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

Evaluating the Usefulness of Official Statistics

Official Statistics are numerical data collected by governments and their agencies. This post examines a ranges of official statistics collected by the United Kingdom government and evaluates their usefulness.

Click the image to search 13, 848 official statistics produced by the U.K. government

The aim of this post is to demonstrate one of the main strengths of official statistics – they give us a ‘snap shot’ of life in the U.K. and they enable us to easily identify trends over time.

Of course the validity and thus the usefulness of official statistics data varies enormously between different types of official statistic, and this post also looks at the relative strengths and limitations of these different types of official statistic: some of these statistics are ‘hard statistics’, they are objective, and there is little disagreement over how to measure what is being measured (the number of schools in the U.K. for example), whereas others are ‘softer statistics’ because there is more disagreement over the definitions of the concepts which are being measured (the number of pupils with Special Educational Needs, for example).

If you’re a student working through this, there are two aims accompanied with this post:

  1. Before reading the material below, play this ‘U.K. official statistics matching game’, you can also do it afterwards to check yer knowledge.
  2. After you’ve read through this material, do the ‘U.K. official statistics validity ranking exercise’.

Please click on the images below to explore the data further using the relevant ONS data sets and analysis pages.

Ethnic Identity in the United Kingdom According the U.K. 2011 Census

U.K. Census 2011 data showed us that 86% of people in the United Kingdom identified themselves as ‘white’ in 2011.

How valid are these statistics?

To an extent, ethnic identity is an objective matter – for example, I was kind of ‘born white’ in that both my parents are/ were white, all of my grandparents were white, and all of my great-grandparents were white, so I can’t really claim I belong to any other ethnic group. However, although I ticked ‘white’ box when I did the U.K. Census, this personally means very little to me, whereas to others (probably the kind of people I wouldn’t get along with very well) their ‘whiteness’ is a very important part of their identity, so there’s a whole range of different subjective meanings that go along with whatever ethnic identity box people ticked. Census data tells us nothing about this.

Religion according to the U.K. 2011 Census

In the 2011 Census, 59% of people identified as ‘Christian’ in 2011, the second largest ‘religious group’ was ‘no religion’, which 25% of the U.K. population identified with.

Statistics on religious affiliation may also lack validity – are 59% of people really Christian? And if they really are, then what does this actually mean? Church attendance is significantly lower than 59% of the population, so the ‘Christian’ box covers everything from devout fundamentalists to people that are just covering their bases (‘I’d better tick yes, just in case there is a God, or gods?’)

The British Humanist Society present a nice summary of why statistics on religious belief may lack validity…basically based on the ‘harder’ statistics such as church attendance which show a much lower rate of committed religious practice.

The United Kingdom Employment Rate

The employment rate is the proportion of people aged from 16 to 64 in work.

The lowest employment rate for people was 65.6% in 1983, during the economic downturn of the early 1980s. The employment rates for people, men and women have been generally increasing since early 2012.As of December 2016, the employment rate for all people was 74.6%, the highest since records began in 1971

Critics of the above data point to the existence of an informal or shadow economy in the United Kingdom which is worth an estimated £150 billion a year – people who are working and earning an income, but not declaring it. In reality, the actual paid-employment rate is higher.

Household Income Distribution in the United Kingdom

Household income statistics are broken down into the following three broad categories:

  • original income is income before government intervention (benefits)
  • gross income is income after benefits but before tax
  • disposable income is income after benefits and tax (income tax, National Insurance and council tax).

In the year ending 2016, after cash benefits were taken into account, the richest fifth had an average income that was roughly 6 times the poorest fifth (gross incomes of £87,600 per year compared with £14,800, respectively)

Reasons why household income data may lack validity

While measuring income does appear to be purely objective (you just add and minus the pounds), the income data above may lack validity because some people might not declare some of the income they are earning. Cash in hand work, for example, would not be included in the above statistics, and some money earned via the ‘gig economy’ might not be declared either – how many people actually pay tax on their YouTube revenue for example, or from the goods they sell on Ebay?

The United Kingdom Crime Rate

Below I discuss data from the Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW), which is a victim-survey conducted by structured interview with 35 000 households. It seems pointless discussing the crime rate according to police recorded crime because it’s such an obviously invalid measurement of crime (and the police know it), simply because so many crimes go unreported and hence unrecorded by the police.

Latest figures from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) show there were an estimated 6.1 million incidents of crime experienced by adults aged 16 and over based on interviews in the survey year ending December 2016.

The green dot shows the figure if we include computer based crimes and online fraud, a new type of crime only recently introduced to the survey (so it wouldn’t be fair to make comparisons over time!) – if we include these the number of incidents of crime experienced jumps up to 11.5 million.

Reasons why even the CSEW might lack validity

Even though its almost certainly more valid than police recorded crime – there are still reasons why the CSEW may not report all crimes – domestic crimes may go under-reported because the perpetrator might be in close proximity to the victim during the survey (it’s a household survey), or people might mis-remember crimes, and there are certain crimes that the CSEW does not ask about – such as whether you’ve been a victim of Corporate Crime.

The U.K. Prison Population



The average prison population has increased from just over 17,400 in 1900 to just over 85,300 in 2016 (a five-fold increase). Since 2010, the average prison population has again remained relatively stable.

Prison Population Statistics – Probably have Good Validity?

I’ve included this as it’s hard to argue with the validity of prison population stats. Someone is either held in custody or they or not at the time of the population survey (which are done weekly!) – A good example of a truly ‘hard’ statistic! This does of course assume we have open and due process where the law and courts are concerned.

Of course you could argue for the sake of it that they lack validity – what about hidden prisoners, or people under false imprisonment? I’m sure in other countries (North Korea?) – their prison stats are totally invalid, if they keep any!

United Kingdom Population and Migration Data



Net migration to the U.K. stood at 248 000 in 2016, lower than the previous year, but still historically high compared to the 1980s-1990s.

There are a number of reasons why UK immigration statistics may lack validity

According to this migration statistics methodology document only about 1/30 people are screened (asked detailed questions about whether they are long term migrants or not), on entering the United Kingdom, and only a very small sample of people (around 4000) are subjected to the more detailed International Passenger Survey.

Then of course there is the issue of people who enter Britain legally but lie about their intentions to remain permanently, as well as people who are smuggled in. In short the above statistics are just based on the people the authorities know about, so while I’m one to go all ‘moral panic’ on the issue of immigration, there is sufficient reason to be sceptical about the validity of the official figures!

Ranking Exercise:

You might like to rank the following ‘official statistics’ in terms of validity – which of these statistics is closest to actual reality?

  • Immigration statistics – Net migration in 2016 was 248 000
  • Prison statistics – There are just over 85 000 people in prison
  • Crime statistics – There were around 6 million incidents of crime in 2016
  • The richest 20% of households had an average income of around £85 000 in 2016
  • The U.K. employment rate is 75% in 2016.
  • 59% of the population were Christina in 2011
  • 86% of the population was white in 2011

Related Posts

Official Statistics in Sociology

Education Statistics – 12 things Department for Education data tell us about the state of education in England and Wales today (forthcoming)

Family and Household Statistics – seven interesting statistics about family life in the U.K.


Please click the pictures above to follow links to sources…

The United Kingdom Census is a survey of every person in the United Kingdom, carried out every 10 years, the last one being in March 2011. It asks a series of ‘basic’ questions about sex, ethnicity, religion and occupation. It is the only survey which is based on a ‘total sample’ of all U.K. households. You might also like this summary – What is a Census?

U.K. Prison Population Statistics – House of Commons Research Briefing