1. Home
  2. Thoughts

Overpopulation – the human plague

“Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, maybe we should control the population to ensure the survival of our environment.”

– Sir David Attenborough, The Life of Mammals

Populate and perish! Overpopulation has become a topic of great concern to me, but one that seems taboo in our economic-growth-obsessed society (and one that usually seems to invoke indignant reactions). I don’t consider it an exaggeration to regard overpopulation as the single greatest threat to humanity’s existence and environment today – most ailments afflicting society can be traced back to too many people competing for dwindling resources.

The world’s human population reached approximately 6.5 billion in 2006, 6.72 billion in November 2008 (only 7 years earlier, in 1999, it reached 6 billion), and continues to grow alarmingly – in 2011 it reached 7 billion. Humanity is now in plague proportions, putting an immense strain on the Earth’s environment. Cities, urban sprawl, roads and traffic are spreading like grey cancers over the continents, smothering the land underneath with concrete and asphalt. Wilderness areas are disappearing because of this encroachment, and many other species are pushed into endangerment or extinction.

Even worse, the type of society that has developed – one based on the pursuit of endless consumption – is ultimately unsustainable as resources are voraciously consumed. The immense amounts of waste produced because of this pollute the environment (plastics are particularly noxious as they can take thousands of years to break down). Humans are effectively fouling their own nest. The more humans there are, the fewer resources there are for everyone, and there is a subsequent decline in quality of life.

In the natural world, animal populations tend to increase in times of plenty, but die off when famine inevitably strikes – the “boom and bust” cycle. Technological innovations such as the “Green Revolution” – increasing crop yields through use of pesticides and artificial fertilization – have allowed the human population to reach an artificially high level and bypass this cycle … at least for the present era.

It is not unlikely, however, that our current industrial civilization will ultimately collapse, like others in history before it, such as the Mayans or Roman Empire. The collapse of this current one will, however, be many times worse than previous collapses as there are so many more people, and it is dangerously fragile and interdependent due to globalization – much of what we consume is obtained from far away, usually other countries – and reliant upon environmentally-damaging forms of intensive agriculture.

Battery hens and apartments

Screen captures from the Baraka film: caged battery hens and overcrowded slum apartments – not much difference! Unpleasant and stressful conditions for both species.

A little-noted aspect of high populations is that the more people there are, the less the individual matters as an individual is easily replaced (unless they possess a valuable skill or talent). It is impossible to see a population of thousands or millions of humans as individuals; they instead become an amorphous mass. Humans originally evolved in small family and tribal groups where most people knew each other (the upper comfortable limit seems to be two or three hundred). To live in a city of millions is thus a dehumanizing experience, and leads to stress and dysfunction. Even if a large population could be supported, would people really like to live in high-density regions, packed into multi-storey buildings like unfortunate caged battery hens? I certainly wouldn’t, and humans did not evolve to live like this.

Here’s China. How would you like to live there? Look at all those little window A/Cs. They’ve got power, at least for now. Humans can be packed in. Do you want to live like a termite? Are we termites? Come on, I want to be up on top of the hill where that chair is and I want to have some space around me – don’t you?

People don’t seem to want to think. We still allow people to have more than two kids. We encourage reproduction. We actually give you a discount for having kids. You should have to pay more when you have your first kid – you pay more taxes. When you have your second kid you pay a lot more taxes, and when you have your third kid you don’t get anything back, they take it all. Our tax system is completely backwards. But, then, so is our whole economic system.

– Eric R. Pianka, “The Vanishing Book of Life on Earth”

She glanced down between her boots through the transparent deck of the ship as it passed over the center of Jejeno. The city was both a tribute to isenj engineering skills and an indictment of their stupidity. The forest of asymmetric towers – bronze, brown, copper, tan – and narrow streets created endless canyons. Shapakti said that it was an echo of isenj origins as termite-like animals living in giant mounds, but Esganikan had seen almost identical soaring buildings in the images of Earth. It was how greedy species built: it showed space was at a premium because they had filled it and out-priced it – yes, she understood Earth’s economy now, she understood it very well – and they didn’t care about the intrusion on the landscape. It was a statement of their contempt for all other life.

– Karen Traviss, Ally

His scathing assessment was being submitted to the main opposition Conservative Party’s policy group focusing on quality of life. “Putting 10 million aggressive hominids into close proximity and inviting them to engage in serial acts of competitive individualism … for jobs, schools or parking spaces, could not be considered a reasonable idea,” Bayley said. “You put rats in claustrophobic circumstances and they become homosexual, murderous and cannibalistic in no time at all. Instead humans find ingenious solutions, underground car parks, coffee shops, Chinese takeaways, one-man buses, cycle lanes, tall buildings.”

– “London’s a rat hole,” Sydney Morning Herald, 8 August 2006

We touch on the subject of city dwellers, my tribe, as it happens. We’re a kind of helpless, infantilized race, in Bill Mollison’s eyes, living in a doomed dreamworld, lucky if we know how to tie a granny knot and incapable of feeding ourselves without the aid of a supermarket, a bijou delicatessen or a restaurant that hangs as rustic decor the kind of bushman’s tools he grew up using.

Cities, “cancerous” and “parasitic,” are the most unsustainable systems in the world, he says, sucking up resources and spewing out waste. “Look at New York. It doesn’t produce a single thing for anybody anywhere. It has no product of relevance to human beings. It’s just a great shit heap.”

– “A man for all seasons,” Fenella Souter

Finally, even most Asians choose for suburbia with lush gardens, when they get the chance (prosperity) for it. Their living in huge and densely packed concentrations is an adaptation out of economic necessity rather than a social preference. We humans haven’t diverged that much since we left the East-African savannas, and we still prefer the parks landscape.

Comment, Centauri Dreams blog

Competition for employment is another negative effect of overpopulation. Various jobs have become more automated and efficient, requiring less manpower (or else jobs are “outsourced” to countries where labor is cheap) yet the population continues to expand, and all these “surplus” people need to find some means to make a living. They face a highly-competitive “employer’s market,” in which employers have a huge resource pool to choose from and can thus afford to be selective about whom they employ. Unfortunately, for those who don’t have the appropriate skills, menial, low-paying jobs (mainly in the service industry) are often the only option (if they manage to find work at all – some less desirable alternatives are to turn to crime, or starve to death). Higher education to attain the requisite qualifications is expensive and beyond the reach of many, so a lot of people may remain in such unfulfilling dead-end jobs all their lives – a dismaying waste of potential.

There is also the “spillover effect”: many citizens of highly-populated countries emigrate to seek opportunities they can’t find in their homeland. But economic immigration can incite resentment amongst a host country’s citizens, who have to compete even more for jobs (and some of the latter in turn might emigrate to other nations). There are only so many habitable places on Earth, however, and space colonization is a long way off, if it ever eventuates – therefore, overpopulated countries can’t expect to keep exporting their surplus people.

Drastic solutions are needed, and politicians and businessmen should stop irresponsibly urging people to have more children to “boost the economy” – the economy can’t keep growing indefinitely (as they seem to think it can) as there are only finite resources on Earth (and in space). The Earth’s environment is not coping now with nearly 7 billion humans; how much worse will it be when growth reaches 8 or 9 billion by the middle of this century as predicted?

The much-publicized “solutions” for climate change such as carbon emissions taxes or living more frugally are only superficial actions that do nothing to address the basic cause of environmental problems: more people competing for ever-dwindling resources. Reduce population growth and humanity’s environmental impact on the Earth will also be lessened.

Fewer humans will therefore make life pleasanter for everyone.

Rather than endless economic growth, a steady-state economy is a more desirable option; one that is not dependent upon ever-increasing consumption to function.

Let’s have a stationary world as opposed to one that’s based on growth-mania where everybody has to elbow the other guy and compete to get to the front and be concerned about who’s going to win and who’s going to lose every day in the stock market. In a stationary world, we can focus in on things that really matter – I love Mill’s phrase “the art of living.” Let’s get to work on improving the art of living.

– Eric R. Pianka, “The Vanishing Book of Life on Earth”

The problem with agriculture

In 1987, scientist Jared Diamond wrote an article provocatively titled “The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race” – the “mistake” in his opinion being the development of agriculture that supplanted humanity’s previous hunter-gatherer existence. “With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.” It also enabled populations to expand far beyond their natural limits as food could be produced in much greater quantities than a hunter-gatherer lifestyle provided. The industrialization of agriculture – the mass planting, mechanized gathering, processing and export of crops – accelerated this expansion even more during the 20th century.

This, however, comes with a downside – if crops fail, mass starvation threatens as most people are entirely dependent upon food imported from distant farms, and there is no way hunting and gathering could sustain 7 billion people, even assuming they had the requisite skills (which most don’t). Most people in developed countries have been shielded from famine and are accustomed to an endless, even over-abundant supply of food (with the accompanying health problems). They are shocked at images of starvation from developing countries, but this is what happens in the rest of the natural world – Nature can be ruthless. This boom-and-bust cycle is inexorable: animal populations flourish in times of plenty, but are depleted when food becomes scarce.

The only way for humans to sustainably circumvent this cycle without mass starvation or, conversely, inflicting huge environmental damage, is to curb population growth and restrict how many children are born. This goes against natural instinct to reproduce profligately in times of plenty, but ensures that there will be enough food for everyone in leaner times. Adopting such a policy, however, would involve radical changes in how society functions – abandoning the infinite growth policy that economies are addicted to – and few would be willing to undertake this; certainly not governments or businesses who encourage growth. We are effectively trapped in a vicious cycle of more people requiring more food production which in turn encourages yet higher reproductive rates.

Agriculture requires huge amounts of land for crops, and this is another source of pressure upon wilderness areas along with cities. A worrying 2011 report in Time magazine is “Africa Blossoms: A Continent On the Verge of an Agricultural Revolution.” The expansion of agriculture in Africa is presented in a positive light here, but the continent’s endangered wildlife are already squeezed into nature reserves due to a growing human population, various animals unable to follow their ancient migration routes anymore. (The few hunter-gatherer peoples still living their traditional sustainable lifestyle are similarly threatened.) Agriculture will only add to this environmental destruction.

Another article on this theme is “AGRICULTURE: Ending the World as We Know It” by John Feeney.

China’s problems

China currently has the largest population (over 1.3 billion as of 2007) and it continues to increase (India is following closely with an estimated population of 1.2 billion as of 2009). Since the 1980s it has attempted to rein in this growth through a one-child policy, but this has had only a limited effect and many citizens try to circumvent it. A few groups such as ethnic minorities are also exempt from this law.

China needs to keep its economy growing to provide jobs for all these people, and thus must scour the world for more and more resources (such as minerals and metals). But there are only so many products it can make, only so many jobs it can provide, and the process of production is hugely damaging to the environment – consider the millions of plastic toys with the “Made in China” label which will eventually end up in landfill, polluting the environment for centuries. It shares the world with other countries competing for dwindling resources. This could all end in catastrophe before the end of the 21st century.

China’s one-child policy is criticized by those in Western democracies who see it as an impingement on individual rights. But China can’t afford to otherwise relax this policy – its already-huge population is having a worldwide environmental impact as they become more affluent.

Clearly, a rising birth rate would place an enormous burden on China’s social and medical infrastructure, which is far less developed than physical infrastructure like roads and rail. A change in emphasis will be essential. Hospitals will need vast new infusions of money and other resources. The weak system of homes for the elderly, child-care providers and other social services will have to be greatly expanded.

TIME magazine, 29 May 2008

Where will the money and resources come from to provide for a massive population?

China also faces one of the most skewed sex ratios in the world: men outnumber women 1.2 to 1. The male surplus, which means many Chinese men will never be able to have a family, creates an ominous future; already, an underclass of young male thugs is proliferating in Chinese cities, a group easily recruited for crime. In Beijing’s worst nightmare, these angry young men could turn against the state. As scholars Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer wrote in a 2004 book, in the mid-19th century unequal sex ratios, which left men idle, contributed to armed rebellion in the Chinese countryside.

A radical solution might be to cull (as in kill) the surplus young males – wars, in fact, already tend to do this, though in a somewhat uncontrolled manner. In fact, that is something that could be done in any society with a surplus of single, young, unemployed males between 12-25 years (who tend to be the most troublesome elements – just consult any statistics for violent crime). A study called “Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population” focuses on the social implications of surplus males.

What happens to a society that has too many men? In this provocative book, Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer argue that, historically, high male-to-female ratios often trigger domestic and international violence. Most violent crime is committed by young unmarried males who lack stable social bonds. Although there is not always a direct cause-and-effect relationship, these surplus men often play a crucial role in making violence prevalent within society. Governments sometimes respond to this problem by enlisting young surplus males in military campaigns and high-risk public works projects. Countries with high male-to-female ratios also tend to develop authoritarian political systems.

Hudson and den Boer suggest that the sex ratios of many Asian countries, particularly China and India – which represent almost 40 percent of the world’s population – are being skewed in favor of males on a scale that may be unprecedented in human history. Through offspring sex selection (often in the form of sex-selective abortion and female infanticide), these countries are acquiring a disproportionate number of low-status young adult males, called “bare branches” by the Chinese.

Hudson and den Boer argue that this surplus male population in Asia’s largest countries threatens domestic stability and international security. The prospects for peace and democracy are dimmed by the growth of bare branches in China and India, and, they maintain, the sex ratios of these countries will have global implications in the twenty-first century.

Sounds harsh? Well, as a female, I have been menaced a few times in public over the years by groups of young males (verbally so far, not physically) for no apparent reason than being a female by herself – boys in groups seem to develop an irresistible urge to harass any vulnerably-looking females. Feeling threatened like that is extremely psychologically distressing and I have no way to retaliate (I do fantasize about eviscerating them). So, given that, my attitude has hardened and I would feel a lot safer if there were fewer aggressive young males around. How would you identify the aggressive ones, as, of course, not all males fit this description? One way is to catch those who roam the streets at night in groups or gangs – I see the results in my neighborhood the next morning (graffiti, vandalism). Another is to target those convicted of violent crimes. Note that humans don’t hesitate to cull other species (some being elephants and kangaroos) – species that are seen as being in competition with humans for land and resources.

Back on topic: China must therefore take stronger (and perhaps unpalatable) measures to reduce its population growth if it wants to keep its society stable.

To other worlds?

One solution much-touted by spaceflight advocates is to alleviate overpopulation on Earth by expanding into and colonizing the Solar System, (and, eventually, extrasolar planets) and exploit these other places for the resources required. The colonization of the Solar System is feasible in theory with current technology, but this would require people to live in artificial environments for however long they stayed in space; not a desirable prospect for most compared to the richness of Earth’s environment. Terraforming is way beyond humanity’s abilities for the foreseeable future.

Offworld colonies, assuming governments and private corporations were willing to fund them, could at best support a few thousand people, and transporting them to the colonies would be a years-long process with the only propulsive means now available, chemical rockets, which are slow and inefficient. Given these present-day restrictions, possibly habitable worlds in other solar systems are simply too far away to be contemplated, unless one is prepared to spend thousands of years’ traveling time in some sort of space ark. Any volunteers?

The Solar System is regarded by advocates as a near-limitless source of resources, and they see no need for humanity to restrict its growth; indeed, an expanding population will eventually force humans to expand its presence off Earth. I have some interest in the space program, but have become exasperated with the disdain that space colonization advocates have for suggestions that humans should try to live sustainably on Earth. They seem to take such views as a personal insult. An example of this thinking is Stephen Ashworth’s space advocacy website, which contains essays such as Why Go Into Space?, where he asserts that expansionists are morally superior (!):

The expansion of human activities into outer space is therefore an integral part of the growth of modern Western civilization. It is an assertion of our values of tolerance, liberty, progress, reason and democracy. Anybody whose main concern is to suppress or destroy this civilization will quite naturally find nothing of interest in space.

This to my mind is a disturbing example of hubris: of the Western mindset that the Earth and other worlds are there to be conquered and exploited by humanity; that humans are the pinnacle of evolution (“We are no mere ‘environmental abnormality’; we are here for a purpose; we are what nature has been working towards – unconsciously, unknowingly – for billions of years” – source). Space colonization with this attitude is a continuation of the policy that has caused so much devastation to Earth’s environment; of enabling reckless population and economic growth without care for environmental consequences.

A more realistic view of the Solar System “safety valve” theory:

Exoplanets as safety valves for excess populations or as new resource-providers are a non-starter on numerical grounds, quite apart from any technological, financial, physical, humanitarian or sociological objections that there may be. At most, at enormous cost, we may within the next century or two establish small inhabited outposts on the Moon, Mars and perhaps some of the asteroids or a moon or two of Jupiter (which would at least though, provide some refuges against dinosaur killers). Even if it were to be possible, the emigration of excess population to other planets can only postpone the moment by a few centuries when the population of all planets exceeds the capacity of those planets to support it. Neither can exoplanets be expected to provide replacements for dwindling terrestrial resources. Even within the solar system the cost in terms of the consumed resources of (say) mining a small asteroid would exceed the value of any useful products by a large factor. The same comment would apply a million million million times over to any attempt to provide any supplies of any material items from even the nearest exoplanet.

– Chris Kitchin, Exoplanets: Finding, Exploring, and Understanding Alien Worlds

Can Space Colonization End Overpopulation?” at HardSF gives a good overview on why space is not a solution to overpopulation.

Domestic animals – the other overpopulation problem

As the human population has expanded, so has the numbers of the animals domesticated throughout history, the major species being cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, horses, cats and dogs (see “Farm Animal Populations Continue to Grow”). These animals have traveled with humans to every inhabited continent and become invasive species, competing with native animals for food and living space, and usually displacing the natives. An xkcd diagram shows that humans and domestic animals vastly outnumber wild creatures.

Domestic animals that are farmed require vast tracts of pasture for feed, and this, along with agriculture, results in clearance of wilderness areas. This National Geographic diagram from 2014 shows the percentage of undeveloped/wild land (46.5%) to agriculture (38.6%) and other (urban, etc.) (14.9%); a ratio likely to worsen for undeveloped land in the next few decades.

Animals kept as pets – such as cats and dogs in Western culture – can escape and become feral, breeding in vast numbers; this also applies to various farm animals. Australia is a sad example of a continent with unique indigenous species that has become overrun by the various introduced domestic animals since European settlement; the latter have caused much environmental damage, along with the industrial civilization that developed since then.

One solution is to encourage less consumption of meat; this, however, will not help the environment much if human population continues to grow, as farmland is still required for agriculture. If human population is stabilized and decreases, eating less meat will be more effective.

The other is to greatly restrict pet breeding and ownership; this would cause a lot of outrage amongst many, but is necessary to reduce the environmental impact such animals have. It would also see far fewer unwanted animals euthanized each year.


In this section are ideas for combating the overpopulation problem (which would applied to all countries equally), in order from the benign to the unpleasant. Some of these verge on the totalitarian, but with so many countries either unwilling or unable to regulate their populations, they could be seen as necessary measures! Otherwise, Nature will – sooner or later – deal with excess populations far more brutally.

Some people would – with tedious predictability – try to subvert these measures (a lot of people seem to lose all rationality when it comes to reproduction) so harsh punishments would be necessary to discourage this (e.g. compulsory sterilization, or even the death penalty as an extreme deterrent).

One irritation in fiction is that population control is, more often than not, presented in a negative manner; as part of a draconian system that the main characters rebel against. (Examples can be found on the Population Control page at TV Tropes.) I wish authors and film makers would show some responsibility and stop depicting such characters as heroic. The population rules are often there for good reason – such as conserving scarce resources – and characters who rebel are in fact selfish and irresponsible, and thus deserving of whatever punishment they receive.

What would an ideal population figure be? Probably no more than one billion (1000 million) – a look at the World population estimates page at Wikipedia shows that the human population up to the 1800s was under this figure, and humanity did not have too much impact on the environment until the Industrial Revolution, when the population began a rapid increase.

Relatively benign methods

The following methods are already in use in many countries and are effective long-term strategies, but they can take decades for the results to show:

Coercive & passive measures

Draconian measures

Extremely unpleasant and last-resort measures

Personal impact

Melbourne has been undergoing rapid population growth since the 1990s, and this has put great strain on its infrastructure, as well as driving up house prices. The demand for housing is seeing overdevelopment in the suburbs as described on my Crimes against architecture page, ruining their ambiance. If this trend continues into the future, as it seems it will, Melbourne will not remain a livable city but turn into an overcrowded slum, as so many megacities are in the world – and they are extremely nightmarish and unpleasant places to inhabit if you like open spaces and nature.

The Victorian State Government keeps enthusing about how wonderful population growth is; how this proves Melbourne is a desirable place to live and how it will boost the economy, and so on. (I get so infuriated at this that I just want to slap some sense into the offending minister/s!)

In a speech that could have been ghost-written by any of the aforementioned Canadian growth-a-holics, Premier John Brumby of Victoria spoke of his Government’s plan to “manage growth,” because you see, growth is inevitable, and growth projections must be treated as, if anything, “pessimistic,” i.e. conservative. Thus Melbourne is going to grow at least 44% by 2030, with 6.2 million people by 2020. “Demographer Bernhard Salt has projected we will regain our title (sic) as Australia’s largest city within 20 years.” Note that the Premier treats a population growth plateau like a sports trophy to be raised aloft in triumph. Melbourne will regain its “title” like Muhammed Ali regained his title against George Foreman. Similarly when Victoria was “losing” people in the 1990s, presumably the state of Victoria was a “loser.” But now “the exodus has been turned around and people are now voting with their feet in favour of Victoria.” It is as if Premier Brumby is fighting an election campaign and people moving to Victoria are casting a vote for him. A commonplace illusion among Premiers, Governors and Prime Ministers.

– “The ubiquitous rationale of growthism

They seem to not comprehend that such growth will destroy what makes Melbourne so livable: its low housing density and suburbs with space for gardens. Melbourne was not designed to be a high-density city and was all the better for it. Traffic is now horrendous and the dilapidated public transport system can’t cope with the population we already have. I dread to think what the city will be like in another decade or so.

I have never had any desire to have children, so I at least will not be contributing to population growth!

Unlike the fertile lands of Europe or the USA, Australia is a dry continent with ancient, nutrient-poor soils – much of it is desert, as a satellite map shows – and thus it cannot support a high population, something those who want to fill Australia up with people are unaware of (or don’t want to know). Boundless Plains? at Mark O’Connor’s site also shows maps of Australia’s relatively small proportion of abundant rain and fertile soils.

The Aboriginal peoples survived for 40,000 years or more on the Australian continent as hunter-gatherers, their sustainable lifestyle having minimal impact. European discovery and settlement was arguably the worst disaster to affect Australia’s fragile ecosystem, short of an asteroid strike. In only 200 years or so, much of its unique fauna has become extinct, flora has been damaged or wiped out (whole forests cleared), and exotic species introduced, irrevocably changing the environment here. The destruction continues apace. Continued population growth will only put more pressure on what remnant native life remains.

Various Australian politicians have been expressing concern about the supposedly declining birth rate for the last few years. The following newspaper article is an example of this kind of warped thinking:

Business of babies

A businessman is spending $200,000 on newspaper ads urging Aussies to have babies.

Electronics multi-millionaire Gary Johnston, 56, aimed to draw attention to the population woes in full-page ads in major papers.

“Where are the next-generation Shane Warnes or Ian Thorpes going to come from?” the Sydney father of four asks.

“The few young people left will be too busy taking care of old people, alongside being taxed out of existence.

“Something must be done to reverse the declining birth rate, and I hope this ad may help bring the matter to the attention of people still in a position to do something about it.”

Mr. Johnston, 56, has also put up $1 million for research into Australia’s water crisis.

Herald-Sun, 24 April 2006

I wonder if he has made the connection between Australia’s INCREASING population and the ongoing drought and water shortage crisis. All he has to do is look at China, which has a huge population and is undergoing an environmental catastrophe. Given the environmental problems such as global warming and ever-scarcer resources that face humanity in the coming decades, urging people to have more children is irresponsible in the extreme. The main reason why businessmen like him want an increased birth and immigration rate is so that they can make more money from more people.

Australia’s birthrate has in fact been increasing, in part no thanks to the “baby bonus” payments introduced by John Howard’s Federal government in 2004, and which subsequent governments refuse to abolish. Apart from this, there are also generous family government benefits for each child.

As far as I am concerned, the fewer people the better. As noted above, I sincerely hope that some scientist genetically-engineers a contagious virus that would sterilize most of humanity! Little else seems to be effective.

There are a lot of people concerned with the overpopulation issue; unfortunately few get into positions of influence. Below are some websites and articles. I also keep a blog, Populate and perish, where I comment on many more articles.



The Year of 7 Billion specials:

Updated 29 Dec 2015