Overpopulation and Consumption

High birth rates and population growth result in higher levels of consumption of resources (all other things being equal), which can have a negative effect on social, and especially sustainable development.

This is one of the main topics within the Global Development option for A-level sociology.

Population Growth – Key Facts

  • Most world population growth has occurred in the last 100 years. In 1925 there were 2 billion people on the planet, today there are over 7.8 billion.
  • Most of this growth has taken place in the developing world: Between 1960 and 2005 Asia’s population doubled and Africa’s trebled.
  • Growth hot spots are today mainly in Africa. 
  • Meanwhile, Some Western populations are actually in decline. China’s population growth rate also seems to be slowing.

The United Nations data site is a good source for keeping up to date.

The Malthusian view of Population Growth

In 1798, Thomas Malthus argued that populations increase at a faster rate than the ability of those populations to produce food to feed themselves. He argued that this would lead to a natural process of famine, malnutrition and conflict over scarce resources that would increase death rates and so bring the population back into line with available resources.

In Malthus’ own words….

‘The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.’

—Malthus T.R. 1798. An essay on the principle of population. Chapter VII, p61[1]

The Malthusian view essentially sees the problem of overpopulation as a purely natural process, and one that sorts itself out through a natural process of rebalancing. Behind Malthus’ theory lies the assumption that there are certain natural limits to population growth – and once these limits have been reached, natural checks occur.

Neo-Malthusianism – Paul Erlich –The Population Bomb, 1968

After World War II, mechanized agriculture and the Green Revolution greatly increased crop yields, expanding the world’s food supply while lowering food prices. In response, the growth rate of the world’s population accelerated rapidly. In response to this, in 1968, Paul Erlich wrote the Population Bomb, drawing on Malthus’ ideas and predicting an imminent Malthusian catastrophe.

Erlich’s ideas, however, only focussed on the developing world, because birth rates and thus population growth had effectively stabilised in the developed world: By the early 21st century, many technologically developed countries had passed through the demographic transition, a complex social development encompassing a drop in total fertility rates in response to lower infant mortality, increased urbanization, and a wider availability of effective birth control.

In the developing world, however, Erlich argued that unless birth rates were brought under control, mankind was in danger of breeding itself into oblivion. High birth rates in the developing world would lead to overpopulation which in turn leads to six major problems: Famine, malnutrition, poverty, war, desertification and deforestation.

How Many People can Planet Earth Support?

This more recent BBC documentary from 2012 narrated by David Attenborough seems to be coming from something of a Malthusian view:

Criticisms of Malthusianism and Neo-Malthusianism

They fail to take account of the ‘demographic transition’

The demographic transition is where countries shift from high birth rates and high death rates to lower birth rates and lower death rates. During the shift there is a period of high birth rates and low death rates when the population increases, but this is temporary, although it might well last for several decades.

European countries went through this about 150 years ago and developing countries are currently going through a similar ‘demographic transition’ but over a shorter timescale.

Paul Eberstadt is a proponent of this view and argues that population growth is not due to people having more and more babies it is because the death rates in developing countries have decreased and especially the infant mortality rates have gone down. In particular, western aid has led to better maternal health care, more babies being born in hospitals and the eradication of diseases such as smallpox, measles and malaria. What this means is that ‘overpopulation’ should not really be regarded as a problem, it is really a sign of things getting better in the developing world.

Looked at in more general terms there is a broad correlation between increasing WEALTH and decreasing birth rates which Malthusianism fails to take account of and population growth in developing countries has actually been about decreasing death rates, rather than increasing birth rates….

Hans Rosling explains the demographic transition in this brief video clip (19 to 28 mins)

Malthusians fail to recognise the role of Politics in causing ‘Overpopulation’.

Overpopulation proponents suggest that there is not enough food for everyone, however, the World Food Programme points out that there is enough food for everyone, but several hundreds of millions of people lack access to that food because of such things as poverty, conflict and poor agricultural infrastructure – In other words it’s not too many people that’s the problem, it’s the economic and political systems that block access to available food.

According to the latest figures from Earthscan, if everyone were to consume at the level of people in America, then it would take five planets to provide the necessary resources and soak up the waste generated. People in the West consume vastly more than their fair share of the earth’s resources. A typical consumerist lifestyle is hugely dependent on vast amounts of energy, especially that from oil, and this cannot be sustained with current technology.

You can explore your own ecological footprint here….

https://footprint.wwf.org.uk/ – /

Relating this back to Dependency Theory, part of the problem is that the developed world requires a disproportionate amount of the world’s land and resources because of its higher levels of consumption. This is illustrated in the video below…

Extension Work – Visit Overpopulation is a myth – Watch the short video clips on this web site and note down further criticisms of the Malthusian view of population growth

Increasing global consumption

Global consumption figures have quadrupled since the 1970s: global population figures have doubled in that time, but the average amount of materials consumed per person has doubled.

The annual consumption of material goods now stands at over 100 billion tonnes per year, according to a recent report by the Circle Economy think tank, using data from 2017, the latest year for which data is available.

Breakdown of materials consumed by humanity:

  • 50% –  sand, clay, gravel and cement, used for building
  • 15% – coal, gas, oil
  • 10% – metal ores
  • Most of the remainder – plants and trees used for food and fuel.

Recycling in Decline…

According to more recent trends, the proportion of materials being recycled is actually falling slightly – down from 9.1% in 2015 to 8.6% in 2017.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is most relevant to the Global Development option

This 50-year increase in consumption is mainly due to rapid economic development in the most populous countries on earth, namely China and India. As these countries develop, so governments, companies and people spend more money on buildings, transport and consumer goods.

These figures remind us of the fact that western models of development rely on increasing consumption of a range of natural resources, and our level of consumption is increasing.

It’s difficult to see how this mode of development can continue for much longer – given that there is already intense pressure on the Earth’s natural resources – not only in form of deforestation and desertification, but also in the simple fact that some resources, such as certain metal ores, are scarce, which means they could be the source of conflict in future years, or at the very least price rises, all of which could make sustained economic growth and development challenging to say the least!