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Overpopulation Problem? What Overpopulation Problem?

Some people seem to be horrified at the sight of these images. For me, it is more a sensation of melancholy. These masses of people can exist only for a brief moment in the history of humankind. Overpopulation is a problem that will solve itself rather quickly although, unfortunately, not without pain.

I keep reading more and more comments about overpopulation on the social media. It is not just an impression: the trend of increasing interest in population matters is visible in Google Trends. Still weak, but it is there.

It is puzzling how the question is returning. It had disappeared from the media after it had been popular in the 1970s, at the time of the first “The Limits to Growth” study. At that time, there were less than 4 billion people and that was viewed as a huge problem. Then, somehow, it became unfashionable to mention overpopulation, just as it became unfashionable to consider “The Limits to Growth” as anything more than a completely wrong study written by people not smarter than Chicken Little (it wasn’t the case).

Now, with 7.6 billion humans o the planet, people seem to be awakening to the idea that – really – there may be an overpopulation problem. Humans are growing in numbers and they are appropriating a larger and larger fraction of the ecosystem. That means less and less space for other species which are, indeed, fast disappearing. When you read that, in a not too remote future, the only large animal left on the Earth will be the cow, well, that makes you think.

A specific streak of the discussion is that overpopulation is not just a problem, it is “the” problem. If we could reduce the number of humans, it is said, then all the other problems, pollution, global warming, resource depletion, would all become automatically much more manageable – if not completely solved. This opinion is often accompanied by statements that the reduction must be accomplished by fair and nonviolent means involving voluntary birth control only. That doesn’t prevent some people from accusing the “Greens” or the “global elites” of planning the extermination of most of humankind. Others see an evil plot in the growing population, accusing the powers that be – governments, religious organizations, the Illuminati, the gnomes of Zurich, or whatever – to be engaged in a global conspiracy aimed at hiding the dangers of overpopulation.

Personally, I am not too worried about human overpopulation, nor about these pretended evil conspiracies. Not that I think that there aren’t too many people around. The point, I think, is that if today overpopulation is a problem, and it is, it will solve itself rather quickly (although not without pain). No need for evil elites plotting extermination, nor of well-intentioned activists teaching the poor how to use condoms. The system itself will cause the human population to collapse.

The current 7.6 billion people on the Earth are alive in a very special moment of human history. It had never happened before and it is unlikely that it will happen again the foreseeable future. So many people are alive today because there exists a sophisticated and incredibly complex system engaged in keeping them alive. The stupendous transportation system that carries food all over the world is powered by fossil energy and controlled by the financial and political system we call the “globalization.” As long as fossil energy and globalization exist, people will be fed and population may continue growing.

But for how long? The whole system is under heavy strain because of depletion and pollution. Natural resources are more and more costly to produce while fighting pollution – also in the form of global warming – is becoming more and more expensive. A new major financial collapse will be sufficient to disrupt the transportation chain which ships food it all over the planet. Without this system, the food will rot where it is produced and the people at the other end of the chain will starve. It will be the Seneca Cliff of the whole system, including the human population.

There are other factors which may also work in the direction of reducing the human population. Think how interesting are the 400+ million tons of human flesh existing today for predators such as viruses, bacteria, and assorted parasites – we are their prey and we are rapidly becoming an abundant and easy prey. And there are more possibilities, from reduced fertility caused by heavy metal pollution to the old-fashioned, but always effective, large-scale wars. (*)

Recently, I published a paper on the Journal of Population and Sustainability where I looked for some historical examples of how populations (not just human ones) crashed down in the past. I found more than one reason that can lead to an abrupt collapse. An especially poignant example is that of the horse population in the US. It experienced a fast when the horses went down from some 27 million in 1920 to about 3 million in 1960. No one called for the extermination of horses but they had lost their economic value – replaced by machines –  and so they were not cared for anymore and not even allowed to reproduce. And that was the Seneca Cliff for horses.

Why not a similar cliff ahead for humans? They, too, have lost their economic value, being replaced by machines. You say that humans are not horses? Sure, but think about something: who decided the fate of horses? And who decides the fate of humans? You get my point, I guess. So, you may like to read my paper in the Journal of Population and Sustainability.

Cassandra’s legacy by Ugo Bardi


35 Comments on "Overpopulation Problem? What Overpopulation Problem?"

  1. onlooker on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 4:12 pm 

    Well finally a measured and thought out article about population. Billions have become redundant both by being too numerous too sustain for much longer and because of the lack of any economically intrinsic value. So, a large die off seems totally inevitable now

  2. Davy on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 5:34 pm 

    This population problem is really too many and not enough. The not enough is the demographic bulge that becomes an economic problem especially in our complex economic arrangements. Once the aggregate global population stops growing our growth based system will be tested by the forces of degrowth that come with population decline. Will we make it that far and still be a global civilization? One thing is for sure we can’t continue growing population and allowing that growing population to consume more. That is what we are doing now. Something will change and likely not too far down the road. I feel long term carrying capacity should be 1-2BIL. To get to that number we need decades of excess deaths over births. We need 100MIL-200MIL more deaths a year for the foreseeable future to get to 1-2BIL. That’s an average which means some years could be horrific. Maybe I am wrong and population can level off and we can manage. I don’t see it. I have been following this issue for so many years and nothing points to a solution. At some point death must replace births as the dominant force and once that happens we have a paradigm shift.

  3. Antius on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 5:37 pm 

    “Why not a similar cliff ahead for humans? They, too, have lost their economic value, being replaced by machines. You say that humans are not horses? Sure, but think about something: who decided the fate of horses? And who decides the fate of humans? You get my point, I guess.”

    What purpose did the third world masses ever serve to the economy or anything else? Bardi talks about these people becoming obsolete and disappearing. I don’t remember them ever being a useful part of anything.

  4. MASTERMIND on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 5:37 pm 

    Davy

    I think there are way too many people on the planet living off $1 a day or less. If we got rid of those people, we could keep consuming incredible amounts of resources for much longer..

  5. MASTERMIND on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 5:38 pm 

    Davy

    Five or ten nukes hitting Hong Kong, Moscow, Mexico City, etc..Overpopulation problem solved..

  6. Antius on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 5:41 pm 

    “This population problem is really too many and not enough.”

    Good way of putting it. An ageing population in the West; the only growth industries here soon will be plus size diapers and old folk homes. In africa and the middle east; a surging population of heathen. Growth industry here will soon be AK47s.

  7. JuanP on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 5:52 pm 

    “It will be the Seneca Cliff of the whole system, including the human population.”
    I think that a Seneca Cliff scenario is possible, but not necessary, or even most likely. The system has a lot of fat. The collapse may be longer and more uneven than a Seneca Cliff, but the longer the collapse takes to happen the most likely that it will, at some point, end in a cliff.

    The more I learn about our predicament, the more I realize that most people underestimate our human capacities to survive and destroy. I takes a lot to throw off a cliff 8 billion people that are adding 80 million a year. The more I think about it, the longer I think we will last and the bigger ultimate damage to the biosphere, too.

  8. Makati1 on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 6:28 pm 

    MM, 500 nukes over Us cities … problem solved. The real problem, not population, but the end of the terrorist Us. That could be accomplished by Russia in less than 1/2 hour. The Us has no 360 degree defense.

  9. Makati1 on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 6:31 pm 

    Juan, I don’t see a cliff in humnity’s future (baring nukes). I see a series of steep drops and a long burnout of the ecosystem.

    Eventually there will be a point where survival will be impossible, but maybe humans can endure until 2100. I won’t be here to see if I am correct, but the signs will be evident in the next decade or so. THose I probalby will see. Only time will tell.

  10. onlooker on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 6:38 pm 

    Juan, what must cease immediately is industrial civilization, that is mostly the rich countries. I don’t say this lightly, I live in a rich country. But the technologies of the rich countries are what is warming and polluting the Earth so much and also enabling these 8 billion and growing to live and deplete resources by virtue of being such a large population

  11. Makati1 on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 6:38 pm 

    Antius, yes, the West is aging and will soon be dead. However, those “heathens” are young and those countries are growing. That is where to be today. I prefer “heathens” to the American killing machine.

    As for AK47s, Civilians will not be allowed to have any guns soon. Be patient.

  12. Duncan Idaho on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 6:43 pm 

    Well, over our evolutionary history (200,000 years– maybe 300,000 with the new evidence in Morocco), we have had 1-10 million people (with a extinction event 70,000 years ago where we we down to less than 10,000- anyone can view it in our genetic record).
    7.6 Billion on a degraded ecosystem?
    I would laugh, but it wouldn’t be proper.

  13. Makati1 on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 7:32 pm 

    Ant: “What purpose did the third world masses ever serve to the economy or anything else?”

    Hmm. You are obviously ignorant of history.

    Where did the slaves that built the West come from?

    Where did/does the resources, mined and refined by those 3rd world people, go?

    Many inventions that you take for granted came from 3rd world countries.

    Have you checked the labels on your clothes, food, I-toys, etc. lately?

    You might be surprised to learn that they come from 3rd world countries.

  14. GregT on Mon, 2nd Jul 2018 8:24 pm 

    Ant: “What purpose did the third world masses ever serve to the economy or anything else?”

    They survived. Otherwise none of us would be here.

  15. Kat C on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 3:47 am 

    The population problem for humans will be solved permanently this time with extinction. Climate feedbacks are in place for exponential warming and as things collapse 400 nuclear power plants will go Fukushima.

  16. Antius on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 4:56 am 

    I just finished reading Bardi’s article published in the journal of population and sustainability. The article discusses previous instances of sudden population decline, in both human and animal populations. The population curves are roughly ‘Senica’ shaped. Compared to animal population declines, the human population declines that he referenced were somewhat shallower – smaller in their total extent and typically took place over a period of decades, rather than just a few years.

    Whether that represents a good predictor for future decline is anyone’s guess. The fact that so much of the Earth’s population depends upon fossil fuel inputs for food production is not reassuring. It suggests to me that relatively small declines in oil production could result in large mortalities in regions that are already close to the margins. Time will tell. I get the impression that we won’t have to wait much longer to find out.

  17. MASTERMIND on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 4:59 am 

    There are four very familiar cures for overpopulation..They ride hoarse’s..

  18. Antius on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 5:00 am 

    “The population problem for humans will be solved permanently this time with extinction. Climate feedbacks are in place for exponential warming and as things collapse 400 nuclear power plants will go Fukushima.”

    400 nuclear power plants melting down would cause about the same number of fatalities as one year of air pollution, globally.

    A bigger issue is oil depletion disrupting food supply systems. If that happens, human populations could shrink quite rapidly, with huge amounts of suffering.

  19. Davy on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 6:31 am 

    Fossil fuels are interrelated with oil. Renewables are likewise tied to fossil fuels. Food and water again tied to fossil fuels. Oil is the key to our energy, food and
    water equation. This is systematic so it goes deeper than the resources themselves. It also impacts the social fabric and vital networks. We have oil in depletion despite recent inclusion of unconventionals. We have a late stage economy that is the other key. Oil is interconnected and dependent on economic stability. The economy and oil are codependent. The good news is even though our civilization is likely terminal the decline phase may have a longish tail. Failures may initially be regionalized before the core is bifurcated.

  20. MASTERMIND on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 7:00 am 

    Davy

    There is no good news..You will likely die of conflict or starvation within the next ten years..Likely sooner..And good luck guarding your farm from the starving hoards..

  21. Bob Jones on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 7:41 am 

    It’s funny reading these idiotic articles about overpopulation and my favorite, “3rd world” when Americans/Europeans couldn’t survive 1 SINGLE DAY without exploiting this so-called China/Africa/India/etc. “overpopulation” they keep whining about.

    No oil/precious metals/lithium/coltan/electronics/cars/cell phones/stainless steel/and on and on.

    The end of “overpopulation” means the end of “the West” forever.

    But the American idiot and his Euro-lackeys are about the most ungrateful, hateful, spiteful, simple-minded morons this Earth has ever produced to ever understand it. I guess World War 1 & WW2 didn’t finish the job. WW3 should solve the overpopulation problem in Europe and North America, permanently.

    The Earth needs a break from this walking trash.

  22. Antius on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 7:57 am 

    Here is an excellent article from the surplus energy economics website that explains why Americans feel substantially poorer than they did in 2000: They actually are!

    https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/2017/09/05/104-why-mr-trump-cant-raise-american-prosperity/

    It suggests that it will be physically impossible for Donald Trump, or any subsequent president, to raise prosperity levels in the US, as net energy returns from fossil fuels are now declining. The average American was 10% poorer in 2016 compared to 2000 and will be a further 8% poorer by 2025. The effect is made even worse by the increasing inequality with which new wealth is apportioned. The same is true for every other western country, although the situation is skewed by the welfare state and differing levels of state borrowing. Not good news for any of us. For my part, I intend to grow more vegetables. If I were president of the US, I would be starting a massive nuclear new build programme and blowing the dust off of the integral fast reactor programme that was trashed by the Clinton Administration on political grounds in the early 90s. In so many ways, that man screwed the American people over. These are the only energy sources that still offer good net energy returns.

    This one indicates that China is heading for inflationary collapse and the US (and UK) are heading for lower levels of prosperity. The only way to reverse this is to develop an energy source that provides improved energy returns. That is one thing that Trump could do that might make a difference. Let’s hope that he becomes aware of this; there is no hope of any similar initiative from the Dems. Another Clinton would finish America off.

    https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/2018/07/02/130-grand-bargains-dangerous-choices/

  23. MASTERMIND on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 10:13 am 

    So you think your schooling’s phony
    I guess it’s hard not to agree
    You say it all depends on money
    And who is in your family tree..

    Right, (Right), you’re bloody well right
    You got a bloody right to say..

    -Supertramp

    https://imgur.com/a/a7OLtAt

  24. JuanP on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 11:17 am 

    Antius “It suggests that it will be physically impossible for Donald Trump, or any subsequent president, to raise prosperity levels in the US, as net energy returns from fossil fuels are now declining.”
    Yeah! That is why anyone believing in Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” is a fool. Some things are simply just not possible any more, but politicians will always lie. LOL!

  25. GregT on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 12:31 pm 

    “That is why anyone believing in Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” is a fool.”

    I guess that would all depend on one’s definition of ‘great’, and who it will be ‘great’ for.

  26. Antius on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 12:40 pm 

    “Yeah! That is why anyone believing in Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” is a fool. Some things are simply just not possible any more, but politicians will always lie. LOL!”

    …unless he does something very unexpected of course. Maybe something like this:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integral_fast_reactor

    http://www.thesciencecouncil.com/pdfs/PlentifulEnergy.pdf

    http://gsdm.u-tokyo.ac.jp/file/140528gps_chang.pdf

    So far as cheap energy is concerned, this might be humanity’s last throw of the dice. The Clinton administration cancelled it for entirely political reasons (basically sucking up to the Green Lobby) in 1994. It would certainly be poetic if Trump were the one to restart it and begin production of commercial reactors. It sure beats starving to death.

  27. MASTERMIND on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 12:47 pm 

    Greg

    Enough with the grandstanding..

  28. MASTERMIND on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 1:08 pm 

    US reliance on Opec endures despite shale boom

    US shale output has helped total domestic production more than double since 2010 to nearly 11m barrels a day. But the US remains heavily reliant on imported crude oil, bringing in about 8m b/d so far in 2018.

    While that import level is about a third lower from 12 years ago, with a significant amount coming from Canada, it still brings in nearly 3m b/d from Opec countries. That US reliance leaves it exposed to international prices, despite the rhetoric around energy independence.

    The country’s refineries also require heavier grades of crude. Lighter US crude from shale fields is not always well suited.

    With the US midterm elections in November in view, US president Donald Trump blasted Opec for “artificially” raising prices. But it was his aggressive stance on Iran that took prices a leg higher.

    US State Department reluctance to grant widespread waivers to big consumers of Iran’s oil has added to bullish sentiment.

    “I’m stunned by this latest US decision,” said Helima Croft at RBC Capital Markets, who said the hardline position was only stoking prices. “The US just needs to hope no other producer goes down. This is a high stakes game . . . There is no margin for error,” she added.

    https://www.ft.com/content/1169e0cc-79f6-11e8-8e67-1e1a0846c475

  29. Makati1 on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 5:34 pm 

    Antius, I don’t see any number of new nuke plants starting in the future. I see many closing. Too expensive. Too long to construct. Too dangerous.

    Trump trumpets a lot of announcements/lies that he later retracts. It’s all for show and to distract the serfs. All he is doing is selling arms for the M.I.C. and making money for his investments. It’s ALL about $$$ (for the 1%).

  30. Kat C on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 7:05 pm 

    Antius https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/forests-around-chernobyl-arent-decaying-properly-180950075/ “According to a new study published in Oecologia, decomposers—organisms such as microbes, fungi and some types of insects that drive the process of decay—have also suffered from the contamination. These creatures are responsible for an essential component of any ecosystem: recycling organic matter back into the soil. Issues with such a basic-level process, the authors of the study think, could have compounding effects for the entire ecosystem.”
    Think on that. Chernobyl and Fukushima had strong attempts at remediation. 400 plants blowing up with no remediation might well end the decaying process for large tracts of earth. No decaying, no food.

  31. Free Speech Forum on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 10:19 pm 

    Americans have a victim complex now and think they are not responsible for anything.

    Nothing is ever their fault, but Americans just need to look in the mirror if they really want to know who to blame for the US collapse.

  32. Makati1 on Tue, 3rd Jul 2018 10:35 pm 

    So true, Free.

    I wonder how many Americans know that they are being led down the same “victim” path that Hitler led the Germans down prior to WW2?

  33. Theedrich on Wed, 4th Jul 2018 3:36 am 

    Refusal to cure a cancer is the real problem.  It is not the cancer itself.  Virtue-signalling to block serious action with “humanitarian” drivel, along with utopian demands to kill any golden-eggs-laying goose in order to feed the cancer, ensure that systemic malignancies such as overpopulation will force planeticidal collapse.

    The American insanity of crying over “the children” or some other sob story immobilizes the government and accelerates the entire suicidal process.  Given that U.S. “democracy” is really bribe-ocracy by agents who ignore evolution and the limits to growth, let alone the idiocy of promoting the multiplication and importation of billions of low-IQ hominids, one can expect only the death of global civilization.

    That is, unless Providence unexpectedly raises some man from an obscure town like Linz to a position of real power who knows what has to be done.   And this time makes sure he succeeds.

  34. Cloggie on Wed, 4th Jul 2018 4:04 am 

    “That is, unless Providence unexpectedly raises some man from an obscure town like Linz to a position of real power who knows what has to be done. And this time makes sure he succeeds.”

    The current guys from Petersburg, Budapest and Milan are doing fine jobs already.

  35. mihilus on Fri, 6th Jul 2018 4:38 pm 

    Drop the AGW until its been proven with scientific method. Consensus isnt science. AGW hasnt been proven.

    Also its funny to see all these articles and comments ignoring the developments in identity politics. Its going to play a crucial role in how things play out.

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