causes of poverty, economics

The Causes of Poverty (32): Overpopulation

overpopulation cartoon

overpopulation cartoon by Sutton Impact

(source)

How can I say, as I so often do on this blog, that overpopulation isn’t a very important problem, and certainly not the main cause of such human rights violations as famine, war, poverty etc.? Especially when we know that there will be 9 billion people on the earth in 2050, that with the almost 7 billion living now we can’t manage to properly feed one billion everyday, that many resources (water, fish, arable land in certain places etc.) are already overexploited, that rising incomes will mean rising consumption of food and water (especially meat, a water-intensive commodity), and that because of all of this green house gases will increase?

How can you be so stupid not to believe that overpopulation is a problem, I’m often asked in comments on this blog. Maybe it’s got something to do with the fact that people have been sounding the alarm about the “population bomb” for over 200 years now, and it still hasn’t gone off. Of course, it’s not because people have been wrong for 200 years that they will continue to be wrong. But there are some indications in this paper that they will continue to be wrong.

The paper explains how we can feed 9 billion people, and argues that we’ll need to change the food system (something I also advocated on this blog before). Agricultural waste is a huge problem. Up to 40% of the world’s food ends up in the garbage bin, because of deficiencies in the food-chain infrastructure, transportation and storage. Farmers produce more than they can sell because they receive financial penalties from wholesalers when they can’t deliver fixed quantities throughout the year irrespective of climate conditions. Add to this excessive quality selection (shops throw away perfectly edible food because it’s not visually appealing, and apply overly zealous use-by dates) and consumer waste, and you have mountain ranges of wasted food that could be used to feed many more billions of people.

We could also promote vegetarianism, or at least a reduction in meat consumption, since meat production is very costly in terms of water use, land use, deforestation, green house gases etc. (see here). A side effect would be that we reduce factory farming and are a bit nicer to animals.

Stricter systems to reduce overfishing are also required. And let’s not forget that on a global level, the arable land is underused.

Most countries are only using a bare fraction of their available agricultural land. The United States, for example – one of the world’s top producers – is using only 5.5 percent of its available agricultural land. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, only 5.6 percent of the world’s arable and permanent cropland and permanent pasture is under irrigation. That gives humanity a lot of room to grow.

Mother Earth actually has the capacity to feed her people, even the billions that live on her now. As more and more people need to be fed, more and more people can be put to work farming, planting, and engineering new food management solutions. (source)

But not just the quantity of agriculture can be boosted, also its quality. Crop yields can be improved, perhaps by way of genetically modified crops but other techniques are also available: farmer training and financing for example, or more efficient irrigation, which would also solve the problem of water shortages, another “consequence” of overpopulation.

This shows that when you improve the food system, you automatically lessen other types of environmental population impact: not only water shortages but also global warming (because of less waste and less meat production), desertification (because of more efficient land use and again less meat production) etc.

Of course, focusing on food production and consumption is just part of the job. An increasing population also means increasing energy consumption. But here as well, there are many things that can be done short of population control. It’s the way energy is used, not the number of people using it, that is the problem. 85% of the people living on this planet consume below the world’s average energy use. Adding many more people isn’t likely to add substantially to energy use.

More on overpopulation here.

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3 thoughts on “The Causes of Poverty (32): Overpopulation

  1. ProfBob says:

    “Overpopulation means that we are putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we should, just because more people are doing it and this is related to overconsumption by people in general, especially in the ‘developed’ world.” “But, whether developed or developing, everyone is encouraged to ‘want’ and perceive that they ‘need’ to consume beyond the planet’s ability to provide.” Climate change was cited as the second most-pressing issue, with the need to develop renewable energy resources to replace fossil fuels coming in third. Rounding out the top 10 issues on the ESF list are overconsumption, the need for more sustainable practices worldwide, the growing need for energy conservation, the need for humans to see themselves as part of the global ecosystem, overall carbon dioxide emissions, the need to develop ways to produce consumer products from renewable resources, and dwindling fresh water resources. Suggest keeping up the issue at http:overpopulation.org or with the informative free ebook series “In Search of Utopia” at http://andgulliverreturns.info
    We are approaching a half acre per person of arable land (farming, grazing and forests) per person and the arable land is decreasing at the rate of 238,000 square miles per year. Another factor is at what economic level we would like all the people to live at. If we expect it to be at the US level, one to two billion is the limit.

  2. Pingback: Overpopulation Discourse and the Alarmism of Fake Accuracy | P.a.p.-Blog | Human Rights Etc.

  3. Biffa says:

    Anyone who can read graphs can tell that human population growth is decreasing now, we have reached the point of inflection on the logistic growth curve. European countries are reducing in population, China and Japan along with them, even India on the horizon. America growing slowly. Only Africa really is still growing fast. So..hooray!? To be proactive, overpopulation should no longer be the crisis of the day. Now the great human extinction appears to have begun! Next problem: Are we going to manage the next stage well, finding a balanced equilibrium? One scientist predicted that the region around the point of inflection on the human population growth curve was one that would introduce many major crises to global human societies. Anyone who still thinks global human overpopulation should be a concern has their head in the sand.

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