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Overpopulation Awareness is the website of The Ten Million Club Foundation

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The world is too small for us

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Crowded, isn’t it?

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Improving environment starts with tackling overpopulation

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Do not replenish the earth

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Limits to Growth

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The more men, the more jam

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Couples wanting children are doubly responsible for the future

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Overpopulation = overconsumption

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Stop the exhaustion and pollution of the earth

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Too little prosperity for too many people

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We love people, but not their number

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We cannot let humanity happen

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Friday, 05 March 2010 17:01

Have your cake and eat it?

Paul Gerbrands in ‘Overpopulation’ van Bio-Wetenschappen en Maatschappij van 2008
 
Overpopulation is not simply a question of too many people, but rather an issue of a combination of the number of people and the demands they make of their surrounding environment – in other words, their prosperity. The earth is quickly making its way to 10 billion inhabitants, while even
now a great many of them live in poverty. The riches are unfairly shared out and overpopulation of the earth seems to be inevitable. Unless we quickly make a choice: more people and less prosperity – or the opposite. 
 
Ten billion inhabitants is too many for our planet
The earth is fast on its way to achieving a population of 10 billion. But there is a discussion going on about whether the earth will thereby be overpopulated. In the animal kingdom overpopulation leads to individuals leaving or means that part of the population finds its own ‘niche’. And a lack of food or water or the outbreak of an epidemic reduces the number of individuals so that a balance is restored with the natural sources of nutrition. Examples of this can be found in certain species of birds that lay fewer eggs when there is a food shortage. There are even species whose young kill their siblings in order to survive. And herd animals, such as deer, do not reproduce until a severe winter or a dry summer reduces their numbers sharply. Although some supporters of the parallelism between Man and Nature believe that they can perceive these phenomena in humans, the reality is less black-and-white. Cannibalism, for instance, has nothing to do with overpopulation, and regions overpopulated by people are characterised by high birth rates rather than by fewer births.
 
Intellect
In fact, a human being has a greater intellect than an animal, though one can discuss the way that that superior intellect is put to use. But partly thanks to this, humans possess more tools and opportunities to influence their environment. When overpopulation comes about, man extends the limits of his immediate environment by searching extremely rationally for new opportunities in order to survive as species in large numbers and retaining as much as possible of his prosperity, thus making it possible to live longer and more happily. And in this he prefers to tame nature. The process started in the distant past with the domestication of crops and animals, the creation of fields, the draining of lakes and seas and the construction of canals and dams to irrigate the fields and to provide drinking water. It has currently ended with the introduction of artificial fertilisers and pesticides, the centralised creation and storage of energy and interference in heredity in order to produce even more profitable crops and animals.
 
As far as the relationship with nature is concerned, man seems to be triple-blind: locked into a blind desire for ever more, blind to a possible limit to growth and blind in his trust in the progress of science and technology capable of solving every problem. As early as at the end of the 18th century the English demographer and economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) predicted that population growth would always outdistance economic growth, something that would lead to large-scale famine. He introduced the notion of the Malthusian ceiling – the maximum number that the world population can reach in relation to the available land – and that of the Malthusian catastrophe – where overpopulation again equilibrium thanks to a rise in the death rate. Indeed, various scientific and technological inventions – by which humans are less dependent on land use – have regularly raised the Malthusian ceiling. And the worldwide Malthusian catastrophe has so far failed to occur. But up till now neither science nor technology have been able to prevent more than a third of the Earth’s inhabitants being underfed or living in poverty. It is clear that a small minority of the Earth’s dwellers are doing extremely well to the detriment of a larger part of the inhabitants of this world. 
 
Ecological Footprint and Fair Share of the Earth
Modern ecologists speak of an extremely unfair ‘ecological footprint’. A related concept is the ‘fair share of the Earth’. If all usable space on earth were to be divided up among all the people and nature were given sufficient room to recover, each inhabitant would have the right to 1.8 hectares. This fair share of the earth includes the space needed to maintain the world’s biodiversity. Although it is possible to criticise the various concepts and methods of calculation, it is clear that the share of natural resources is very unequal when seen from the point of view of the world’s population. Inhabitants of the Netherlands use an average of 4.4 hectares instead of the 1.8 to which they have a right (see table). The inhabitants of India and Kenya have a footprint measuring 0.8 hectares, the Chinese twice as much, while the inhabitants of the United States claim an average of 9.6 hectares. The biggest consumers are those in the United Arab Emirates with 11.9 hectares. Future prospects will be no better once the current 6.5 billion inhabitants of the world have multiplied in the course of this century to a projected 10 billion. And the loss of usable land due to the rise of the water levels will only reduce even more the number of hectares available for each inhabitant.
 
‘Overpopulation’ and ‘full’ are no longer mere expressions of subjective feelings, such as the one individual who likes an empty coastline while the other only really appreciates the beach when it smells of fried foods and sun cream. The concepts are quantifiable and bear a menacing reality. Suppose, for instance, that the entire world population of more than 6 billion should want the same level of prosperity and consumption pattern as the inhabitants of the Netherlands have. Indeed, it is not unreasonable that people elsewhere should want the same living space, car ownership, energy use and the same food imports, foreign holidays and luxury goods as we in the Netherlands have. With, as consequence, the same amount of waste materials produced, the same amount of products wasted and the same levels of pollution. For this the Earth would require not the biologically productive 11.8 billion hectares that it now has but 30 billion hectares. This is, of course, impossible, since the earth’s total surface area, excluding the oceans, is ‘only’ 15 billion hectares, of which 4 billion are arid. There would be shortages of everything everywhere and everywhere there would be disputes and wars. At this point overpopulation is no longer a vague subjective concept, no longer an unclear feeling, but a real threat to our existence.
 
Ecological problem
Overpopulation is an ecological problem. It comes about when the demands made by a population on natural resources exceed the system’s capacity to meet those demands. Overpopulation is thus also the product of the number of people and the demand that these make of their environment; or, to put it more simply: the level of prosperity. If, for example, fewer people lived in the Netherlands and if they all were to lower their requirements as regards prosperity, that group of people would have to make only a small call on the rest of the world. This would mean an improvement in the quality of life of their poorer fellow human beings elsewhere in the world. Seen in this light, The Netherlands is overpopulated. However for most of the inhabitants of this counytry, one of the most densely populated and richest in the world, that is not a subject of discussion. Most people do not realise that the situation is such and, to quote Al Gore, the reality is “an awkward truth” because a discussion of this would mean that we would have to confront the truth. The Netherlands – compared to, say, Ethiopia – places an awfully large burden on the ecological capacity of the Earth. More than 60 million Ethiopians do not consume a fraction of the food and energy used annually by just over 16.5 million Dutch. And thus nobody will be suprised to learn that the Dutch ecological footprint is considerably larger than that of the average Ethiopian.The larger the popualtion of a country and the higher the level of consumption of its inhabitants the greater the need for things such as food, energy and water –   therefore for ecological land. (Incidentally severe poverty also leads to a larger footprint since a poor population lacks the financial and technical means to take the environment into account, which increases pollution, erosion and loss of biodiversity.) The more countries achieve the same high level of prosperity, the greater is the long-term risk of an insoluble problem being created. At some point either prosperity levels must fall or the number of inhabitants must decrease. It is already bad enough that the average Dutch ecological footprint is greater than is responsible and greater than that to which the Dutch have a right. It is much worse that the greater part of the 4.4 hectare Dutch footprint is situated abroad, because the densely populated Netherlands has no more than 0.2 of a hectare available for each of its inhabitants.
 
Energy problem
Overpopulation is also an energy problem. The fossil fuels are expected to have been exhausted within a few decades. Even now, because of geopolitical problems such as the current war in oil-rich Iraq, hydrocarbons are available only in limited quantities and the price is rising. If Dutch energy consumption remains at the present level or even rises, this will bring about problems. Could the Netherlands provide for its own energy needs – for instance with alternative energy sources? In order to generate the energy required by Dutch society some hundreds of thousands of wind turbines would need to be erected or a third of the country would have to be covered with solar panels. And very large parts of our arable land could be sown with fast-growing reeds or other crops suitable for conversion to biomass energy. All of which would place a severe burden on the country’s already scarce agricultural land, doubtless leading to a food crisis. Nuclear power is another possibility, since there are enough fissionable materials available for a century – though not in the Netherlands. The contribution to a decrease in the quantities of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would be considerable, but we would be saddling future generations with the problem of radioactive waste. And drastic reductions in current levels of energy consumption could be pushed through, but we cannot expect any dramatic percentages in the near future. And certainly not if politicians and economists continue to recommend economic growth as a necessary condition for the further development of the Netherlands.
 
Water and food-related problems
Overpopulation is also a problem of the availability of water and food. The worldwide demand for water continues to increase. And not just agriculture – though this is the biggest culprit – but also industry and households demand an ever-increasing share of the water supply. Many countries are afflicted by water scarcity, both quantitatively – too little water – or qualitatively – insufficient clean water. It is clear that lack of water leads to failed harvests, famine, refugees, ethnic conflicts, infectious diseases and other health problems.
 
Water and food for the population of regions affected by natural disasters or war are always the first form of aid. But this changes nothing essential, either in the long term or structurally, in the living condtions of the population.
 
The international community should consider the moral content of this approach – which is merely incidental. On the one hand, people are – rightly – helped and given hope for (future) improvement. On the other hand, the international community has little regard for real measures to bring structural relief to the suffering of the populations in question. Often there is a lack of political and economic will to bring about a real type of peace suited to the region torn by war. And, not infrequently, past conflicts have been blown up by the industrialised world itself in order to safeguard its own geopolitical interests. Examples of this are: the Palestine-Israel conflict in the Middle East; the guerilla war in Afghanistan; the struggle bewteen Iran and Iraq; the current (2010) crisis in Iraq; and the countless theatres of war in Africa where the local governments, warlords and various tribes are alternately supported by the various major pwoers.
 
In addition, little structural aid is given to help poor countries and producers in those countries to gain a foothold on the (international) market. The rich countries are generally nowhere to be found wherever effective measures are to their economic disadvantage. Such measures could include the reduction of protectionism on the part of the industrialised countries, stopping the dumping of cheap and rejected products in poor countries, protecting the prices of raw materials and reducing the sales of arms to poor regimes and unstable regions. The same applies to reducing one’s own ecological footprint to the advantage of the populations in poor countries. Meddling with our own prosperity is not permitted, not even to improve slightly the minimum and often insufficient living conditions of the poorest. And that while history teaches us that in the end it is prosperity that puts the brake on population growth.
 
Scientific and technological problem
It is perhaps possible that science and technology will be able to offer sustainable solutions for a world which, by the end of the 21st century, will count 10 to 11 billion inhabitants. This brings us up against the fact that overpopulation is also a techn(olog)ical problem. A stubborn belief exists, especially among technological scientists, in human progress. Thus one argument against the Malthusian catastrophe already referred to is that all those extra people will also bring with them extra brain power, creativity and new solutions. The catastrophe has not yet happened, and the Malthusian ceiling has already been raised several times. The Green Revolution, whereby rational cultivation methods considerably increased the yield of food crops, is one of the solutions offered by science to food shortages and poverty. And there are more scientific and technological lines that could lead to solutions to the worldwide poverty to which we are progressing. Unfortunately, reality is stubborn. No few scenarios sketched in order to avert a worldwide disaster remain in the domain of science fiction. In theory they are doubtless possible, but the political, financial and practical obstacles and the accompanying uncertainty turn out to be so great that they cannot be realised – at least not in time. Safe nuclear fusion, for example, is a futuristic solution to the energy problem. But decades of research and major investments have brought nuclear fusion scarcely closer to its application, and public opinion in Europe is beginning to turn against this type of power station. The same applies to other technological solutions to a number of problems brought about by the combination of great prosperity and many billions of inhabitants of the Earth. It is certainly the case that science and technology can increase the Earth’s capacities and can reduce the burden that the growing population places on the natural resources. But the pace at which that has happened in the past causes reasonable doubts as to whether the worldwide introduction of this new technology will be rapid enough.
 
Political problem
As a point of principle, countries such as China and India and all other ‘underdeveloped’ countries have the right to as much prosperity, education, healthcare and consumer goods as the Western countries enjoy. If we were to start from the principle of the ecological footprint and were all to live like the average North American, who requires 9.4 hectares of biologically productive land, there would be room on Earth for just 1.25 billion people. If we stick to the prosperity level of the average Dutch citizen, 2.7 billion is the limit. It would seem clear that at the present moment the Earth cannot sustain a world population of 6 billion at the prosperity level of the most developed countries. And then there are only two solutions imaginable: with many people, many poor; or greater prosperity per person with fewer people.
 
And thus overpopulation can be seen to be a mainly political problem. For this reason there must be more open discussion on the consequences of the current combination of prosperity and population, of which the result is too great for the Earth’s present capacity. However this is not felt as a matter of (political) urgency. Evidently most people are not yet sufficiently impressed by the impending disaster we call overpopulation. And yet the issue must be seen in political circles and the choice has to be made now. Because if people – in the Netherlands, for instance – opt to reduce prosperity or reduce the population, the effects will not be noticed for a few decades. If we tarry much longer, the curse of future generations will be on our heads.
 
 
Malthusians and the Ten Million Club
 
The English demographer and economist, Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), made a prediction at the threshold of the 19th century: the rate of population growth would exceed that of food production and this would lead to famine. When the population reaches a ceiling, a catastrophe ensures that – thanks to a rise in the death toll through hunger and sickness – overpopulation comes into balance again with the material resources. Only contraceptives and abortions could prevent a disaster, but Malthus – himself an Anglican minister – was dead set against such solutions. Malthus and his disciples were particularly worried by the reckless reproductive behaviour of the working class and paupers. Malthus was convinced that increased prosperity stimulated population growth. But the opposite proved to be the case: greater prosperity leads to a fall in the birth rate. The neo-Malthusians are less pessimistic about population growth and prosperity, but suggest that the Earth’s capacity sets natural limits to population growth. The neo-Malthusians are solid in their belief in a role for technology in turning aside the Malthusian catastrophe. Indeed, development of technologies can cause the land to be used more efficiently. Technology-optimists and technology-pessimists differ in their opinions as to the extent to which technological progress can avert a catastrophe of 10 billion inhabitants of the Earth. At any rate, people are agreed that information on contraceptives and especially their use are important means for postponing a catastrophe of this kind – or even to prevent its happening.
In the Netherlands in 1994 the Ten Million Club Foundation (TMC) took up the threads of the Malthusians and the Club of Rome – that predicted in the 1970s an ecological disaster caused by factors including overpopulation, prosperity, waste and pollution. In no way does TMC, that strives for a maximum population of 10 million in the Netherlands, wish to be associated with racial politics or enforced limitation on the number of children. TMC, however, does strive towards government policies that eventually should lead to total number of inhabitants that our country can deal with – 10 million. Strong (financial) stimuli persuading people to limit the number of children and the migration balance should not be eschewed if information has insufficient effect (www.overpopulation.nl).
 
Table 1
The Living Planet Report (2006) gives the following figures for the average Footprint per inhabitant (as of 2003)
Continents
Countries
North America
9.4 hectares
United Arab Emirates
11.9 hectares
European Union
4.8 hectares
United States
9.6 hectares
Europe (non-EU)
3.8 hectares
Belgium and Luxembourg
5.6 hectares
World
2.23 hectares
Netherlands
4.4 hectares
Middle East and Central Asia
2.2 hectares
Hungary
3.5 hectares
Latin America and the Caribbean
2.0 hectares
Turkey
2.1 hectares
Available biocapacity
1.8 hectares
Brazil
2.1 hectares
Asia (on the Pacific)
1.3 hectares
Algeria
1.6 hectares
Africa
1.1 hectares
China
1.6 hectares
 
 
Kenya
0.8 hectares
 
 
India
0.8 hectares
 
2010
 

World population