Irresponsible Hyperbole in the “Myth of Overpopulation”

There is an ongoing discussion in permaculture circles about the “Myth of Overpopulation.” See this article posted on or listen to the latest Sustainable World Radio podcast with Botanical Explorer Joseph Simcox (By the way,  Simcox is SUPER awesome and I respect him immensely, even if we may disagree on some subjects.) These media sources bring up many flaws with traditional overpopulation arguments that need to be addressed. One of the worst flaws in traditional arguments is the attack of individuals, usually from marginalized populations, as the “cause” of environmental degradation from overpopulation, rather than addressing the fundamental flaws of the systems in which we live. This is a common scapegoat strategy, used so we can blame poor people in far off developing countries for environmental problems and not reform our unsustainable systems of landscape development, food production, and economies with vast externalized costs to the planet and human populations. While I agree with this argument, this does not mean that the growing population is not a concern. Excessively positive rhetoric from big permaculture players often suggests that growing population is a good thing because it means more minds and hands to redesign the world, but this is a dangerous hyperbole. The fact of the matter, is that right now, in the systems in which we currently live, the world’s human population is rapidly growing (even if the rate of growth is slightly less than in years past, there is still net growth) and most species on the planet (including humans) are suffering as a result.

Is the argument that humans are inherently bad untrue and detrimental in creating a truly sustainable world? Absolutely. Could planet Earth provide for more people if everyone was living by the permaculture ethics and our societies were designed as closed-loop holistic systems? Definitely. Is the conclusion that humans can then have an infinitely large population because the aforementioned statements absurd? Of course it is.

Permaculture is all about replicating natures patterns, and working small, slow and in scale. Why do we not apply these concepts to human population? If we really want work with nature and replicate ecology, we need to understand that there are limits to what an environment can support. This is called the “carrying capacity” of a system. At a certain point a species will become out of balance, and in most cases this is followed by a crash of the population of the species growing out of scale. Humans are an apex predator, or are at least the closest thing to an apex predator as wild apex predator populations rapidly decline. Our population dictates the health of the ecosystem and populations of species down the food chain. Apex predators are important to the ecosystem. They need to be there, but their population can’t be out of scale to the ecosystem. If the population is too small, then faster breeding species down the food chain explode and strain the environment. Too large and the apex predators starve. Another way to conceptualize a species too big for it’s system is by thinking about the mint in your garden. Mint out of control will smother your other plants. Everything in a system must exist in balance with the rest of the system, including human beings.

It is also important to look at the reasons why many developing nations have rapidly growing populations. A significant factor is improved medicine and longer life expectancy, often without educational opportunities to match the growing population. Research has shown that one of the most successful ways to reduce population growth is by addressing a deficit of education for women. When a woman is provided with education, she is not available at a young age to begin having children, is given the tools and opportunities to make alternative choices in her life, and, hopefully, educated about methods of family planning and contraception. Another reason for having many children per family is inadequate healthcare, so many children must be had to ensure some will survive to adulthood. Yet another reason for many children is to provide security for the parents in their old age. More children are had to ensure the aging parents are fed and cared for when they can’t depended on the State. While some people make the conscious decision to have large families, most of the worlds growing populations are growing because of dire situations. This is not People Care.

To be clear, population control is often not carried out as “People Care.” The forced sterilization of marginalized populations has happened too many times in human history. Population control rhetoric is often selectively applied to populations of the poor, people of color, and citizens of developing countries, without the acknowledgement rich and powerful populations already had their booms. Population control arguments can be thinly veiled racism and xenophobia. Just like women suffer disproportionately from over population, they also suffer disproportionately from inhumane applications of population control. We always need to be cognizant of the fact that stable or decreasing populations of developed countries have the largest ecological footprints on our planet. In our discussion of human population we need to have a more complete understanding of these issues and avoid polarizing simplified rhetoric of “More People Good!” vs. “More People Bad!”

We can not practice permaculture out of context. Just like every permaculture design must fit the its climate, every permaculture argument needs to fit the its historical context. Historically, growth in human population means disaster for the environment. Theoretically, could every individual human being have a positive impact on the environment? I think so. But it is irresponsible to argue that people don’t need to worry about population because maybe sometime in the future we could all have a positive impact. We need to remember that human population awareness is intertwined with reproductive and women’s rights, major human rights issues on our planet that have persisted for much too long. Simcox argues that suburban sprawl,  a common symptom of growing population in developed and developing countries,  can be looked on without dismay because humans are creating more surface area with each structure built that could be planted and produce food. But we need to be realistic and understand that not every wall of every house built is going to be put into production; in fact, the vast majority of surfaces will not be put into production, impermeable pavement will be laid, the those who dwell there will drive to work everyday pumping carbon into the atmosphere. Could each added person on the planet have a positive impact? Yes, but we are no where close to that being the case. And even once everyone is living the perfect permaculture lifestyle, there will still be a limit to how many people the planet can support, because there is only one finite planet.

We need to rethink overpopulation and acknowledge the problems in the systems we live in, not attacked individuals trapped in the system. We need to remain aware that growing population is still a problem as we continue to live in our unsustainable systems. Ignoring this fact for the sake of positive marketing is irresponsible. The immediate application of Earth Care and People Care means being aware of the strain growing human populations place on the environment, on our food systems, and on our healthcare systems. The answer is to educate and empower girls and women, provide everyone with access to family planning resources, and redesign our cities and societies so that eventually we can truly support our already large populations. Only then we can start being excited about a growing population of net environmentally positive human beings. In our discussions, we can approach these issues with a positive life-affirming messages and human rights awareness, without spinning out of control with hyper-idealistic pro-population growth exaggeration.



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Caroline says:

    Humans are not like other apex predators Therefore, carrying capacity limits do not apply to human populations. You will never see groups of bears, lions and wolves getting together and conversing over the benefits of organic gardening, forest gardens or using single-necleotide polymorphism to improve disease resistance in staple food crops. Nor will you see bears, lions and wolves domesticating and breeding animals or importing exotic plants that are better food producers then the ones native to the region. We also pass on these improvements to our offspring which increases their standard of living.

    Matt Ridley in his book “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves” makes a good argument for not using animal models on human culture. The reality is we are different and the rules of carrying capacity do not apply to us because of these differences. His book is also a good remedy for the doom and gloom that can be found in some circles.


  2. Population update!
    This is a really great interactive map and video about human population:
    No matter where you stand on the debate it is important to understand human population trends around the world. It’s fascinating 😉

    And because I can’t look at anything without picking it apart, here is a quick critique of the video when you first load the above webpage:
    This video is great and informative, but the final message is detrimentally simplistic. While I agree we need to be aware of population and educate people about making good family planning choices, ardent advocates of population control often act as though population is an easy thing to change whereas the systems in which we live and our standards of living are untouchable. Theoretically, capping developed nations’ fossil fuel consumption could be significantly easier and more humane than to making a significant chuck of the world population disappear. Those two actions could have equivalent environmental impacts, but we resist promoting anything that may change or challenge economic and societal status quo. If Americans were all planting trees and living bio-regionally instead of trampling each other on black Friday, maybe other countries would try to match our positive impact rather than our consumption, and the current population wouldn’t be putting as much strain on the planet. Focusing on population ALONE does not address fundamental issues like our consumption choices, our policies, and our societal structures, and externalize the blame. Population is important, it’s just not the whole story.


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