The world, we have been told since the 1960s, is “overpopulated.” Disaster is certain if world population keeps growing as it has over the last century.
The world’s population growth is actually slowing down. Current UN projections suggest the world’s population will peak at about 2050, then start to decline.
But let’s leave this aside. Even if this were not true, even if world population were still growing quickly, what would it really mean?
A few weeks ago, I was vacationing in the Netherlands. The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated nations on earth. Accordingly, the quality of life in the Netherlands gives us some sense of what life would be like if the entire world were more populous.
In fact, of course, by almost any measure, life in the Netherlands is pretty pleasant.
There are no huge cities. Amsterdam is under a million. You can get from downtown into the countryside within a half an hour—by bicycle.
Greater densities do not mean the population must huddle in cities. And if it does not, for most of us urbanites, the experience of “crowding” could actually be much less than it is today.
In fact, in the developed world, big cities have generally been declining in population since the 1950s or so. With better transportation, people are spreading out. The “greater metropolitan area” does continue to grow: the growth hads been in suburbs and exurbs. But the typical urban individual lives with less pollution and less crowding than a century ago, when the population was far less. Rich or poor.
This trend, begun by the private automobile, should grow dramatically with the Internet. Populations can now be more widely and more evenly dispersed; any crowding will be purely voluntary.
Of course, a lot of people prefer many neighbours near by. Chinese or Filipinos often think we are mad to want to avoid such togetherness. Aren’t we terribly lonely in our private homes and broad unused lawns?
And we are, aren’t we? I gather I’m not the only one who finds spread-out suburbs “soul-destroying.” Part of this is the problem of underpopulation.
Many worry, of course, about the increased use of resources, in particular increased energy use: surely we’ll run out? Especially if everyone starts burning fuel at the rate of North America.
But why should they do that? The Netherlands has a far lower per capita energy use than the US, with a comparable standard of living. And this is due largely to a denser population. Things are much closer together. With more population, mass transit becomes more viable. Distances shorten. With greater densities, energy use per capita should decline.
We also already have a virtually inexhaustible source of fuel, after all: nuclear.
There are other advantages to greater population densities. I lived in South Korea, another of the world’s most populous nations, for over six years. It was wonderful to have so much going on, and so many friends, within a few hours away—all of South Korea was within a day trip from home, all of fifty million people. By contrast, living in Western Canada—Athabasca and Kamloops--seemed terribly limiting. Friends, events or opportunities in Ontario, or even Vancouver, were inaccessible. Underpopulation. That’s a tremendous limitation on one’s quality of life.
Heck, some of my best friends are people.
Unlike the Netherlands, of course, South Korea does have a large city. Seoul, at 12 million or so, is one of the world’s biggest. Although it too is dispersing. But even if this were not so, even if this were our future, are big cities really bad places to live? A lot of people pay a premium for the privilege.
Traffic gridlock and pollution? That has nothing really to do with the size or density of a city. It has to do with wealth or poverty. Pollution problems are easing in cities throughout the developed world.
And this is true of pollution more generally. Pollution is going down in the rich world, despite growing populations. Because with greater wealth, more development, there is more money for such long-term and aesthetic concerns. The worst thing we could do, accordingly, is to limit development.
There is much concern now about Kyoto and “global warming.” But wait a minute: what Kyoto seeks to limit is carbon dioxide. A harmless substance by most standards. We’re doing pretty well if our worst pollution problem is now carbon dioxide.
Traffic gridlock is a question of traffic management, of whether transit systems are capable of handling the present population. At certain thresholds of growth or wealth, there can be bottlenecks. Bangkok, with a smaller population than Seoul, has far worse traffic problems. Its poverty and its swampy site make building a transit system difficult. New York City, with a similar population, has fewer people-moving problems. On vacation there this summer, I had no trouble getting around, and saw little crowding. Its mass transit systems are better; that, not population, is the only issue.
On a purely philosophical level, to my mind, the notion of human “overpopulation” is difficult to buy. After all, human beings are an ultimate value: an end, not a means, as Kant put it. In what way, then, can there be “too many”?
Sure, we could no doubt do something dumb that might cause our extinction. But “overpopulation” by itself surely can’t do it. Underpopulation might.
I know: you are thinking of cases in nature when species use up their food resources. A lot of individuals of the species die, until the population and the food resources come back into balance.
But has this ever actually led to the extinction of a species? I doubt it. This sort of thing tends to be self-correcting.
Nor can it be avoided by a species deliberately keeping its numbers below the level of its resources. Another species will simply take up the slack, and is just as likely to overpopulate and use them up. Meaning a die-off for the first species as well. Only with greater risk of extinction, because there are fewer individuals.
In the case of the human animal, there is an additional consideration. We have a unique ability to produce, and to manage, our resources. It is therefore sheer folly, for us, to keep our population levels artificially low and yield the resources to other species. They are far more likely to deplete them than we are; with unfortunate consequences for them as well as us.
Perhaps we might run out of this or that other resource. But, with technology and development, our use of resources is actually growing more efficient; and we are always finding new substitutes for what is scarce and expensive. Better technology means greater efficiency, and this means doing more with less. Again, the worst thing would be to limit development.
Or the number of humans, as it is human minds that perform this miracle of multiplying loaves and fishes.
Go forth and multiply, dudes. How many people can live on the earth without overpopulation? I’d say about as many as the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.