Overpopulation: Environmental and Social problems

Institute for Population Studies  |   Berkeley, CA  |   (510) 848-9062  |   info@howmany.org

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   Environmental and Social problems

Human population is growing like never before. We are now adding one billion people to the planet every 12 years. That’s about 220,000 per day.

The list of problems this is causing, or at least complicating, is a long one. It includes shortages of all our resources, war and social conflict, limits on personal freedom, overcrowding and the health and survival of other species.

This page summarizes many of these problems, and more could easily be added. While overpopulation is not the sole cause of these, it is certainly a root cause. We hope to see more media coverage of this link in the future. We can do something about population, and we can solve all these problems more easily if we do.

How about our resources?

Many basic resources are strained by our current population:

    • Food: one billion people, one out of every seven people alive, go to bed hungry.Every day, 25,000 people die of malnutrition and hunger-related diseases. Almost 18,000 of them are children under 5 years old. Food production and distribution could catch up if our population stopped growing and dropped to a sustainable level.

    • Water Shortages: About one billion people lack access to sufficient water for consumption, agriculture and sanitation. Aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be replenished. Melting glaciers threaten the water supply for billions. Wouldn’t an ethic of population reduction now, make people’s lives much better? [read more]

    • Air quality: Pollution from smokestack In many regions of the country, childhood asthma rates have risen dramatically in the past 20 years. The problems are not limited to the industrialized countries with their automobiles and factories. Children in undeveloped countries, where people depend on burning wood and dung for their heat and cooking, are also at risk.

    • Oil and gas are the underpinnings of what is, historically-speaking, the extremely cheap and fast transportation that today’s huge population depends on. Imagine how we could feed and supply our huge cities (N.Y., L.A., London, Mexico City, Peking) if all the hauling was done in horse-drawn carts and sailing ships. Yet there is a finite amount of these fossil fuels in the Earth, and we have already extracted the easy-pickings in much of the world. The concept “Peak Oil” means that after some year, perhaps between 2005 and 2020, world oil production will max out and then start to decline.

      Bull pulling truck cab shell “M. King Hubbert created and first used the models behind peak oil in 1956 to accurately predict that United States oil production would peak between 1965 and 1970.[1] His logistic model, now called Hubbert peak theory, and its variants have described with reasonable accuracy the peak and decline of production from oil wells, fields, regions, and countries,[2]”

      Hubbert’s predictions were accurate for U.S. production, and his prediction for World peak production was around 2006. There is ample disagreement among experts as to if and when this will happen, but some experts point to the sharp rises in oil prices since 2007 as an indication that oil is now passing it’s peak production. See these Feb. & March 2010 articles for three current estimates.

      As our population and our needs for energy rise, we try to exploit ever more difficult sources of energy. At least half of the cause of the oil-spill disaster in the Gulf is

      oil soaked pelican
      May 25: “Let’s make no mistake about it,
      what is at threat here is our way of life”
      Gov. Bobby Jindal

      the unprecedented rise in population. If we had only 150 million people in the country, we would not be rushing to drill wells one mile deep in the ocean before we have developed safe technologies to do so. Of course our inefficient energy consumption patterns play a part in the urgency of our needs, and we will have to adjust them over time. But equal efforts must be put into keeping our population below critical levels.
      (news about oil & gas)

    • Other Fuel:   Half the World’s population relies on burning wood and dung for cooking and for heating. More and more people live in these regions and have to travel further each day to collect wood, and are often exposed to hardship and danger. Articles at National Geographic tell these stories from around the World.

      February 01, 2009 THIES, SENEGAL – Adam and 100 Friends launched a region-wide initiative to provide pregnancy prevention tools called CycleBeads and also to build more energy-efficient wood stoves that will help address desertification in Senegal.

    • The Ozone Layer. 50 years ago parents told their kids to go play outside because sunshine is good for you. Many parents today don’t think that way, because the ozone layer of the atmosphere no longer protects us as well from the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun. The ozone layer is a region of concentrated molecules of a form of oxygen (O3) high above the earth. Without it there would be no life as we know it here because the UV rays from the sun can be very harmful. But various chemicals from human industries, especially chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), destroy ozone over the course of years. Some of the most dangerous ones have been banned in many countries, which has slowed their rate of increase in the atmosphere, but they are very long lasting and will continue to deplete the ozone layer for many years. Currently the layer is being destroyed at a rate of about 4% per decade.

    • The World’s forests are another resource that is strained by our growing population. Not only are they a source of fuel and building material, recent research has focused on forests’ ability to sequester greenhouse gases and protect us from global warming.
      (News about forests and carbon sequestration)

    • We are straining our Oceans’ ability to breed the fish we eat, to sequester carbon, and to replenish the air. In the 50’s and 60’s, Florida was a by-word for the abundance of the sea. Now even some of the “trash fish” of that era are too rare to fish commercially or recreationally. Isn’t this a clarion call that we need to lower our human population so that we can again enjoy the abundance of nature? [article on Florida seafood, 2010]
      June 2011, The Second Annual European Fish Week, organized by Ocean2012, a coalition hoping to change the Common Fisheries Policy of the European Union.

  • Even the earth’s topsoil itself has limits: most people don’t realize that in many regions good growing soil is limited to the top 6 inches of topsoil and that heavy crop growing is depleting this.

Social Problems

Overcrowding I don’t know about you, but back in school I heard about experiments on Norway Rats that were put in overcrowded cages, and suffered many physical and behavioral problems. The same has been shown for Sitka Deer and for mice. Some folks think this is happening to people too.

It’s a common observation that people in small towns are friendlier than people in cities. However, that’s just a hunch for most of us. One recent study from U.C.Irvine found that less densely packed people are friendlier towards their neighbors. One specific finding was, “For every 10 percent decrease in population density, the likelihood of residents talking to their neighbors at least once a week jumps by 10 percent. And involvement in hobby-oriented clubs increases even more significantly — by 15 percent for every 10 percent decline in density.”

Conflicts and Wars: Some of the most brutal and persistent conflicts and full-out wars of the past decades include the stresses of overpopulation and conflict over resources.

– One of these was the genocide in Rwanda. As John M. Swomley wrote in War and the Population Explosion: Some Ethical Implications, Michael Renner noted that “The Hutu leaders that planned and carried out the genocide against the Tutsis in 1994 relied strongly on heavily armed militias who were recruited primarily from the unemployed. These were the people who had insufficient land to establish and support a family of their own and little prospect of finding jobs outside agriculture. Their lack of hope for the future and low self esteem were channeled by the extremists into an orgy of violence against those who supposedly were to blame for these misfortunes.”

– Another source of resource conflict is the Jordan River, Jordan River which passes through Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Israel. Researchers report that most of the 37 actual military conflicts over water since 1950 took place between Israel and its Arab neighbors over the Jordan River and its tributaries, which supply millions of people with water for drinking, bathing, and farming. These are desert regions and the limits on water should guide the population policies of the nations involved.

[article on Jordan River, 2010]
– The confilict between Pakistan and India are especially sensitive since both highly-populated, fast growing countries have nuclear weapons. Pakistan’s major water source is the glacial waters of the Indus river, which originates in Indian territory. [article on Pakistan’s water] [archive]

Further information about the scarcity of water. Sandia Postel in her 1992 book, The Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity, indicates that early in the 90’s, twenty-six countries with combined population of about 230 million people had water scarcity.

Democracy? We tend to think that Democracy offers us freedom of choice, but in the last 40 years, we have had little effective input into most of the political decisions that affect our lives.

Do we have a truly Democratic system when most of us never even meet our Representatives at the various levels of Government? Even our State and City representatives probably don’t know us and our views about the laws and regulations they pass. The only people most of them see on a regular basis are the lobbyists, who consequently have a disproportionately large influence on those laws and regulations.

Democracy and Optimum Population Size: 2500 years ago, Aristotle considered the best size for a city and concluded that a large increase in population would bring, “certain poverty on the citizenry, and poverty is the cause of sedition and evil.” He considered that a city of over 100,000 people would exclude most citizens from a voice in government.

To get an idea of what the founders of the United States had in mind for our representative Democracy, at the low end, the Constitution says (Article 1, Section 2) that a Representative to the House should represent a minimum of 30,000 people. When the Constitution was written, the United States had a total population of around 2.5 million, and the Constitution allocated 65 Representatives to the 13 states. So each Representative of “the People’s House” had about 38,500 constituents. Currently each Representative has 712,650 constituents. It’s really a form of irony today to call it “the People’s House” when only wealthy donors and paid lobbyists really have the ear of your “representatives.” What we have now is not Democracy in the sense intended by the country’s founders.

Health and Population density: Sometimes viruses spread faster in denser populations, which enables deadly mutations to continue. Doctor Nathan Wolfe, of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, studies virus mutations which jump from animal to human populations. The AIDS virus is one of the deadliest of these. On a recent episode of CNN’s Planet in Peril, Dr. Wolfe said “Individuals have been infected with these viruses forever. “What’s changed, though, is in the past you had smaller human populations; viruses would infect them and go extinct. Viruses actually need population density as fuel.” [read article]

Bringing it back home — Overcrowding

If you live in a growing metropolitan area, you notice:

    • The cost of housing is rising significantly. Usually, the denser the city, the higher the cost of housing and taxes.

    • The length of your commute: the average American heavy trafficspends over 100 hours per year commuting to and from work. Not only does this needlessly waste energy (gas or electricity) but especially it wastes our time. Certainly most of us have better uses for our time than inching through stop-and-go traffic. Yet they keep on building housing, without paying for our wasted time and energy.

    • Recreation: the distance you must travel to enjoy natural open spaces. In his 2005 book: “Last Child in the Woods“, Richard Louv introduced the term “Nature deficit disorder” to identify a phenomenon we all knew existed but couldn’t quite articulate. His book has created a national conversation about the disconnection between children and nature, and his message has galvanized an international movement. Now, three years later, we have reached a tipping point, with the book inspiring Leave No Child Inside initiatives throughout the country. Not only adults, but especially our children, need easy casual access to natural environments.

    • How about parking in your town? Where we live, the developers with a complicit city council just build, build, build new housing; block after block of 5 & 6 story buildings. They do not contain ample parking for their residential units, and they bring many more people into the town. And the developers have gobbled up several of the convenient down parking lots and turned them into more gigantic housing blocks, doubly compounding the problem.
      Unfortunately for the residents of the city, the outcome for many local businesses has been termination. We certainly try our best to support local businesses and would strongly prefer to shop where we can see the merchandise and talk to an informed salesperson, but we won’t fruitlessly try to park, circle the block, and pay to park in a lot 3 blocks from the store. It’s much faster and easier for most residents over the age of 45 to go online and have goods delivered. Many downtown stores are closed, and either vacent or replaced with fast food shops for the students who walk through on their way to and from school.

    • The never-ending new buildings block our views, our light and our air. Twenty years ago, my town had a sense of space, with views of hills and water from most streets even downtown and nearby. But thanks to a few developers’ and planners’ emphasis on “growth”, many entire blocks are now walled in with 5 and 6 story behemoths.
      Many of us bemoan these losses and have felt helpless in the face of the financial powers backing these developments. However, if these developers had to fully pay the rest of us for the loss of our amenities, they might slow down. There is a way to put a monetary value on the losses the community has suffered. In an appraisal, a residence with a view and a spacious surrounding is more valuable than one that is boxed in between high-rise buildings. In my region that might add $100,000-$200,000 (or more) to the value of a house. If 2 people spend perhaps 10 waking hours a day there and own the house for 5 years, that works out to about 36,500 waking hours. That’s $2.74 – $5.48 per hour. Let’s call it $3.00 per hour for the sake of this very rough estimate.Of course, no one person spends 10 hours a day at one spot on a city street, but many hundreds (or thousands) of people do pass by. In my town of about 100,000 people, perhaps 100 cars/hour and 100 pedestrians per hour pass through the downtown blocks. (More in the daytime and fewer at night.) The buildings which are being built take up an average of about half a block apiece. By rough estimate, it takes a car 10 seconds to pass, and a pedestrian one minute. That works out to 46.7 person-hours/day that someone is being deprived of light and air and a sense of spaciousness. At $3.00 per hour, that’s $140 a day or a little over $51,000 per year. These buildings may last 40-50 years, making the total value of the lost amenity $2,040,000-$2,550,000.

      The problem so far has been that when an individual buys or sells a single house, they control what they are willing to spend or what they can ask for that asset. But when a building is built in town, the 4,000 or 5,000 people per day who pass by it are not compensated for their loss. However, that is what government can do, and we suggest permitting and licensing fees to compensate us for our losses. The city can charge this to the developer, and apply the resulting city income to mitigating these losses by purchasing other sites & the development rights to other sites.

      These are, of course, very rough estimates, and a permitting law would require better estimation of the current value of spaciousness in the community, and of the foot and vehicle traffic past any proposed building site.

Personal Freedom

As the problems of higher population density become worse, there are more and more restrictions placed on our freedoms. You may think some of these are good ideas. Some of them are, given the circumstances. But they are necessary only in order to accommodate the larger population that our policies are encouraging.

    • Putting limits on water consumption. California is mandating that residential users cut back 20% on water consumption. At the same time they mandate that Cities build more and more housing. That is severely mistaken priorities on the part of our non-representatives.

    • Cities put limits on driving London charges people to drive into downtown. Annually, politicians in New York repeatedly propose doing the same thing.

    • Limits on travel: Traffic and congestion themselves put limits on our freedom to travel when and where we please. Cities that are overly crowded are not good places to go shopping, for meals or entertainments, because it is overly difficult to get there and park.

    • One seemingly small loss of freedom that comes with increased housing density is limits on burning fires in fireplaces. Laws are passed, neighbors snitch on neighbors, and one more of life’s little pleasures is lost to increasing housing density.

    • Restricting what people can do on their land: In rural areas, people are freer to build what they want and do what they want on their own land. When people are packed in close together, our actions impinge much more directly on our neighbors and more restrictions must be enacted.

How about other species?

Species Extinction: We are in the midst of one of the greatest extinctions of other species in the history of the planet. The last one of this magnitude was over 60 million years ago, when the dinosaurs became extinct. Yep, we’re the cause of this one, as we either kill them off outright, or cover over their living space with houses, roads and development. Did God give us dominion over this beautiful garden that we might destroy it, or that we might take care of the glory of creation? It’s our choice.

Habitat destruction:   Our exploding population in the U.S. is converting about 1.2 million acres of rural land per year to subdivisions, malls, workplaces, roads, parking lots, resorts and the like. The rural area lost to development between 1982 and 1997 is about equal to the entire land mass of Maine and New Hampshire combined. (Approximately 39,000 square miles or 25 million acres)

Habitat Fragmentation in the Indiana Dunes Habitat Fragmentation   Not only is habitat being built over, it is also being divided into ever-smaller pieces. Habitat fragmentation reduces species richness and diversity, by isolating a species population into subpopulations that may be too near the minimum viable population size, and so die off in each fragment. A fundamental finding of ecology is the species-area relationship, that the size of a habitat is a primary determinant of the number of species in that habitat.

Some critics point out that we can accommodate more people without so much habitat loss and habitat fragmentation if we all live in cities or densely packed developments. This is certainly true, but the point we emphasize here at HowMany.org is that this is not what most people want.Jaguar Many people, given the choice, prefer to live on larger parcels. Many people want larger yards and gardens, and get-away cabins where you can’t see your neighbors. And we can continue to have these amenities if we re-energize a vision of a smaller, more sustainable population.

Habitat fragmentation endangers the Jaguars in Costa Rica. (May 12, 2010)
More news about Endangered Species & Habitat.

Does a growing population really help any of us?

These are some of the ways our growing population is impinging on our quality of life, and in many regions of the Globe, life itself.It’s a long list, and more could be added. As some point out, these problems are not entirely the result of overpopulation. We could consume less, we could use resources more efficiently, and we could distribute them in ways that would not deprive so many of access to the basics. But there is no doubt that these these problems could be solved more easily if we don’t add 3 billion or 5 billion, or many many more people to our lovely planet.

And coverage of the link is almost nonexistent in most media outlets, even those covering the environmental and social problems that ensue. This is the most basic question that an intelligent species could ask: What is the right number of us to be living on our fair planet?

Instead of saying there is nothing we can do about it, just accommodating to the imagined inevitability of it, shouldn’t we be asking “Does a growing population really help any of us?”

It’s hard to think of a current problem which will be solved more easily by adding another 2.3 billion people to our population.

Rather than asking how we might accommodate additional billions of people, we could be asking:

  • Will the addition of another 2.3 billion people competing for land and resources do anything to improve the lives of people living now?
  • Will the lives of those 2.3 billion additional people be anything as enjoyable, prosperous, and free as those of their parents?
  • How can we effectively and non-invasively control population growth?

The answer to that last question is easy

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