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Overpopulation and Population Control

by Roy Johnston

In the United States, the universal rights of the individual are commonly recognized. Unfortunately, in the fervor to uphold the rights of individuals, many people overlook the universal picture. By this I mean that the good of the whole will be sacrificed for the individual. Such is the state of the general population. I write this paper on the premise that the world is overpopulated. In light of this viewpoint, I advocate population control.

When I choose the topic for this paper, I settled on subject of overpopulation and population control believing it to be a new and unexplored topic. I was wrong by a long shot. Population was under intense scrutiny during the 1960'a and 70's (Wilmoth 334). Long before that Thomas Robert Malthus brought the overpopulation problem into the lime light in 1798 (Hardin 9). Why then had I never heard of this topic before? I found that the issue is extremely complex, broad and not well defined. It is impossible to hint at the scope of the problem in a five minute newsbyte or two column article. For this reason it is obvious that the issue does not lend itself well to be included in the main stream media. This subject is so expansive that I'll count it a job done well if I can just scratch the surface of it in this paper. Overpopulation and population control has implications in economics, the environment, sociology, philosophy, family, politics, religion, sexuality, and individual rights. Any one of these aspects of overpopulation is subject matter enough for an entire book. Another reason that the question of population may have trouble maintaining the public eye is that is an ever present problem. The current population of 5.6 billion has taken many millenniums to develop (Kii). Overpopulation has been recognized as problem since the late eighteenth century. It is difficult for this issue to find a place in a "news" article. Lastly, the issue of population control eventually draws in the issue of individual rights. In the United States limiting a person's rights is considered an act of monstrosity. Is it a wonder then that many people do not want to touch the issue.

"common sense tells us that per capita share of environmental riches as population numbers increase, and waste disposal necessarily becomes an ever greater problem" (Hardin 3). Surely a relationship as simple as this must be "common sense" but is it? Thomas Malthus was the first to bring this "common sense" to the world. He stated that as population grows geometrically and available resources increases arithmetically, then it becomes apparent that at some point the resources will be insufficient to maintain the population (Kii). But Malthus' "common sense" was criticized heavily. Why did his critics not see "common sense"? At our present state it is obvious that our "environmental riches" are in decline. All over the world masses of people live poverty. We know famine not as a periodical disaster but as a constant reality. How then by "common sense" can it be argued that we do not have a population problem. Yet, in a survey I conducted, 30% of the participants denied that the world is overpopulated. Apparently Hardin was wrong in stating that the simple, logical relationship between population and "environmental riches" is "common sense".

Even if the population/resource relation is not common sense it is nonetheless true. To see this one only needs to look at our primary resource: land. I think it is apparent that the amount of land on this earth is finite. At the current 1.7% growth rate the world population is potentially infinite (Hardin 11). It becomes obvious then that the more people there are, the less amount of land there is per individual. What of a person's right to space? Even if the world is not overpopulated now (which it is), it is certain that, continuing the present rate of growth, we will soon be. If we could say that each person needs only standing room (three square feet), how long would it take to fill up the earth at the current growth rate? At 1.7% increase (such a small number), the world's population will reach 529 trillion (such a large number) in just 686 years (a third of the Christian era). That is enough people to cover the earth with each person standing in a 3 x 1 foot box. Of course, people need much more land than that. The residents of Manhattan, New York, one of the most densely populated areas of the world, on average take up 435 square feet per person. Is it acceptable to cram everybody into a space this small? How nice would the world be to live in if it was just one huge Manhattan? This is just the space they take up. Much more land is needed to support these Manhattians. Their food comes from farms in the Mid-West. Their water comes from the watershed of upper New York. Their electricity comes from Canada. On average, each person in the United States is supported by nine acres of land (Hardin 121-123).

We do not only want to consider the food needs of each person but also the energy requirements of each person. In the nineteenth century, William Stanley Jevrons showed that the rate of increased energy consumption was exponential to population growth. In effect, energy consumption is an exponential rate of an exponential rate. Currently our major energy source is oil which is a finite source. How much do we have left? No one knows. The current known supply will last us 20 years. Discoveries of new reserves are always happening though. The frequency of these discoveries have been decreasing for a long time (Hardin 135-138). Hardin gives the year 2059 as the year that the last of the "economically recoverable reserves" will run out (48). Because of many variables this year is very arbitrary. How many more people will be dependent on oil when the last runs out? At the current 1.7% increase the world population will be more than double in 2059. There are those that say population increase is due to progress and you can't stop progress. Well, in 2059 when there is no energy to fuel progress, progress will certainly stop. What about alternative energy sources? At present there are no feasible alternative sources. Questions still hang about the safety of nuclear reactors. Solar energy is still way too expensive and land intensive (land that we need for future population).

Now let's talk about environment. In the future, when each person resides in three square feet, there won't be much room for trees. It only makes sense that when people move in, then environment moves out. Certainly the Sierra Club recognizes this fact. In its policy on population the Sierra Club states, "the 'population explosion' has severely disturbed the ecological relationships between human beings and the environment. It has caused an increasing scarcity of wilderness and wildlife and has impaired the beauty of whole regions, as well as reducing the standards and the quality of living" (Sierra Club). The environment is already the poorer for the exposure to human waste. The more humans there are the more wastes that is produced. Will we still be able to throw away when "there is no away to throw to" (Hardin 153).

It is hard to get upset over a population increase as small as 1.7%. To get a more realistic picture, sociologists and demographers view this increase in terms of doubling time. The doubling time is the length of time it takes for a population to double itself. At the current rate of population increase, the world population doubles every 43 years. In order to maintain the current standard of living, the production of everything else must be doubled in those 43 years. Quite a formidable task. Of course, doubling times vary from one country to the next. It can be shown that countries with low population increase enjoy a higher standard of living. Indonesia has doubling time of 43 years. In Mexico the population doubles every 31 years. These countries, like third world countries of similar doubling times, do not have a high standard of living. In contrast, the United States does have a high standard of living. Its population doubles every 98 years. Similarly, Belgium doubling every 330 years has traditionally enjoyed a high standard of living (Kii).

If one needs a model to envision the problem of overpopulation, all they need to do is look towards nature. In western Pennsylvania, where deer hunting is popular, the effects of overpopulation are common knowledge. In Pennsylvania, the deer's only natural predator, the wolf, was hunted to extinction. The result of that was a boom in deer population. Today the population remains in check only through heavy hunting practices. In justifying their right to hunt, any deer hunter can explain the following. When the deer's population gets too large, the herds will strip the surrounding area of all available food sources. From this there are two possible outcomes: migration or starvation. Hardin offer another example. In 1944, twenty-nine reindeer where introduced to St. Matthews Island in the Bering Sea. With no natural predators on the island, the population swelled to over six thousand. During the winter of 1963, almost all of the deer died of starvation (209).

O.K., the earth is over populated. What do we do about it? The easiest and most tempting answer is that we don't need to do anything: technology will take care of the problem. But, as I will show, this answer does not cut it. One argument is that we will be able to send future generations off to live in space. This is simply not, nor ever will be, practical. The most human friendly place in the solar system, besides earth, is the moon. The moon is not a very friendly place. So far, only 12 people have been to the moon and only then for very brief periods of time at enormous costs. It would be an incredible technological feat to be able to set up any permanent colony of any size on the moon. Suppose that one day 100,000 people could live on the moon. That would be less than half of the 258,000 people born this day (Hardin 12). Others argue that technology will help through increased food production. History has proven this not to be the case. Sociologists talk about the "green revolution". The cause of this revolution was the invention of hybrid grains. With these grains third world farmers were able to increase production by two to three times. This was great. The event was touted as the solution to world hunger. What happened next was not so good. Within the next five years, birth rates increased in proportion to the increased food production (Kii). The technological effect was nullified by population.

It looks as if we might have to do something to stop population growth, but what? This is where things become sticky. I know of no solution that is not controversial. In fact the bulk of what I have read offers only one solution. This solution is the voluntary use of contraceptives. This certainly seems to be the most acceptable solution. In my survey 82% of the participants felt that the use of contraceptives should be used at an early age. Even so, there are opponents to this idea. The most obvious might be the Roman Catholic Church (Hardin 247). Others feel that people have the "right to life" and the "right to reproduce". It is ironic the that these ideals may lead to the end of life for the entire population (Hardin 14). Even though voluntary contraception may be a start it is not the solution. It can easily be seen that this would not work in the long run. Those families and groups that recognize the value of constraint would be bred out of the population. They would not have the descendants to carry on their practices. On the other hand, those who do not practice constraint would have many children. These children would have no reason to feel compelled to practice constrain (their parents didn't). The children would replace the portions of the population striving to stop increase (Hardin 255).

Another solution is government regulation. Every woman would not be allowed to have more than two babies. This is a very unpopular idea. In my survey only 22% were in favor of government regulation. It is also an unworkable idea as China's birth control laws have shown. Actually in the cities of China the method seems to work. Growth has stopped. Unfortunately, since primogeniture is valued in their culture (boys are favored), as it is in many cultures, the press of forced constraints has skewed birthing rates. For various reasons, an unnatural ratio of boys born to girls born (110 boys for every 100 girls) has emerged. Even though China's efforts have been successful in the city, China's entire population continues to grow. Why? It is because their constraint laws are impossible to enforce in the countryside and borderlands (Kii). Here the population grows and by the effects of migration the cities also grow (Hardin 269).

Any other proposed solutions are rare in showing themselves. This is because any other solutions would necessarily step on the rights of the individual (as China's system does). This makes such solutions so controversial that they are difficult to support. One such solution is where each women is born with the right to have two babies. In this system proposed by Kenneth Boulding these "baby rights" would be like shares. They could be sold and bought on the open market (Hardin 272-73). In this system those who need or want more money for themselves can get it. Those who want large families would have to have at least some resources to be able to buy the necessary baby rights. They would be more likely to be able to provide for the babies they "bought".

Another idea is to pay women not to have children. The plan would only have to target women from 14 to 20 when fecundity is highest. For each year the woman does not have a child she would receive a reward. The arguments against this plan do not really center on human rights but cost. Certainly this program would cost a pretty penny. If, though, the cost of raising the children that would otherwise be produced is considered, the cost of the rewards pales by comparison. It is shown that a middle class family will spend $100,000 to raise a child in the United States. That is not including college (Hardin 272). Surely a young woman could be persuaded to postpone having children for much less than half that sum.

It should be noted however that the population explosion is not due to the rampage of birth rates. Birth rates throughout history have remained steady. The culprit is falling mortality rates due to nutritional and technological advancements (Hardin 181). Perhaps we should attack the population problem from another direction. It is logical that those who do not perform a useful function in society should be weeded from society. In other words mortality rates could be increased to match birthrates by killing those that are useless to society. Examples of such people would be the physically infirmed (the very old), the mental infirmed and those who commit serious crimes against society. I think it goes without saying that killing off people is very unpopular. Of all the participants in my survey, only 12% were in favor of such a policy. Even I cannot support such a solution. I believe the idea to be both logical and moral. In order for it to work though, man must take over the role of natural selection (or God?). I do not believe that mankind is developed enough to be able to fulfill such an enormous responsibility.

While staying on the subject of mortality, I want to ask the "right to life" activists a question. If a person has a right to life should not the reciprocal be true? Shouldn't a person have a "right to death". According to 94% of the 67 people I surveyed people should have the right to death. There are people that live on this earth by no ordinary means. Only by the brute force of technology is the Grim Reaper grudgingly turned away. These people that are bound by expensive medical machines see every day as an exercise in pain. They may have cancer or some other terminal disease. Some of these people know that their time has come and want to embrace the peace that death will bring. Should these people be denied their right? Should these people be forced to live in an overpopulated world to suck up resources that should belong to the healthy. I apologize if I overdramatize the point but if we cannot take measures to limit the number of babies coming into this world, we should at least let people have the right to leave this world.

That there is a population problem is clear. What is not clear is the solution. Many want to protect the rights and freedoms of the individual. They may want to do this even at the expense of society as a whole. I think Garrett Hardin got it right when he quoted Hagel, "freedom is the recognition of necessity" (6). We must recognize the necessity of population control. I think it can be said in all seriousness that overpopulation is the most formidable problem mankind has ever faced. In the words of Margaret Mead, "we are facing one of the great crises in the history of man. There are, almost everywhere, too many people" (Hartley 1). As I stated before, I'll consider it a job well done if this paper can even hint at the magnitude and complexity of this problem. To pass this trial of man, we will need an unprecedented amount of morality, wisdom and responsibility. If we do overcome this problem however, it shall be definitive proof on the superiority and greatness of mankind.

Works Cited

Hardin, Garrett. Living Within Limits. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993

Hartley, Susan Foster. Population: Quantity vs. Quality. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1972

Johnston, Roy and Deirdre Chriss. Survey. 9-13 February, 1996.

Kii, Toshi. Personal interview. 14 February, 1996.

Sierra Club. "sierra Club Policy: Population."

Wilmoth, John R. and Patrick Ball. "arguments and Action in the Life of a Social Problem: A Case Study of "overpopulation," 1946-1990." Social Problems, Aug. 1995: 318-43

Reader Comments

The following comments are posted here with the permission of the reader.

From: Dustin <>
Date: Tue, 11 Mar 2003 17:41:34 -0500

Hi Roy! I was just browsing the Net, and I found your essay on overpopulation. I just wanted to say that it was a very good essay - also it is something that I have a major problem as well, and I am totally with you on this one.

It sucks that not many people care about it, however it is a very serious issue. Personally, when I've thought about it, China's solution didn't seem like such a bad one. After reading your essay you have given me valuable insight into overpopulation - and how China's solution may not be the best one.

There is one solution that you may have overlooked. You said that it is expensive to raise a child, right? (I live in Ontario - and right now many students are in debt because of how expensive university is) - paying people to have 2 or less kids is a really good idea. You said to pay teenage women NOT to have kids, but the other way would be to make sure families do NOT HAVE more than 2 kids. There are a few ways they could do this. The government could pay for each child's education (first and second), including university or college, and if they want more children university and college will be very expensive - jack up the prices or something. The government could do other things - free health care for the 1st and 2nd child (although we already have free health care in Ontario :) ). I'm not sure if just *giving* people money will actually accomplish anything, but discounting children for education and health care (I can't think of any other thing right now) could be a sta! rt. What do you think?

I'm not sure if you're a farmer - are you? If not, I'm sorry. I have great respect for farmers, although I am not one myself. In the future, and with the increase in population, I think it would be a great idea to have whole countries - or maybe just parts of countries - devoted to farming.

Anyways...if you want to email me back, that would be great! Thanks a lot, again!

From: "Matt Borden" <>
Date: Sat, 01 Feb 2003 03:23:19 -0500


I was reading your essay on population control. It is certainly a problem that we will have to address in the coming decades. You had a number of things listed as causes for population growth. I would agree that technology plays a role, certainly modern medicine allows for a longer life span. This does not explain the exponential growth. The solutions listed are all unviable. As proven by the implementation of those solutions.

I would like to present another cause for steep population growth, agriculture. I say agriculture, though what I mean is intensive and invasive agriculture. At some point in the past what we refer to as the agricultural revolution took place. It was also around this time that population started to increase at an unsustainable rate. Prior to this "revolution" agriculture existed, but only to supplement hunting and gathering. The agricultural revolution was actually just a new way of farming... destroying all but one desired crop. This was a new world order for homo sapiens... and would be our motivation for centuries to come. Abundance of food cause population growth, population growth was responsible for expansion, which in turn was the cause for extermination of entire races. (ie. Native Americans)

You will find that in the ecological community food availability causes population growth. You cited a good example with the deer. The population increased in response to the availability of food, then crashed as the population exceeded the ecosystems ability to provide. This would happen to our species if not for the production of food. We are not exempt from the laws of life and our population grows in response to food availability.

It is a misconception that we produce more food to feed more people... one that you can hear in any college class. Not even in acadamia do they acknowledge that food production fuels population growth, instead they say that we increase food production to feed the increased population. In fact, more people are starving than every before, and food production is doing nothing to feed those that are starving. Instead food provides the means for starving populations to reproduce at an even higher rate... providing more starving mouths to feed. We have artificially increased the population in places where food is scarce. Large scale famine is caused by agriculture... not cured by it.

The solution? I do not really know. Stopping the over-production of food is a tough undertaking... and something that would certainly be misunderstood. The masses would claim that any person supporting reduced food production is trying to starve children. Unfortunately at some point, sooner or later, there is going to be a famine to rock the foundations of our civilization.

I would welcome any thoughts or comments on the topic and hear what you think.

     Matt Borden

March 7, 1996
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