10. James Skemp Says:

    Gavin, I do believe you’ve answered my questions at this point.

    However, I’m not convinced that China has stopped growing (along with other Eur-Asian countries, like India).

    But, that’s another article altogether.

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