Overpopulation: The Real Crisis

This article by Dr. Eric R. Pianka originally appeared on the University of Texas at Austin.

Unless we reduce our population, resource scarcity will accomplish the decrease in human numbers and painfully so, via plagues and famines.

We have made a real mess on this planet. People are finally awakening to some of the many consequences of overpopulation, such as global warming and peak oil. Everybody expects technology to come to our rescue, but technology is what got us into this precarious position in the first place. Technology only leads us out onto thin ice. Humans are not exempt from the laws of nature. Everyone wants unlimited cheap clean energy, but they fail to recognize that global warming is occurring precisely because the earth can no longer dissipate excess waste heat. More energy consumption will exacerbate and accelerate warming, which will destroy our spaceship’s life support systems. All our problems stem from three underlying causes: economic systems based on perpetual growth, runaway greed, and – most importantly – too many people on our planet. Earth simply cannot support all 7.5+ billion of us.

Where did we go wrong? Until about 10,000 years ago, humans lived off the land in harmony with nature. The earth could support our much smaller population of hunter-gatherers, who harvested natural resources and lived in equilibrium with other plants and animals. All that changed when we made our first big mistake and invented agriculture. Agriculture allowed us to produce more food, which in turn generated more people. Humans became much more sedentary and built cities. Urbanites lost touch with nature. We began deforestation in earnest, clearing natural habitats to make more land for agriculture. We invented money and economic systems based on continual growth. These, in turn, facilitated greed: wealthy people could now control the less fortunate. As the rich got richer, political and legal systems became necessary. Every time food supplies ran out, humans expanded to new lands. Then came the industrial revolution and the burning of fossil fuels. We began high-grading Earth’s bountiful resources, all the while expanding our population. The saying “Go west, young man, go west!” worked until eventually west met east and we encircled the entire planet. We thought (and some still do) that we could go on increasing indefinitely. But we have hit limits.

Now, soils are eroding ten to hundreds of times faster than they develop, oceans are warming and acidifying, coral reefs are dying, biodiversity is imploding, natural gas and petroleum are being depleted, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are a third higher than in pre-industrial times and climate is going into convulsions, as indicated by more ferocious storms. All these phenomena are symptoms with one fundamental underlying cause: too many people. If we continue to go on with this steadfast refusal to recognize limits in a finite world, it will be our undoing. Current global economic systems based on perpetual expansion of capital require population growth to increase markets and cheap labor. Coupling such growth-crazed economic systems with human greed will ultimately result in the collapse of civilization.

We want a world with health care, shelter, food and water for all, but such an egalitarian world cannot support as many people as currently exist on our planet. Unless we reduce our population, resource scarcity will accomplish the decrease in human numbers and painfully so, via plagues and famines.

Just as the pharmaceutical industry targets symptomatic relief for man-made ailments rather than addressing underlying root causes, widespread attention to the many spin-offs from growthmania and overpopulation diverts attention away from the underlying causative problems.

Humanity has a fatal disease – its symptoms include runaway greed, our insane economic system, starvation, peak oil, global warming, selfish corporations and ineffective government. Humans are rapidly destroying our one and only spaceship’s life support systems: Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, commons we all must share, are threatened, perhaps irreparably. Faith in rapture and/or technology will not save us from human nature. If humans are to survive, we must confront reality and find ways to control human instincts, including our greed and our innate urge to procreate.

Eric Pianka is an American biologist, whose work includes herpetology and evolutionary ecology. His textbook, Evolutionary Ecology is considered a classic, and his writings for the general public and television appearances have made him an influential figure.

Eric R. Pianka: Domino Effects Narrated

Overpopulation – We Beat Around the Bush

Al Bartlett – Democracy Cannot Survive Overpopulation

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8 COMMENTS

  1. It is often stated that 10,000 years ago we humans lived at one with nature. Leaving aside the various complexities involved I do believe this to be a basic truth.
    The main problem with this statement is that it is only partially correct. There were people living in this manner in Canada, where I come from actually very recently. Variable and depending on when heavy european settlement/invasion happened but certainly it would have been very easy to find people living in this manner 200 years ago and in truth could even have been experienced in the mid 20th century in a few last places.
    This is important. The fact of this other way of living with the earth may be a relatively and variably long time past for europeans and those of the middle east, there are others where it is a mere generation or two and remembered. We tend to like to wipe those cultures off the face of the earth. This, I do believe, is what is known as, a bad habit.

  2. Among us are humble Chinese who produce far more in their lifetime than any North
    American, and live on remarkably less! Distribution of wealth in this once communist country has become very capitalistic? There are now far overweight Chinese!

  3. Usually the people who talk about overpopulation disregard footprint. If Americans, at about 350,000,000, were accounted for by our carbon footprint, we'd count for 18 billion. So, the best place to reduce overpopulation is in the developed countries, where our use of the earth's resources is the highest. No more than one child per family, and no children should be encouraged by preferential tax treatment or other incentives.

  4. The “over population” of the world is usually brought back to balance by how humans respond to overcrowding. Sadly for millions of us we are currently in the middle of this cycle, just look at – antibiotic resistant super bugs, civil unrest in The Middle East, Africa, southern USA, Europe, South America, drug lords, mafia, environmental destruction everywhere – all of these problems are causing or will cause hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide. Some of these catastrophes have been with us since human civilisations began and will never not be part of our ongoing evolution. So has intelligence, the ability of the enlightened few to see that we can persist and overcome the issues. Renewables will succeed to provide us with the energy we need to do just that, persist. As far as population control goes, we need to tackle this issue by addressing religious beliefs and the basis for them. We need to be critical of who is telling us what and why. We shouldn’t just take on the “facts” and assume that they are correct. We should be aware of manipulation of statistics to prove what an interested party wants to prove. Intelligence is what has got us here, I believe it is what will help us survive and persist.

  5. If you believe the world is overpopulated kill yourself and your family and wipe out YOUR genes to save the planet. If you believe the world is overpopulated repeal universal health care. If not you contributing to the problem and are a hypocrite.

    Should it be my children that don’t exist?

  6. "Humanity has a fatal disease – its symptoms include runaway greed, our insane economic system, starvation, peak oil, global warming, selfish corporations and ineffective government." Totally agree. In the west, the covert manipulation of government by multinational corporations who just want more and more people to sell stuff to is destroying true democratic representation Ben Elton's "Stark" no longer sounds so way out any more.

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