Kathryn is a junior at Dartmouth College majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in Anthropology. She is originally from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where her parents live and own a veterinary clinic. In her spare time, Kathryn likes to read fiction novels, run and weight-train at the gym, and snowboard. She is also a devoted sister of Epsilon Kappa Theta sorority at Dartmouth. Kathryn hopes to work after graduation with groups promoting conservation of biodiversity and protection of endangered species.
Human overpopulation seems to be a taboo subject, even in the field of environmental studies. The growth of society is seen as progress, a step in the right direction for mankind. The immense human population tends not to be viewed as an environmental problem; if other issues facing the planet were addressed, then the world population would not matter. But what if overpopulation is the underlying cause of environmental degradation?
Over two hundred years ago, Dr. Thomas Malthus, a British scholar from the late 18th to the early 19th century known for his analysis on societal improvements and population growth, predicted the issues of worldwide hunger that we are facing today. He wrote An Essay on the Principles of Population that stated while the human population can grow exponentially, agriculture and food supply could not keep up. In an article published on December 9, 2008, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations claimed that there were 963 million people going hungry. By June of 2009, that number had risen to over one billion.
Why, in the 21st century, in an age of rapidly growing technology, is a sixth of the world’s population starving? The answer is that, no matter what types of technology or innovations we create, there is just no way for our earth to sustain six billion people. There are simply not enough resources to feed everyone. Even if we tried to allocate resources to everyone, we would only further contribute to environmental degradation.
First of all, there is not enough land to support all humans. If we try to convert more land into agricultural areas, deforestation will occur. If we try to get more crops out of each field, soils will lose their nutrients and will be useless for future crops. Ruining soils can cause desertification, causing regions to become barren deserts.
Water is another limited resource. According to a 2006 article written by Dianne Rahm, Larry Swatuk, and Erica Matheny in the journal Environment, Development and Sustainability, there are water wars taking place now in certain areas of Africa, like Botswana. Blood is shed because not everyone has enough drinking water. Agricultural irrigation uses huge amounts of water in arid areas like Africa and there is simply not enough to go around. And, fresh water is essential because saltwater ruins the soil. The world does not have enough to share for every single person on the planet. Somebody has to go without.
Malthus believed that the reason for starvation was to keep the human population in check. What could be more obvious? If humans are dying because there is not enough food, then that is a signal to all people that our population is too big. This is basic ecology: when resources run low for an animal population, like rabbits or deer, they begin to die of hunger; once their food sources have grown back from being overgrazed, the animal populations will begin to stabilize. Some people may argue, “Well, we’re talking about human beings here, not rabbits.” Why should it matter? Humans are animals, too, and we are now at the point where we have reached our carrying capacity; our “habitat,” our environment, cannot support the numbers we have reached.
So, how can we lower our numbers in a socially acceptable way? This challenge is what makes human overpopulation a “forbidden” topic in the conversation of environmental preservation. Of course no one wants to hear about castration or “1-child only” laws. But there are healthy ways to reach a more sustainable level in our population.
One of these ways is increasing women’s rights around the world. Women throughout the Third World are forced to marry at young ages, and almost immediately begin having children. As these poor people try to support themselves, they have more offspring so that their children can work to raise money, too, yet then there are more mouths that cannot be fed. Many of these women have no say in the number of children they have. They are sex slaves to their husbands, and in many nations of the Global South, the idea of marital rape is non-existent (or is not a punishable act).
If these women were given the right to control their own bodies, they may not become pregnant as often. Or they will be the ones who may decide whether to have a child at all. Tied into this issue is the concept of family planning. The lack of education, especially about sexual health, is rampant in the Global South. But if that were to change, perhaps our population would, too. If men and women were taught about contraceptives and the advantages of having smaller families, we would see many benefits from those actions. Contraceptives are incredible tools that could save this planet. If we could increase their supply and distribute them throughout the developing world, as well as change the attitudes toward birth control methods, then our population would instantly begin moving in the right direction. Women would be empowered, deciding what is best for them and their own bodies; thousands of children would not die every day due to malnutrition; the human population would begin to stabilize at a sustainable level.
Talking about how to control human overpopulation should not be viewed as an unacceptable topic or something that should not be discussed. We are talking about giving rights to women throughout the world. We are talking about saving thousands of lives of children. If they are not born, they are not starving. And if we take action, our earth may be able to return to its natural balance, and be able to support all human beings.
Image courtesy of GreenBabyGuide.com.