Ann-Margaret Tomocik addresses the issue of global overpopulation from a scientific viewpoint, focusing especially on People and the Planet’s suggestion to view population and the environment as two intimately related issues. 

The postnatal recovery room at Jose Fabella Hospital in Manila, Philippines. Even during the quiet season, women must share beds.
Photograph by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Since the dawn of the Industrial Age, global overpopulation has been a topic of debate. English demographer Thomas Robert Malthus observed in his An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798-1826) that ‘[t]he power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man’.[1] Unlike many of his eighteenth-century predecessors, Malthus predicted that the risks associated with rapid population growth—including widespread famine and disease—would eventually shatter the myth of continual progression toward a utopian society.

Without personally suffering the effects of the environmental devastation partially facilitated by a sharp rise in the global population, it may be difficult to put the kind of ‘population bomb’ speculated by Malthus into perspective. It might, quite simply, be a convenient issue to dismiss or ignore.  Scientists have, however, adopted increasingly pessimistic attitudes toward current ecological trends. If knowing that the Earth is now facing its largest mass extinction since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago is not enough to incite grave concern over the not-so-distant future, the United Nations have recently released some disheartening statistics. It is estimated that by 2050, the Earth’s population will rise from its current 7 billion to 9.3 billion—comparable to adding another India and China to the world.

This projection is assuming that the worldwide average birthrate of 2.5 children per woman falls to 2.1; if the birthrate does not decline, the global population is estimated to be roughly 11 billion by mid-century. Living on an Earth with 11 billion other humans is a bleak prospect. Mass starvation would likely result, as well as water shortages and extreme overcrowding in urban areas. Arable land would be scarce.Demographers from the UN once predicted that the population explosion would halt at around 2075. They now project that the population will continue to burgeon into the 22nd century. Such unprecedented growth can be largely attributed to reduced child mortality coupled with unchecked fertility in past decades. Both have led to ‘population momentum’, which has contributed to the largest generation in history.

In spite of the scientific community’s grave environmental warnings, critics who deny the overpopulation problem downplay the urgency of anti-fertility measures. In some quarters, proponents of large-scale family planning policies and recommended shifts in present socio-economic systems are considered radically alarmist. Overpopulation sceptics are often quick to point out that we are actually capable of feeding more than 7 billion people, perhaps 10 billion or more. All that is needed, they claim, is a more equitable process of food distribution.

This counterargument misses several vital points. Firstly, if we know that a population in excess of 7 billion will almost certainly exacerbate environmental concerns and make it a considerably more daunting prospect to enforce any method promoting greater global equity, then why not take population-related action? In addition, a greater population—in both developed and developing countries—would almost certainly increase carbon emissions. Certain environmental experts believe that the world’s oil reserves will be depleted by mid-century. In order to avoid a disastrous 2°C rise in the global temperature by 2052, we would need to produce a fraction of our present carbon emissions. Crossing the 2° boundary would cause devastating and unpredictable effects, many of which would likely result in the widespread loss of arable land. Imagine, for example, the widespread starvation if the Indian monsoon fails to come year after year, or when swathes of the US become too hot to farm or even inhabit. Accompanying these are tropical diseases which might take advantage of the new climate to spread northwards, and the potential political and military clashes that may arise from too many people with too few resources.

In short, the problem lies not in the immediate present, but in the future, when the ‘magic’ of fossil fuels—which have empowered industries for centuries—has waned, and humanity no longer has the energy of the sun’s ancient output conveniently at our fingertips. It takes unusual foresight to act on a problem that does not directly concern us, or which lies beyond the careers of our politicians.

In a series of articles on overpopulation recently published in the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth R. Weiss states, ‘In some of the poorest parts of the world, fertility rates remain high, driven by tradition, religion, the inferior status of women and limited access to contraception.’[2] About 43% of people worldwide are under the age of 25, but in developing countries, this number rises to roughly 60%—a trend known as a ‘youth bulge’. Some social scientists observe a link between such high numbers of young people and recent civil unrest in parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

Demographer John F. May has pointed out that within the past few decades, people have been hesitant to use the ‘P’ word in the context of environmental debate, instead, primarily focusing on such urgent and related issues as global warming, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, bad governance, and humanitarian crises. Overpopulation has been known to be a touchy subject. Many people resist the idea of being given governmental guidance on how many children to have, even if the well-being of themselves and their children may ultimately be at stake.

In April of this year, The Royal Society—the world’s oldest scientific academy—released a pivotal report that unflinchingly addresses the profound challenges facing a finite Earth in which population and consumption are intimately connected, both to each other and to human wellbeing and the natural environment. People and the Planet is the product of a 21-month study conducted by 22 of the world’s leading experts in the field. The team’s aim was to provide evidence-based guidance to global decision makers, as well as to spread awareness to members of the general public. As stated on their website, the researchers’ key recommendations were to bring the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day out of absolute poverty; stabilise and reduce material consumption levels; provide sound political leadership and financial commitment to reproductive health and voluntary family planning programmes; and to stop thinking of population and the environment as two separate issues.

Evidence for the positive effects of reproductive education in developing countries is compelling. Comprehensive reproductive health and family planning programmes in Bangladesh and Ghana have been shown to reduce overall fertility by one child per woman. In Bangladesh, this amounted to a 40% increase in women’s earnings and 25% more assets in the family.

Similar family planning programmes and policies have also been established in Uganda and have led to reduced fertility in addition to reduced childhood and maternal mortality. The former decreases the population while the latter increases it. Although this trade-off may not produce a significant change in the population size of Uganda, the overall result is beneficial both socially and economically; the matter becomes a question of ‘quality’ vs. ‘quantity’, with fewer people being born but a greater number of people living more enriching lives.

The social, economic, and environmental reverberations of family planning efforts continue to appear promising. Iran has experienced the greatest drop in fertility ever recorded as the average number of children per woman dropped from roughly seven in the 1980s to fewer than two today. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s former leader, helped to make birth control more socially acceptable to conservative Muslims, providing it free in health clinics. This, among other things, is thought to have unintentionally promoted social change empowering women. Iranian women now outnumber men in public universities 65% to 35%. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has tried to reverse these trends by calling for larger families, encouraging girls to marry by age 16 or 17, and offering bonuses of $950 per child (calling the contraceptive programme a ‘prescription for extinction’);[3] his advice, however, appears to be largely ignored by women who want two children at most.


Newborns are lined up side-by-side in Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, a fraction of the 50 to 100 babies born there everyday.
Photograph by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

Much to the regret of many, there still exists fierce religious opposition to family planning methods. One particularly pressing example is the Catholic Church’s fight against a reproductive health bill in the Philippines that would provide public education about contraception while making it available to all. Polls demonstrate a 70% approval rating of the bill, but the Church’s stance is to promote ‘a culture of life’. Priests often denounce the bill during Mass, sometimes with gristly photos of aborted foetuses posted on billboards outside of churches.

Meanwhile, approximately one-third of Greater Manila’s population is living in poverty. Manila remains one of the most densely populated cities on Earth. Shantytowns have sprung up in the area, their inhabitants sometimes dwelling in cemeteries and rubbish dumps. An estimated 475,000 illegal abortions are performed every year in the Philippines, as abortion is considered both a sin and crime.

Barefoot children playing in the Tondo Dump in Manila. Inhabitants of the dump make a living by sifting through the refuse. Hundreds of thousands reside in the dump scavenging and recycling. Shantytowns have sprung up under bridges, beside high-rises, on landfills, and even in cemeteries amongst the tombstones and in cemetery vaults.
Photograph by Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times

In spite of the numerous and wide-ranging benefits of public sex education, free contraception and other similar policies, reducing fertility is not enough to combat the environmental threat that looms due to the massive over-consumption of the Earth’s natural resources. Many scientists and demographers—including the authors of People and the Planet—stress the importance of a more inclusive type of development that goes beyond family planning. The developing world needs to be lifted from abject poverty by the greater international community.

Any serious attempt would necessitate strong primary and secondary education, concentrated efforts to create models for economic development, and access to public health facilities for everyone. Before they can make any kind of dent in levels of material consumption, developing countries must first stabilise. Then practical steps must be taken to invest in sustainable technologies, reduce waste, and maximise the efficiency of resources.

Urbanisation has been identified by the Royal Society as another avenue of ushering in sustainable change to impoverished countries. In addition, focused efforts would need to be made to separate economic gain from its environmental impact. Inclusive development appears to be the only viable option for allowing the kind of stabilisation essential for the necessary shift in consumption levels. As the Royal Society suggests, however, more research into the interactions between consumption, demographic change, and environmental impact is needed.

Many of the aforementioned sustainability-related recommendations apply to high-income countries as well, which are arguably the main culprits in dangerous consumption patterns, both for their enormous waste output and for their lack of initiative in helping to develop low-carbon energy systems in the developing world (and indeed in their own countries, as well). In addition, lowering birthrates in wealthier nations would undoubtedly make a substantial and positive environmental impact—likely more than an equivalent decrease in poorer countries due to massive over-consumption in richer parts of the globe as well as longer average lifespans. A 2012 study conducted by Professor Ian Robertson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine identified skyrocketing obesity rates, primarily in the developed world, as another contributor to increased environmental depletion; to the Earth, sustaining greater average body mass is equal to supporting more people.

The experts involved in the writing of People and the Planet were hoping that demographic changes would be factored into the UN Rio+20 Summit on Sustainable Development in June 2012. While the event was intended to host the world’s most influential political figures and heads of state, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama, and German Prime Minister Angela Merkel did not attend the conference, blaming their absence on the European sovereign-debt crisis. Critics viewed this collective absence as a sign of their refusal to prioritise environmental issues and sustainability.

Sir John Sulston, the Royal Society fellow who led People and the Planet, concluded that we denizens of the 21st century have a clear choice: ‘We can choose to address the twin issues of population and consumption. We can choose to rebalance the use of resources to a more egalitarian pattern of consumption, to reframe our economic values to truly reflect what our consumption means for our planet and to help individuals around the world to make informed and free reproductive choices. Or’, he continued, ‘we can choose to do nothing and to drift into a downward vortex of economic, socio-political and environmental ills, leading to a more unequal and inhospitable future.’[4]

Ann-Margaret Tomocik

[1] Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[2] ‘Beyond 7 Billion: The Biggest Generation’, Los Angeles Times, 22 July 2012.,0,7213271.htmlstory (accessed 24 August 2012).

[3] Quoted in: ‘Iran’s Birth Control Policy Sent Birthrate Tumbling’ by Kenneth R. Weiss, Los Angeles Times, 22 July 2012.,0,4861001.htmlstory (accessed 24 August 2012).

[4] Quoted in: ‘Feature Rio+20, Building the Future We Want: Population, Consumption and the Future’ by David Funkhouser, The Earth Institute of Columbia University, 27 April 2012. (accessed 25 August 2012).