April 19, 2009
SUNY ESF Profs Rank Overpopulation Above Global Warming As Problem

Professors who work on environmental research place human overpopulation as the top environmental problem on planet Earth.

Overpopulation is the world’s top environmental issue, followed closely by climate change and the need to develop renewable energy resources to replace fossil fuels, according to a survey of the faculty at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF).

Just in time for Earth Day (April 22) the faculty at the college, at which environmental issues are the sole focus, was asked to help prioritize the planet’s most pressing environmental problems.

Overpopulation came out on top, with several professors pointing out its ties to other problems that rank high on the list.

“Overpopulation is the only problem,” said Dr. Charles A. Hall, a systems ecologist. “If we had 100 million people on Earth — or better, 10 million — no others would be a problem.” (Current estimates put the planet’s population at more than six billion.)

Dr. Allan P. Drew, a forest ecologist, put it this way: “Overpopulation means that we are putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than we should, just because more people are doing it and this is related to overconsumption by people in general, especially in the ‘developed’ world.”

Charles Hall is correct that with a much smaller population our environmental problems would be far smaller. I think the optimal human population is well above 10 million though. We need more scientists and engineers to develop the technologies we need to live longer and healthier lives. 10 million people just could not accomplish that much scientifically and technologically. But 1 billion would probably be enough.

With only 1 billion people our rate of consumption of oil, coal, and other natural resources would be a smaller and tolerable rate. Our resources would last longer. Ocean overfishing wouldn't be a problem. Species extinctions would be a small fraction of the current rate. Much more of the world would be covered with forests. Particulate pollution would be much lower and greenhouse gases would be much lower as well.

What I would like to know: If environmental scientists and other types of scientists from many more universities were asked to rank human problems how would they rank them? In the mainstream press global warming (now rebranded as climate change) gets by far the most attention. Species extinctions, habitat loss, and resource depletion attract very little attention in comparison. But these environmental scientists at SUNY ESF rank human overpopulation as the top environmental problem on planet Earth.

I agree with these professors. The larger the human population gets the more it impinges on all the other species on the planet. But as long as human reproduction is seen as a basic right I expect the human population to continue to grow. Even the projected peaking of human population later in the 21st century is probably overoptimistic because selective pressures to raise fertility are bound to cause a rebound eventually. Humanity is under heavy selective pressure for genes that raise fertility. That selective pressure will eventually change the frequency of genes that govern reproductive behavior and humans will make more babies as a result.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 April 19 01:36 PM  Trends Demographic

Mthson said at April 19, 2009 5:21 PM:

The formula for whether or not an agent should have additional kids is largely a function of how much those kids will contribute to humankind, right?

Assistant Village Idiot said at April 19, 2009 7:45 PM:

We've had 10,000,000 souls on the planet at one point in the past. Ditto 1 billion. How prosperous were we then? Human bodies suck out resources, but human brains have more than compensated for that.

If we magically had only 1 billion suddenly, with no economic dislocation resulting from the immediate disappearance of 80% of our brethren, we would indeed have the infrastructure and technology to live really swell lives at present. As we would have 80% fewer brains working on future problems, we would have to then hope that things changed little from that point on.

It's a fun thought. And because technology tends to be additive, rather than having to be reinvented every generation, it might work. But there seems a great deal left out of the calculations here.

HellKaiserRyo said at April 19, 2009 9:28 PM:

Well, I got banned from talking about overpopulation and Paul Ehrlich on a Catholic Forum.

Well, overpopulation does cause global warming. But overpopulation is the biggest problem we need to solve. Also Richard Lynn says humanity is getting dumber. I think Randall would agree with Richard Lynn.

Dave Mc said at April 20, 2009 10:13 AM:

So what everyone seems to be saying here is Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot really had the right idea when they collectively wiped out about 100 million undesirable people in the last century. Unfortunately these four just thought too small when they envisioned their genocidal plans. What is apparently really needed is someone who can inspire their global followers to kill 8.5 or 9 out every ten of their neighbors to improve the health of the planet.

This puts a new light on incidents where men or women kill their spouse and three kids. Apparently "the voices" in their heads that told them to kill weren't psychotic episodes after all; they are actually environmentally sensitive souls receiving directives from a very peeved mother nature.

Come on everyone mix up a big picture of Jim Jone's special kool aid for the family and friends tonight and we'll have the environmental crises fixed by sunrise.

Really if people are going to offer up impossible solutions to real problems can't you at least find positive ones instead of ones that blithely gloss over a scenario that would make the Nazi death camps and Cambodian killing fields pale by comparison. How about weather control for global warming, asteroid mining to alleviate mineral shortage or Star Trek's teleporters to eliminate cars and trucks.

Michael B. said at April 20, 2009 10:22 AM:

I think it's important to know that even though reproduction is considered a fundamental right, individual preferences and actions can still be in influenced. If governments were really serious about lowering population growth and wanted to avoid the condemnation of rights groups and religious groups, they should get a bunch of economists to to study which ways of influence people's relative preferences, budget constraints, and isoquants. Best of all, people would be having children because they want to. They will believe it is in their best interest. They will do it willingly, without the government forcing them and without any genocide as Dave tactfully pointed out.

Brian Hayes said at April 20, 2009 11:30 AM:

Quick opinions and instant judgments about overpopulation have lingered for decades. It's an incredible challenge. This century seems to be a turning point on the great issues, and so far we've just begun to gain the courage to look square at the problems and causes. I wonder sometimes if solutions might be generations in the making. Exciting times methinks.

Bob Proette said at April 20, 2009 1:35 PM:

You think the world is overpopulated? Do the world a favor and jump off the train.
Yeah, Charlie Hall, take a long walk off a short pier! The same thing goes for all your pals who share your opinions.
It's no good to say there are too many people, and then you keep hanging around. Keep doing that, and people might get the idea you're a hypocrite. They might take matters into their own hands.

Randall Parker said at April 20, 2009 6:21 PM:

Dave Mc,

Like strawmen much?

Heard of birth control? See any difference between birth control and mass killings?

Michael B.,

There are ways to lower desire for babies that people will just embrace with enthusiasm. We'll need to give away free TVs in the poorest countries and hook up electricity to power them. Then add free satellite broadcasts.

Bob Proette,

Thanks for your unconstructive contribution. You sure showed us.

MABirch said at April 20, 2009 11:10 PM:

I am troubled by the concept, put into practice in China presently, that a government would use its power to curtail child bearing by force. The Chinese have decided that their people are their problem. Of course, the elite party members can have multiple children, it is just the common folk that are limited to one. The idea that an academic elite can, for theoretical, speculative reasons, advocate the massive reduction of human population is both ludicrous - because they offer no realistic way for it to happen - and horrid - because it is just such ivory tower speculation that can drive such men as Stalin and Pol Pot to their extreme applications of supposedly benign academic speculation.

Xenophon Hendrix said at April 21, 2009 3:51 AM:

Suppose genes for increased breeding are naturally selected for.

One assumes that with our growing genetic knowledge, we will know which genes those are.

What is to stop human beings from turning around and artificially selecting against the population-increase genes?

Michael B. said at April 22, 2009 10:06 AM:

Unfortunately, I didn't take the course that focused on population, migration, etc. We did discuss population in other economics classes though, but I can't guarantee's it's 100% accurate though I do feel confident about it.

Markets are always best when left alone except when there is market failure. In the market for reproduction, there is a lot of market failure. This is in part caused by things like a lack of women's rights (or a male dominated or patriarchal society in general), mass rape by paramilitaries, lack of available birth control, child labor, and government interventions which inadvertently (or once in a while intentionally) encourage reproduction. Markets are not always allowed to clear naturally and the laws of supply and demand cannot be repealed. They are forced to clear indirectly in part through having more children. Sustenance living and child labor is a huge problem because it makes having more children profitable for people who are barely making enough money to survive. This creates the negative externalities of having a very high population growth which is not sustainable. Malthus was partially correct. The thing that saved people from the Malthusian trap was industrialization and anti-child labor laws. The places that are not industrialized and have child labor are populous than developed countries and are rapidly growing compared to us. Normally, markets would clear by mass migrations (think Mexico to America, but more extreme) to industrialized countries and mass foreign investment in these poor countries for the cheap labor. This would cause rapid industrialization and growth. This doesn't happen because the poor countries keep themselves poor by being protectionist and/or anti-free market. In short, the developing world is having more children than the market would normally make them have. To make it even worse, international aid reduces incentives for governments to improve things and gives medical help. This causes a lot more lives to be saved than otherwise would be. This causes much higher population growth because not as many children are dying young as they once did in the West before modern medicine.

Randall Parker said at April 22, 2009 7:27 PM:

Xenophon Hendrix asks:

What is to stop human beings from turning around and artificially selecting against the population-increase genes?

Maybe that'll happen. But I see one obstacle in the way: the desire for grandchildren. People will tend to want their children to want children.

georgesdelatour said at April 23, 2009 9:55 AM:

World population is increasing not because people are having more & more children than they used to. By all measurements they are having less & less. It's simply that these children are not dying in infancy like they used to. Some very very vile people think this reduced childhood death rate is a bad thing. I hate these people. They are evil.

Statistics show the best contraceptive ever invented is female education & literacy. Once this happens, the demographic transition kicks in, & birth rates plummet well below replacement level. This has already happened in Europe, Russia, Japan, Korea, & it's starting to happen in Thailand & southern India too. It's more likely the world will face problems from an aging, declining population in 30 years time, than from an expanding one.

Ken said at April 26, 2009 3:01 PM:

Can overpopulation and mass dumping into the atmosphere of combustion products be separated from each other? The availability of resources feeds population growth but the resources remain limited. Malthus may have underestimated how productive agriculture can be when enhanced by extravagant use of energy from coal and oil but his insights are basic maths - there are limits and we will reach them. When the adverse consequences of that extravagant energy and resource use catch up with us the notion of reproduction being a right will vie with the right to price food way past the capacity of vast numbers to afford it and the right to shoot to defend food supplies. Or to shoot to defend the ongoing use of energy intensive methods that give short term yields but add to the scale of those longer term adverse consequences. I don't think humanity has the organisational skills, the degree of civilisation, to put long term sustainability above short term wants and needs.

Sulfur said at July 30, 2010 7:37 AM:

Before you will start adressing ovepropulaiton as a problem, think twice. Ovepropulation is not a problem. The problem is inabilty to support its growth. Developed countries have no problem with that. But what they have problem with is diminished ability to support themselves in the long run. Is it caused by malthausian disaster? Nope, it is caused by feritlity rates falling below replacement rates. And why it is so? Partly because by people like you, who are proposing solutions with unpredictable side effects. The growth rates in developed countries have been eleminated-congratulations. You just killed those states, but population is still growing, because people reluctant to have more children are going to die-out, whereas those with tendency to have big families will fluorish. Talk about counterproductive. Next time try not to craft-out any policy targeted at reproduction laws or whatever, but increasing wealth, suporting technology, education and agricutlure. Imagine society with low growth rates (but still growth rates), and target that. Thats much more realistic, safe and non-controversial. Besides, it is in accordance with well-being of your own species. We are not even close to overpopulation problem, but we have really much to do with poverty levels. Poverty means problems with ovepropualtion. Wealth means not having problems with ovepropulation even if there will be twice as much poeople on Earth. Because wealth today is tehcnological advance. Population levels should match tehcnology and wealth levels and not some arbitrary given numbers flying aorund heads of intelecutals who never actually understood the world outside walls of universities.

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