Overpopulation? No Way!

Jan Narveson

“Human numbers are still rising in many countries. California’s population is growing faster than India’s; Americans born today will retire in a nation with more than half a billion inhabitants. This is frightening, given that even the present human population consumes 40 percent of Earth’s biological productivity.”* There seem to be some who still profess to think that in some interesting sense the world has “too many people.” What could make such a claim true?

Thomas Malthus was famous for claiming that human population constantly presses on resources, making it inevitable that many people will starve, others will be driven to war, and so forth. Yet if facts are allowed to count on this matter, it is surely not so. The population of Earth roughly doubled in the second half of the twentieth century despite two enormously destructive wars. Yet at the end of that century, all humans—including the poor ones—were eating more and better than were the far fewer at mid-century or the still fewer at the outset of that century. And, oh, yes—during this same period, world forest land also increased mightily. Nice! How could this have happened?

The answer is both absurdly simple and yet radically profound. We do not depend on the earth or natural resources for the goods we have. Instead, we make them. And as the years go by, more and more ingenious people find more and better ways to grow food, make houses, cars, and all the other paraphernalia essential for what most of us consider the good life. What’s more, there is simply no reason to think either that the end is in sight or that there will be an end at all, at least in the even remotely foreseeable future.

Let’s take food productivity as an example. One way to grow more food is to plant more, on hitherto-uncultivated land. Yes, but another is to grow more food on the land you already have. And there turns out to be yet a third way, as we’ll see shortly. But first, about using land: In 1969, it was estimated that by the best available agricultural methods, the amount of land needed to grow one person’s food supply indefinitely was about twenty-seven square meters, which is the size of a fairly large living room. At that rate, I calculated, the total amount of land needed to feed the entire world’s population as of around 1990 was an area about the size of the Canadian province of New Brunswick—Canada’s second-smallest province. The amount of good agricultural land in the world is simply thousands of times that size. Of course, it isn’t all cultivated that intensively—yet. But it doesn’t need to be. Meanwhile, the yields per acre of more or less everything keep going up and up.

However, a new method of growing food has been developed, called “hydroponic farming.” This is a fabulously efficient way of raising food. The number of people who can be fed with a modest-size hydroponic plot is something like five hundred. And the amount of land used by this method is, in fact, zero. I recently saw a sketch of a building that would house a couple of thousand people; all the food necessary for feeding all those people would be grown on the middle few floors of the skyscraper in question. This was not a sci-fi fantasy—it was an actual, realistic architectural plan. Hydroponic farms are extensively in operation today and will no doubt burgeon in the future if and when those many more people that overpopulation scaremongers worry about arrive on the scene.

Of course, hydroponic farming requires water, fertilizers, etc. But none of those resources is exhaustible. Plants are natural recyclers: the stuff of which they are made turns into soil on which more plants grow, etc.

We use energy in the process—lots of it. But then, the ultimate source of human energy is the sun, which radiates several thousand times as much energy as humans actually use. It’s just a matter of harnessing that output more efficiently, which, again, year by year, we are slowly doing. Will we run out of gasoline and such? In principle, presumably, some time in the far future, we might. But who is so naive as to think that we will still be driving around using internal combustion engines by then?

Obviously we have other problems, such as the currently fashionable favorite, global warming. To live is to have problems. But to live well is also to solve those problems to the degree necessary. The real point is simple: so far as feeding, clothing, and entertaining many more billions of people than we have today is concerned, there simply is no problem. We are not all going to starve or whatever.

To set the record straight, it has to be pointed out that in all of the wealthy countries of today’s world, the output of new people per person is declining and is already very far below replacement level in, for example, all of Western Europe and Canada—only immigration keeps us afloat. What’s more remarkable is that family size in central America and even the solidly Muslim Middle East is also declining. Demographers are more likely nowadays to think that the world’s population will peak in a few decades and then start downward than that it will increase indefinitely at the rate that makes Tom Flynn shudder with anxiety. However, the point of this short essay is that it doesn’t matter, because there simply is no “limit to growth,” no “carrying capacity of the globe.” The supposition that there is rests on technological myopia, which in turn tends to assume technological ossification. It isn’t easy to find a less promising mindset than that.

It is to my mind very odd that people claiming to be “humanists” have so little appreciation of human capacities that they suppose we are incapable of producing what we need. One would have thought that a humanist would be pretty confident in the productive powers of his or her fellows. I certainly am.

Nor do you need anything in the way of “faith” to think this. You just have to look around you a bit and note a few pointers about the world we live in now as compared with the world that Thomas Malthus lived in—or that Tom Flynn, apparently along with legions of others, thinks we live in. Of course, lots of people in the world are very poor by our standards. But first, the only ones who are outrightly starving or near it are those who live in countries rent by civil war or other major aggression, or by government incompetence of mega-proportions (as in Zimbabwe, say). Second, not only are the world’s poor generally becoming better off, but more important, there simply is no inherent reason why they shouldn’t be. The world is still rubbing its eyes at the advances the Chinese have made since their leaders finally abandoned the mind-numbingly absurd “communism” of the Maoist era. Since those bad old days, literally hundreds of millions of Chinese have advanced out of the very poorest segment of society and are nearing a middle-class standard of living.

The spigots of human prosperity are plentiful, but they do have to be allowed to run freely. Allowing people to trade freely is the number one secret. Pundits around the Western world love to deplore and sneer at the “rich” people in our countries, but it is the activities of those people who have pushed upward the levels of wealth and to whom we owe thanks for our standards of living today, which make all previous centuries look absolutely shabby by comparison. And again, there is no inherent reason why a century down the pike people can’t be comparing their situations with ours in a similar manner.

All things taken together, the picture facing mankind today is actually quite remarkably good, despite setbacks, wars, droughts, and so forth. Life expectancy continues to increase, diets continue to improve, and more and more people take vacations, go to the opera or at least the movies (or both at once, now), wear nicer clothing, drive more and better cars, and the rest of it.

A final thought about people: why shouldn’t we think that more is better? There is no “resource” problem about supporting them in the style to which we in the wealthy countries have become accustomed, and all those people have ways of adding to the richness of life for us all—technologically, culturally, artistically.

If anything needs to be done about population today, it should be encouraging people in advanced countries to have more children, not less. Also trade relations should be advanced with “developing” countries so that they will get on the road toward having still fewer children than they are already having (they won’t need many children to supply inefficient labor in the fields or a guarantee that at least some of them will grow up to take care of those parents in old age).

Good news is boring, I must admit, and the temptation to write excitingly about the frightening prospects facing the human race is great. But truth, alas, is more important. And the truth is that if politicians, especially the more pugnacious among them, will just let us keep at it, humanity’s prospects are excellent, whether or not there are a lot more of us than now.



* Tom Flynn, “Too Many People.” Free Inquiry August/September 2004.


Further Reading

  • Bailey, Ronald, ed. Earth Report 2000. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. See especially the essay by Harvard’s Nicholas Eberstadt, “World Population Prospects for the Twenty-First Century: The Specter of ‘Depopulation’?”
  • ———, ed. The True State of The Planet. New York: Free Press, 1995. Predecessor volume to Earth Report 2000 features essays by ten prominent environmental researchers.
  • Simon, Julian. Population Matters. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1990.


Jan Narveson

Jan Narveson is professor of philosophy at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, and author of Respecting Persons in Theory and Practice and other books.

“Human numbers are still rising in many countries. California’s population is growing faster than India’s; Americans born today will retire in a nation with more than half a billion inhabitants. This is frightening, given that even the present human population consumes 40 percent of Earth’s biological productivity.”* There seem to be some who still profess …

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