The Plague of Overpopulation

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Critics are warning that at almost six and a half billion people currently inhabiting the world, we are coming dangerously close to the sustainable capacity of planet Earth. Overpopulation and attempts to control the whirlwind of reproduction that is plaguing both developing and developed nations has been dog-eared as one of the major concerns for the United Nations at the recent summit in Johannesburg. Both Edwin Dolan and Charles Southwick have cited the population explosion that started post-industrialization in their respective excerpts; "TANSTAAFL: The Economic Strategy for Economic Crisis" and Global Ecology and Human Perspective - as a problem deserving serious attention both in academia and the international front. However, both men's arguments contain some rather significant holes for several reasons. The first is perhaps often overlooked when discussing the Earth's ultimate capacity in terms of human population. What is a sustainable number of persons on the Earth? How is it to be measured? What basic human rights should be ensured to every man, woman, and child, and how can these rights be ensured without a redistribution of wealth? In essence, can overpopulation and economic disparity be separated? Southwick discusses this, but gives no decisive verdict on how the two are actually related, while Dolan claims that the issue is of less urgency than commonly perceived.
 
Furthermore, both authors are failing to include rather important viewpoints into their arguments that ultimately results in the weakening of their chosen position. Dolan argues that population growth when coupled with the technological progress will eventually level off and the problem will more or less disappear. He is claiming a tech fix is inevitable, but ignores the problems with applying this tech fix to the lesser developed nations that are being most violently effected by the population boom. Conversely, Southwick argues that human population growth is virtually unstoppable and will only be curbed with significant global legislature and aide or worldwide catastrophe. He ignores many of the arguments, such as the possibilities of a technological solution, which Dolan is presenting. However, when the two essays are combined, they provide a more comprehensive picture of what global population growth actually looks like, and give the reader a better sense of how the problem will develop and therefore must be handled in the near and distant future.
 
The first question of interest &endash; what actually constitutes overpopulation &endash; receives no answer of adequate definition in either of the works.

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While Southwick does not outwardly define the term, he does note that human population growth is "one of the greatest problems in global ecology and a major driving force of environmental degradation (Southwick, 160)." His meaning seems to point to the environmental consequences of too many people in any confined area and thus depleting their resources beyond repletion. However, he goes on to mention seven other points, presumably which he connects to overpopulation, but don't seem to have any immediate ties to his initial description. The fact that one out of four adults cannot read or write (Southwick, 160) does not necessarily point to an overpopulation problem, but rather a problem with the distribution of wealth and thus educational opportunities. Is Southwick suggesting that a population of only 2 billion would result in total literacy? It seems highly implausible. We can't even manage total literacy in the U.S. with overreaching legislation, never mind if we were to spread our population across the span of the entire globe. He, like so many others in the discussion of overpopulation, clouds the issue and refuses to separate it with the poverty problems in our country and world. They are based on the assumption that fewer people would result in a more equal distribution of wealth, disregarding the natural human tendency to hoard for one's future progeny. Fewer people would not necessarily mean more money for all. It could very likely result in an even larger poverty gap like that which was experienced pre- Industrial Revolution.
 
Likewise, Dolan skirts the issue of what the definition of overpopulation is altogether, focusing instead on how the rate of growth we are currently experiencing will eventually curb itself. But in doing so, he fails to identify what the problem with this increasing growth rate really is and why it needs to stop at all. He claims there are "fixed environmental limits (Dolan, 56)" but never goes into what they are, at what capacity they will be reached, or what ramifications they will have. The problem just seems to be understood to be a significant one. It basis is purely theoretical. In fact, Dolan takes a very different stance than Southwick and many experts in the field, and claims that the population problem isn't really one at all, but instead simply a current nuisance that will check itself with one of two proposed theories (Dolan, 59-61). While there is something to be said for the inherency of the population growth problem, in posing an argument for or against it, a simple definition is necessary. How can Dolan argue that the problem doesn't exist when he doesn't even offer up a concrete idea about what the problem is in the first place? Because of the ambiguity of both the definition of the term and the factors that are attributed to its cause, an argument concerning it must at the very least define what is reportedly plaguing the Earth.
 
Ehrlich and Ehrlich define overpopulation as an exceeding of an area's carrying capacity, an area of land that contains more people than its resources are able to provide for, in their essay titled "The Population Explosion". In short, overpopulation is simply another way of implying environmental degradation. Under this definition, it seems to be that the Earth is already vastly overpopulated and we are well past the proverbial point of no return. In fact, under this definition, cities as they are known today constitute a greatly overpopulated area and should be abolished. Are population growth alarmists suggesting, with their 2 billion person quota, that an ideal world would contain no cities at all? How would commerce thrive and nations build economies? It seems obvious that overpopulation in some areas is necessary for our new global economy and way of life.
 
We are able to exceed Southwick's ideal carrying capacity because the criteria he sets up for its fulfillment are so ideal and naïve. His "reasonable standard of living" where every person and family has "a satisfactory job, adequate housing, a varied diet without fear of food and water shortages, a sense of safety and security, at least one automobile for each family, other transportation and travel opportunities, and satisfactory access to education, health care, recreation, and personal development (Southwick, 161)" all seem to align themselves with the definition of an middle-class American lifestyle. This all falls under the presumption that this is what the world's population wants in life. Who is defining "adequate housing" and "a satisfactory job"? What are they being compared to? It seems that a world populated within its carrying capacity can only ensure a lifetime's supply of food, clean water, and air &endash; pure goods that should be equally shared by all the Earth's inhabitants. All the other luxuries lie within the realm of economic equality, an effect that requires more than just a zero population growth.
 
The question then remains, why is the world able to continue to accommodate the increasing numbers of people? Why has no Malthusian catastrophe occurred yet? If, as Southwick claims, that the optimal carrying capacity of the world is only 2 billion persons (Southwick, 161), why are people still able to live comfortably in numerous locations on this planet? The real problem is not simply overpopulation, because we have been dealing with that for nearly a century now. The tech fix that Dolan elusively predicts doe seem inevitable. Whatever the fix entails, it will be the distribution to the LDCs that will require more significant global unity on the issue. Instead, the real global problem at hand seems to be the ever-increasing poverty gap that is correlated to this overpopulation that the world is experiencing. Southwick does note the direct relationship with poverty and population growth but does not clarify the specifics of the relation. He claims that either poverty is a result of high population growth or high population growth is a result of poverty (Southwick, 166), but compares the two theories only by stating the obvious fact that an end to population growth would alleviate poverty in some lesser developed areas. Limiting family size would increase the per capita for some of these families, but until the social structure in many of these agricultural countries that engrains the philosophy that more children will yield more money is dispelled, a negative population growth in many of these LDCs is merely theoretical.
 
Dolan's argument, although providing sound solutions for the eradication of the human population explosion in the U.S. and other well-developed &endash; read economically wealthy and technologically advanced, speaks little toward the ramifications of the issue in LDCS. Although significantly dated, Dolan presents statistics that prove the Net reproduction Rate in the U.S. was on the track to meet 1.0 growth rate by 1975 (Dolan, 63). He uses this fact to then back up an argument that no matter what, population growth will always be encouraged to some extent, citing the alleged advantages it brings to politicians, armies, and commerce. He then proceeds to dismantle these claims, citing numerous reasons why all these organizations could continue to function with a smaller population index. So what then is it that Dolan is trying to present? His article seems contradictory at every new idea. He calls for a laissez-faire policy concerning the issue, demanding that countries prove it is a problem before it can demand international attention and thus aide from wealthier countries. Where does that leave Dolan's argument at present day? The "burden of proof" that he referred to has been tackled and accurately demonstrated. His ambivalent solution now requires another one, perhaps the first option he presents, "permitting one sub-group of the population to impose its favored population policy on the rest, against their will, via the political process (Dolan, 72)." Although referred to with highly negative connotations, there is some validity in his cold and capitalistic solution. It may ignore some of the larger, more pervasive problems, but it could provide an effective solution for a simplistic view of the problem if properly administered. Culture consciousness must play an intricate role in whatever "tech fix" that is decided upon, especially if it involves an alteration of a cultural identity.
 
Whatever the link between poverty and population growth may be, a solution for the latter does not need to include elements that will solve the former. A simple educational plan funded by the wealthier, more developed countries and global organizations, namely the United Nations, teaching methods of birth control within a specific cultural contest seems to be enough for at least curbing the population explosion to some extent in some places. As academics try to solve the problem of poverty and population growth with one single solution, they fall into the trap of assuming too large of a task. By simply isolating population growth and reducing it to its simplest form, ineffective means of birth control, a solution can be more easily assumed and applied.

Sources:

Southwick, Charles H., Ch. 15 from "Global Ecology in Human Perspective" Oxford Univ. Press, 1996, pp. 159-182.
 
Dolan, Edwin G., Ch. 5 from "TANSTAAFL: The Economic Strategy for Environmental Crisis" 1974, pp. 55-72.


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