How to Overcome Overpopulation


We are starting to hear more and more concerns about climate change. There are calls to try to limit carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels and even the need to manage climate change when it happens. But I propose that climate change science is very uncertain. The earth’s climate is constantly changing between hot ages and ice ages. However the extent to which it is occurring is very much linked to population growth. Rather than get bogged down in arguments about climate change I want to examine something that is undeniable; Overpopulation. Time is running out. The most fundamental problem facing the world today is overpopulation leading to pollution and degradation of the earth’s environment on a massive scale.

There are a number of critical reasons why our leaders are not prepared to tackle overpopulation and even if they want to, it all seems too hard to solve. To understand how we got to this situation, I would like to take a brief look at history then consider what is stopping us from really doing something practical about it. If we don’t the alternative will be catastrophic, as nature will decide the issue for us the hard way, most likely through droughts, floods and famines.

So let’s go back to very early times when tribes of hunters and gatherers roamed the world. The furthest we can go back and understand how our ancestors really lived with any degree of certainty is probably around 50,000 years. In the case of Australian Aborigines and other hunters and gatherers around the world, it is thought their customs and beliefs changed little over time, so a lot of information has been collected about their lifestyles and spiritual beliefs. For instance it is known that the Australian Aborigines have always been a highly spiritual people with an extremely strong affinity to the land and animals they needed for food. They managed the land through the use of fire to encourage new growth of plants and trees, so the animals they hunted could thrive. When burning off they even left pathways so the animals could move away from the fire.

Being excellent bushmen they usually spent part of each day hunting and gathering which left plenty of time for their rituals, dancing and story telling about the ‘dreamtime’. They were very much into sharing food within each tribe. For example, if one member caught a kangaroo one day another might catch one the next day. So sharing was very important for survival. It seems they were content with their lot and didn’t need to develop their “economic system” further in terms of crops and farming. Nor did they see any need for permanent homes (apart from the use of caves) or the need to create stone monuments to honour their spirits.

Thus, theirs was a simple life lived in harmony with the land and nature. When the first white settlers arrived in Australia there was no pollution and if left alone it is likely the Aborigines could have carried on with their lifestyle for many more thousands of years. I have used the Australian Aborigines as one example. Similarly hunters and gatherers in many other parts of the world carried on for thousands of years in harmony with their environments had they not met with what we call civilization.

This is extremely important because we have to ask if the modern civilized, industrialized world, can carry on for thousands of years into the future the way we are going at present with overpopulation, pollution and degradation of environments around the world?

So from the ancient tribes people living in harmony with their environment I want to briefly examine how we got to where we are in today’s modern world and what we must do to survive with an acceptable lifestyle in the future

Overpopulation that has led to pollution and degradation of the environment is a direct result of The Industrial Revolution. This is generally considered to have begun in England around 1750 and quickly spread around the rest of the world. For the first time in human history factories were able to manufacture mass-produced goods and people started to have a standard of living that could not have been previously imagined. Unfortunately the factories created three things; a mass movement of people to the cities, an explosion in population growth and pollution on a scale never seen before. This has expanded and continued growing rapidly to the present day.

But I would like to go back before the Industrial Revolution (from here on the IR) and consider why this huge change in human activity occurred at this time and why it had never before happened in human history.

Why do I want to consider this? Because I propose that the very thinking that helped create the IR is what is again needed today to tackle overpopulation. So what was this thinking that led to the IR and why did it never happen before in history?

To do this I would like to look at ancient Egypt, then ancient Greece then medieval England and Europe.

Having abundant harvests due to the Nile River flooding and fertilizing their crops, the Ancient Egyptians were able to gain freedom from full time farming and develop a vibrant culture that still fascinates scholars today. But they needed protection from marauding tribes, which required warlords. Over time these warlords were able to convince the people they were ‘god kings’ or Pharaohs, a type of living deity on earth. The Egyptians achieved marvelous things under these Pharaohs including building great cities and of course the pyramids. In reality with our modern technology however today these could easily be replicated. The important point however is that the Egyptians were not encouraged to think for themselves. They were required to obey the Pharaohs and the priests who told the people what to think. Thus they were never able to create an IR due to the control of the ‘god kings’.

So Egypt remained an agriculture based economy and their population grew only slowly. It is thought to have only grown from around one million to perhaps 4-5million over the entire 3000 year period of the Empire.

Next let’s look at ancient Greece, which is regarded as the birthplace of Western Philosophy. Ancient Greece had a type of democracy although it was very hierarchical and they also had slaves with few rights. However it spawned some great thinkers, particularly Socrates and his pupil Plato. Socrates argued, “Few climb out of the cave of ignorance and are ridiculed if they try to help others out.” He was concerned with ‘Justice’ and questioning everyone and everything. Unlike the Egyptians his thinking was not controlled by Pharaohs however, when he criticized what Athens was doing and extolled the virtues of one of their enemies, the elected State Officials did not tolerate him. He was tried for treason and executed. So just as there was no free thinking under the Pharaohs there was no place for free thinking under the elected State in ancient Greece and hence no IR.

Again their economy remained agriculture based and the population of ancient Greece grew only slowly. In fact may have only been around 350,000 people.

Finally, medieval England and Europe where the Church and the Kings working together controlled the people. Unlike the Pharaohs who claimed to be divine the churches claimed to have the only true access to the word of God through the Bible and other religious texts. Again the people were told what to think and although there were advances in weaponry, mathematics and literature, the people had to obey rather than think for themselves. Thus the economies of the time remained largely based on agriculture and again population grew slowly.

However, in the 1600’s after the devastating 30-year war that engulfed most of Europe, something happened that had never occurred before in human history. Centuries of mistreatment at the hands of monarchies and the church finally brought a reaction from the people and the most intelligent and vocal decided to speak out and abandon the old ‘truths’ that had been thrust upon them. One example of this was the strongly held belief by the churches that ‘the sun revolved around the earth.’ This was disproved by Galilee, who like Socrates was punished for his trouble, although he was put under house arrest rather than being executed.

The new movement has been called ‘The Age of Enlightenment’. One of the great leaders of this new movement was RenĂ© Descartes who gave us the brilliant saying:

‘I think therefore I am’.

It may be hard to believe that what on the surface appears to be a simple statement, questioning whether we exist or not, actually paved the way for the Industrial Revolution. It in effect says, ‘My mind exists and I can think for myself, (without the church, state or monarchy telling me how to think). I have freedom of thought, I can reason things out for myself’. This shifted the concept of ‘What is the Truth,’ onto the judgment of the individual. Rather than be told what to think by religious authorities claiming to know what God wants us to think, the responsibility was now put with the individual, ‘I am, and no one will control how I think’.

Finally the shackles of the god kings, authoritative state powers, monarchs and the churches, telling people what to think throughout the centuries, had been thrown off. For the first time in history people started to think freely for themselves. This along with democracy paved the way for mans greatest invention, the Industrial Revolution.

Look around you; nearly everything in your home is the result of the IR. It has given us wonderful technology that is still ongoing today. However, on the other hand the world is about to face the downside of this, our greatest invention.

Apart from the comforts for everyday living the IR has resulted in huge breakthroughs in medicine and medical care. In particular antibiotics and well meaning programs in Africa and other developing countries have caused a population explosion. Before this, even in Western societies, people had very large families, as due to high infant mortality rates only a few children made it through to adulthood. Thus out of 10 children only two might have made it into adulthood. Nowadays with better medicine including antibiotics and vaccination programs, most children not only make it through into adulthood, but are also living into old age. However in the developing world people are still having large families and know little about contraception.

Thus we have a population explosion. In 1750 at the start of the IR the world’s population is estimated to have been around 1 billion people and had been at that level for many centuries. In a little over 250 years since the start of the IR the world’s population has grown to over 7 billion today and is likely to reach over 9 billion in the next 50 years. Recent studies by the United Nations claim some 850 million people are malnourished or starving and over 1 billion people do not have access to safe drinking water.

A graph of population growth looks like an “L” backwards with population growing very slowly over the centuries then suddenly taking off around 1750 with the Industrial Revolution.

Not only is the earth overpopulated with pollution from developed countries but also with the recent industrialization of China and India (with Africa likely to follow in the future), we are creating pollution on a scale never seen before.

The results of this are more than evident through environmental degradation. We are faced with:

– Heavily polluted cities
– Deforestation around the world
– Deserts expanding and more frequent droughts
– The greatest extinction of animal species since the dinosaurs
– Recurring famines and suffering in Africa and other developing nations
– Over fishing and depletion of fishing grounds around the world
– Coral bleaching due to run off from rivers from farming

The two main sources that account for nearly 80% of air pollution around the world are; industry 52% and transportation 27%. It has been estimated that electricity generation from coal fired power stations accounts for around 40% of all air pollution. Wind power and other non-polluting power sources are mostly inefficient and costly. We need to re-look at modern nuclear power options but with public paranoia about it, a whole paper could be written on this topic.

So what can be done about the fundamental cause of environmental degradation; overpopulation?

Unfortunately nothing much is being done to stop overpopulation. Many programs were tried in India in the 1960’s and 1970’s but failed due to cultural problems and women’s rights movements. These have been largely abandoned. In China the authorities claim the one child policy has prevented up to 400 million births but independent studies claim the figure is more like 100 million. In any case this policy would not work in a democracy like India.

We think we live in a free world but are we really free to think like Descartes did in the 1600’s? Isn’t it time to once again throw off the restrictions on our thinking being imposed from many powerful sources and again start to think for ourselves?

So what are we up against?

For a start there is a massive need for education to overcome entrenched beliefs and ignorance in both the developing and developed worlds. Some of the main ones are:

Religious Organizations- Entrenched Beliefs

Oppose contraception.
Oppose the night after pill.
Oppose abortion including early pregnancy abortion.
Preach that God will provide. Believers must abstain from sex or only use the Rhythm method.

At the very least religious organizations need to be made to stop their opposition to contraception. Where in the religious texts does it say, Thou shall not use contraception?

Developing Countries -Education needs:

Need education not to have large families any more.
Need to be made aware they can use contraception.
Need training in what is available and how to use contraception.
Need access to cheap contraception particularly condoms and also IUD’s.

Overall they need education and access to cheap contraception particularly condoms which also help to stop the spread of AIDS.

Politicians- Lack of Interest

Want continued economic and jobs growth, which requires population growth.
Don’t see any votes in measures to stem population growth.
Don’t understand the concept of zero population and economic growth (see later).

Public pressure is needed to put population and environmental concerns as the top priority and that zero population and economic growth is desirable.

Companies – Profits come First

Want growing markets and growing populations to sell more and more products.
Want to be allowed to pollute and destroy the natural environment in order to maximize profits.

They need to be encouraged to become good corporate citizens by minimizing pollution and producing durable products that last.

Developed Countries – Apathy, Fear and the Consumer Society

The general public don’t see overpopulation as a major concern and anyway nothing much can be done.
There is fear and opposition to nuclear power for electricity generation.
They don’t understand the concept of zero population and economic growth.
They have been ‘brainwashed’ into thinking that to make them happy, they need more and more consumer goods and the latest models/fashions.

Overall the general public needs to be ‘deprogrammed’ from the consumer society to know something can be done about population growth and not to fear nuclear power.

Zero Population and Economic Growth:

If we can manage to slow population growth we need to think of the economic consequences. In the future we will need to make quality products that last for as many years as possible rather than ‘consumer society products’, that look good but only last a short time. Many, if not most products made today, actually have planned obsolescence built in. With slow to zero population growth, not only will producing products that last for many years, stop the wasteful use of the earth’s resources, it will be vital, to create employment to maintain and repair these products over many years. So rather than build more and more factories that employ less and less people per factory, if we make products that last a long time, we will create employment that will be needed for repairs and maintenance for these long lasting products. This is probably the only way we can have sustainable slow to zero population and economic growth; producing quality that lasts.

The significance of this cannot be overstated. On the one hand the whole of the western world is geared towards the consumer society and obsolescence of consumer goods and the need to have the latest fashions. On the other hand religious organizations and other groups with vested interests, are totally opposed to birth control necessary to stem population growth.

The list is long and entrenched attitudes will not easily be overcome. Modern humans have been on the Earth some 200,000 years and have so far survived. We have been given the powers of reason and the ability to understand the consequences of our actions. However our modern society is not in harmony with nature and we have overpopulated our planet. Is it not time to arise out of the cave of ignorance and to again start to think for ourselves? We need to get overpopulation and climate change at the top of the agenda. The medium to do this also now exists; the internet.

Where to start on this huge problem? Surely education must come first with five aims:

1) To educate people on the need for population growth reduction.

2) To overcome the huge religious and cultural objections.

3) To convince politicians of the need to stop overpopulation.

4) To advise on the need and educate people to use contraception and the best forms of contraception and to make contraception (particularly condoms and IUD’s) easily and freely available in developing countries.

5) To convince everyone of the need for and the sustainability of zero population and economic growth

The controlling powers do not want to change things. Just like in the Age of Enlightenment a ground up movement by the people is required. We need to get people to start to understand the issues involved and start talking about them and lobbying our politicians through Twitter, Facebook and blogs.