Overpopulation: Pictures vs. Numbers
Two hundred years ago, there were about a billion humans in the world.
Today, there are seven billion and counting. This fact has some people
concerned that we’re going to run out of food, energy, or other
important resources in the foreseeable future. Some worry that we’re
going to pollute the natural environment so much that we render it
uninhabitable, or at least much less habitable.
As an example of such concerns, a friend of mine recently posted a link
a series of photographs
purporting to show that the planet is overpopulated. The first shows
“Sprawling Mexico City roll[ing] across the landscape, displacing every
scrap of natural habitat.” Another shows greenhouses “as far as the eye
can see” in Spain. Another still, a surfer threading the eye of a wave
that is littered with garbage.
Some of the photos in this series are actually quite beautiful, but some
are indeed ugly, and all are arresting. Yet as evocative as these images
are, the scenes they depict are just tiny snippets of an enormous
planet. Mexico City, sprawling though it is, covers an area of about
1,500 square kilometres. That may sound like a lot, but it’s just
1/100,000 of the Earth’s 150 million square kilometres of land area. The
things illustrated by these photos may be bad—although some are frankly
neutral—but they tell us nothing about how widespread the specific
problems they allude to may be. To determine the scope of the population
issue, pictures are not sufficient; we need the help of numbers.
How Many Is Too Many?
“We undeniably face huge challenges,” admits Hans Rosling in the opening
Don’t Panic: The Truth about Population,
“but the good news is that the future may not be quite as gloomy and
that mankind already is doing better than many of you think.” In this
hour-long documentary, Rosling, a Swedish professor of global health and
renowned TED-talk speaker,
makes the numbers behind population growth come alive. And while not
denying that human activity does indeed often cause pollution as a side
effect, and does indeed use resources, he challenges the narrative of
“The best estimates are that
we will hit about 9 billion by mid-century, and top out at
around 10 or 11 billion by 2100. After that, no more
Most importantly, he drives home the fact that population growth is
already slowing. Yes, Bangladesh’s population has grown dramatically in
his lifetime, he tells us, tripling from about 50 million to about 150
million. But do we need to convince Bangladeshis to have fewer children?
No, because the job is already done. Although still a poor country,
Bangladeshis have grown richer in recent decades. As many of them have
moved out of extreme poverty, child mortality rates have plummeted, and
birth rates have fallen in turn. Bangladeshi women now have just over
two children each on average.
There are still places in the world with much higher birthrates, of
course, primarily in rural parts of Asia and Africa. But contrary to
public perception, much work has already been accomplished. And as more
of the poorest nations move out of poverty in the coming decades—Africa
and Asia being home to the fastest growing economies in the
world—birthrates will come down everywhere. The best estimates are that
we will hit about 9 billion by mid-century, and top out at around 10 or
11 billion by 2100. After that, no more population growth.
But 11 billion is still a lot. Can the Earth sustain even that stable
We should of course try to limit our negative impact on the environment
as much as we can, within reason. But that is precisely what we have
been doing as we have gotten richer and have been able to afford to care
more about the state of the natural environment. And contrary to what
doomsayers like Paul Ehrlich predicted
in the 1960s and 1970s, there has not been mass starvation in the
industrialized world, and there has been less and less of it in the
poorer parts of the planet. If you think the future nonetheless still
looks grim, you may not be looking hard enough, because there are in
reasons to be optimistic.
Are there now, or will there soon be, too many of us? Part of your
answer to that question depends on whether you think of each new human
being as just another mouth that needs feeding, or whether you recognize
that those mouths generally come attached to human minds—the ultimate
From the same author
La liberté économique améliore le bien-être humain
(avec Yanick Labrie)
330 – 15 mars 2015)
Economic Freedom Improves Human Well-Being (with
330 – March 15, 2015)
Fifty Shades of Statism
329 – February 15, 2015)
Freedom Encourages Goodwill to All
327 – December 15, 2014)
Just Cause, or Just 'Cause?
325 – October 15, 2014)
First written appearance of the
word 'liberty,' circa 2300 B.C.
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cooperation since 1998.