Size Matters

the population debate

by by Danny Sugar

illustration by by Annika Finne

The Scottish newspaper The Herald dubbed 2008 “the year of global food crisis.” The simple call-to-arms that motivated protesters in Haiti and other nations was “We’re hungry,” according to The Economist. Although many of the shortages resulted from rising food prices, unsustainable population growth also intensified the problem. Thirty-nine years after Norman Borlaug—who passed away September 11—won the Nobel Peace Prize, many of the agronomist’s fears have come true. Much of the developing world faced food scarcity in the Post-War era. In 1944, Borlaug began working in Mexico, where “farmers could not feed themselves” according to the New York Times. In the next 20 years, Borlaug’s work helped initiate the Green Revolution by developing new wheat and rice varieties that resisted disease and doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled harvests, allowing farmers to feed themselves and then some. Borlaug’s seed varieties prevented impending food supply catastrophes in countries like India where, by the mid-1960s, famine and starvation were already rife. Indeed, Borlaug’s seeds forestalled hunger catastrophes caused by rapid population growth, which first Thomas Malthus famously predicted in 1798.

Nevertheless, Borlaug worried about the misuse of his inventions. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Borlaug echoed Malthus’s concern that the population was growing faster than the food supply and consequently called on increased food production and population control to “unite in a common effort” against future threats of world hunger. He warned that an “ebb tide” of increased hunger “could soon set in if we become complacent and relax our efforts” to simultaneously manage the food supply and population. Even if his crops increased a country’s harvest fourfold, the gain would be meaningless if that country’s population increased eightfold.

6.75 billion’s a crowd
Today, the main cause of world hunger is the price of food, not its scarcity. Nevertheless, we can generalize Borlaug’s concern about resource management: What happens when the population is too large for all resources, for the Earth itself? Fundamental to this perspective is the idea that Earth has a finite carrying capacity: how many people the Earth’s resources can support. Although it is not clear what the exact carrying capacity is, the US Geological Survey admits, “As the global population continues to grow...people will place greater and greater demands on the resources of our planet.” These resources include clean water, ecosystems, and of course food. In America, demand may already be too much for the Earth to handle. According to the popular online Ecological Footprint Quiz, there would need to be 6.35 Earths if, globally, everyone consumed as many resources as the average American.

Many scientists do believe that we will one day not have enough resources for the global population. In an interview with the BBC World Service earlier this year, Nina Fedoroff, Hillary Clinton’s science and technology advisor, stated that the global population has gone beyond “the limits of sustainability” because “the planet can’t support many more people.” Fedoroff went so far as to hypothesize that “there are probably already too many people on the planet,” presumably because the global population could deplete renewable resources like fresh water faster than such resources could be replenished.

The Earth and the global ecosystem can also only handle so much destruction from carbon emissions. Quite simply, the more people, the more carbon emissions, and thus more accelerated global warming. According to a recent Oregon State study, each new American life will bring 1,644 additional tons of carbon dioxide. This fact is especially disconcerting as the world’s increase in population comes from developing countries. In turn, these countries are becoming wealthier and thus are beginning to use polluting technologies to an extent similar to America.

No worries here
Although many environmentally aware individuals recognize population growth’s exacerbation of environmental problems, the general American public does not. January’s Octomom controversy arose over fertility drug abuse and the purported impossibility of a single parent raising 14 children. Popular media did not condemn Nadya Suleman for irresponsibly increasing the population by an unsustainable amount. Indeed, a poll last year partially sponsored by ABC News asked what people saw as the “biggest environmental problem” facing the world today. Among the top eight categories of common answers (which included climate change, water pollution, and not enough recycling), population change was conspicuously absent.

The lack of public consciousness allows those who make and affect policy to ignore population change. David Hamilton, the president of the Sierra Club, is opposed to even considering population growth’s effect on global climate change: “I don’t know how to say ‘No comment’ emphatically enough,” he said this month to The Washington Post, before proceeding to comment that what matters is “what we do with the people who are here.” Even the Obama administration declines to consider the positive role family planning in the Third World may have on reducing global carbon emissions. As reported by the Post, an American official at the UN wrote that “to bring the issue up…would be an insult to developing countries.”

The more the merrier
If some believe that population growth is so harmful, why is there so little concern? Doubt about the seriousness and validity of claims that population growth is a problem has allowed the topic to slip under our national radar. Indeed, there are many valid reasons that cast doubt on population concerns. From Malthus to Paul Ehrlich in his 1968 book The Population Bomb, which predicted that “India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980,” people have predicted a future overpopulation catastrophe that has never come. Even anti-population growth activist Bill McKibben admits those who have dismissed overpopulation are popular because “they have been right.” Additionally, population change escapes our attention in developed nations because there is none—the population is fairly stable, and has even declined in recent years in countries like Japan and Italy. As a result, we don’t dramatically experience the consequences of population change. 

Alternately, the developing world experiences unsustainable population growth as it experiences, for instance, food shortages that are partly the result of population growth. In China, the world’s most populous nation, halting population growth has been an official national priority since the implementation of the One-Child Policy in 1979, which according to Chinese authorities has prevented 300 to 400 million additional births. Many assume that once other countries develop, their populations will stabilize as well. With more development, for instance, more women may work and thus have fewer children. According to the United Nations Foundation, “Empowering women and girls,” by easing entry into the workplace, “is essential in the global drive to…stabilize the world’s population."

One of the most prominent popular arguments against overpopulation is argued in Julian Simon’s book The Ultimate Resource. Simon argues that despite population growth, human ingenuity will always overcome resource supply issues. Of course, the ultimate example of this is Norman Borlaug himself, whose inventiveness in seed genetics prevailed over diminishing food supplies. The Times obituary of Borlaug praised him for “altering the course of history.” Of course, imagine if Borlaug never existed. In this alternate scenario, the food supply crises and starvations of the ’60s and ’70s in the developing world would certainly remind the public of the potential harm of unsustainable population growth. Though the actual effects of population growth are unclear, on the occasion of Borlaug’s death it is important not just to celebrate his achievements, but also to listen to his advice about the population’s role in managing our resources. As a factor in resource depletion and ecosystem destruction, population change deserves our attention now; it is far too risky to sit back and hope for another technological breakthrough to stop an environmental catastrophe.

DANY SUGAR B’11 is .000000000147342% of the world’s population.