Overpopulation as a local problem

By Jan van Weeren | 24 October 2023
The Overpopulation Project

(Credit: Dreamstime.com)

Overpopulation is commonly associated with global ecological overshoot, but it can occur at any level from the local to the global. Ecological overshoot in industrialised countries is complicated by labour migration, especially in urban areas. Population pressure on top of ecological overshoot should force these countries to reconsider overly permissive immigration policies.

It is a straightforward definition: if a country or region cannot sustainably support its inhabitants, it is overpopulated. It applies to rabbits, deer and human beings. It holds for the Earth and its inhabitants. The renewable resources of our planet are not sufficient to cater to present day human consumption. However, the conclusion that humanity would require 1.75 Earths to sustainably support the world population does not imply that the inhabitants of all countries on Earth are in overshoot.

If we take the ecological footprint as a useful indicator of human carrying capacity of nations, then it turns out that some countries have an ecological deficit whereas others have an ecological reserve. According to this logic, the average inhabitant of the latter countries has a smaller footprint than he or she is entitled to have according to the available biocapacity. Unfortunately, in many cases this ecological reserve is not a surplus one can freely use without negative consequences. If countries such as French Guiana, Suriname, Congo and the Central African Republic would start logging on a large scale, sell the timber and turn the forest into cropland, then the world’s capacity to sequester CO2 would diminish and our total carbon footprint would increase. The privilege of sharing one’s country with globally important wilderness areas does not confer either the feasibility or the right to transform them for human use. In most cases, these areas are ill-equipped to provide for humans, which is why they have escaped transformation to date.

But the ecological footprint does not tell the whole story about overpopulation. It is based on the regenerative capacity of nature; non-renewable resources such as (finite) fossil fuels and minerals are disregarded. Secondly, the scope of the measurement unit is generally too broad to take into account specific details.

For example, the biocapacity of Sudan is in balance with its ecological footprint. Nevertheless, the country cannot sustainably support its population without food aid from the UN’s World Food Programme. This year, the situation has become worse due to an armed conflict between two warlords.

Additionally, we will have to accept the fact that many countries would not be able to sustainably support their inhabitants, even if they reduced their ecological footprint to 2.14 global hectares per person, estimated as the minimum associated with acceptable standards of welfare. This can be seen on this map from a recent study of sustainable national ecofootprints:

Figure 1. The countries currently in positive eco-balance (the country’s biocapacity exceeds its ecological footprint) are in green. In light blue are countries with a biocapacity sufficient to provide greater than 2.14 global hectares per person (considered the threshold for an acceptable level of welfare) but requiring a reduction in consumption to achieve sustainable eco-balance. Orange countries do not have sufficient biocapacity to provide adequate consumption levels to their current population, and would need to reduce population to sustainably achieve adequate welfare per person without dependence on international transfers. Note: on this map several countries such as Sudan would exceed their biocapacity because of a risen level of welfare. To date their per capita footprint is well below 2.14 global hectares per person.

We are inclined to see overpopulation as a non-local problem: “there are too many of us”, or alternatively: “there are too many consumers on Earth”. However, overpopulation is essentially a local problem. I mentioned the harsh situation in Sudan, and going forward there will be more examples of such places where the carrying capacity of the region is insufficient given projected population growth.

But local overpopulation is also a huge problem in high income countries. Their current ecological overshoot is aggravated by a continuous influx of more people, especially in Europe and the US. About 3.6% of the world population are migrants and 0.3% are refugees. The number of international refugees increased to 26.7 million last year; this amounts to a percentage of the world population of 0.33%, which was more or less the same in the nineties. In 2020 there were worldwide 281 million international migrants, both legally and illegally. Increasingly, these flows are driven by poor circumstances in the sending country rather than genuine labour demand in the receiving country. According to the African Youth Survey 2022 almost half of 18- to 24-year-olds in 15 African countries said they were thinking of emigrating.

Migrant workers do not distribute equally over the surface of host countries. As with gravity in space, there are spots in that surface with much more attraction than others. That is where the problems arise and overpopulation becomes a serious local issue. This holds even for countries which are not overpopulated according to the definition given at the beginning because of their biocapacity surplus.

For example, Canada is experiencing a population boom with 437,000 immigrants last year and 1.45 million more in the preceding three years. There is a housing crisis, especially in Canada’s major cities. These immigrants do not spread over the land, but concentrate there. The already overburdened health care system will become more and more overstressed. Australia with its ecological reserve faces similar problems. A population growth of 496,800 last year exacerbates the housing shortages and infrastructural insufficiencies. See here and here.

Things get worse in countries with a huge ecological deficit. Switzerland and The Netherlands are unable to redress their overshoot, even if they would adopt much lower per capita consumption as can be seen in figure 1. In the last two decennia, the Swiss population has grown by 21%. Last year 145,985 persons were added, bringing the total number to 8.89 million. In the same year the Dutch population increased by 227,000 individuals, bringing the total population to 17.8 million people. Both countries face a housing crisis and heavy strains on public services such as health care, education, transport, electricity and water supply.

Like mass in space, industrial activity is unevenly distributed over the Earth’s surface, and centres of industrial activity will attract migrant workers in the same way as mass causes gravity in space. On the following map you can identify countries where migrants are expected to continue contributing to population growth, although many of these countries are already in an ecological overshoot, which cannot possibly be countered by sobering down to a much lower level of consumption.

Figure 2. This handout from the Wittgenstein Centre in Vienna shows actual and expected demographic evolution in Europe. The upper row shows the changes during the first twenty years of the century. At the left see the total population change, in the middle the change due to births and deaths and at the right the change caused by net migration. The total population of countries in Northern, Western and Southern Europe has grown, in some cases substantially. Bottom left shows the aggregated projection for the year 2040. Strong population growth is expected in Norway, Sweden, UK and Ireland, France, Belgium and Switzerland and to a somewhat lesser degree in Finland, Denmark, The Netherlands, Austria, Greece and Spain. The population in countries in Eastern Europe as well as in Germany, Italy and Portugal is expected to decrease. Total population growth in Northern, Western and Southern Europe will be caused mainly by immigration (bottom right) and not by natural growth (bottom middle) which is low or even negative in some countries.

Another indicator of dense human activity is the emission of nitrogen dioxide (from industry, intensive cattle farming, and traffic). This registration made by the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite shows hot spots in and around major cities. Large hot spots are found in The Netherlands and Belgium, the Ruhr in Germany and in Northern Italy. In mountain regions NO2-concentrations are remarkably low.

Some countries in the world are in ecological overshoot, some are not. Countries in especially high overshoot attract people from abroad who will immigrate both legally and illegally, tempted by employment and the level of welfare these countries have to offer. These immigrants add many new feet to the national footprint, often in situations where strong population decrease is the only possibility left to restore eco-balance (see Figure 1). This forces these countries to reconsider the necessity and desirability of immigration.

Do we want to have societies in which food production, parcel delivery, cleaning, elderly care and childcare is done by an underclass of servants? Do we want distribution centres, slaughterhouses and horticultural companies which can only survive by exploiting foreign workers? Should higher education not be restricted to inhabitants of the country that pays for it and prepares its students for the national labour market? Should companies not employ them instead of hiring people from abroad?

Additional questions come to mind. Do we want a society in which a minority of well-to-do people enjoy the profits of heavy immigration, whereas blue collar workers in depressed districts have to compete with newcomers for jobs and housing in a living environment where their mother tongue is hardly spoken anymore?

In situations of severe overpopulation, we must rethink mass migration.

Reprinted with permission from Frank Götmark – Project leader of The Overpopulation Project (TORP); Professor, Animal ecology and Conservation Biology, University of Gothenburg.

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