There is widespread concern about an ‘overpopulation problem’. Let us be clear about what is meant by ‘overpopulation’. It is not a problem for a lot of people to be alive. It is a problem if there are too many people for given resources to go around. So the important question is, “Is the human population likely to outstrip available resources?”
According to the US Census Bureau, the world population as of September 14th 2010 is 6,868,683,892. This number is growing; the UN’s upper prediction is 10.6 billion for 2050. After that, the UN expects the population to begin to fall.
Let us assume population continues to rise beyond 2050 and reaches 40 billion, well beyond any UN estimate. Would we be overpopulated then, in relation to available resources? —
- Food. Without expanding farmland, we could grow enough food for 80 billion people using low-tech permaculture techniques only.
- Water. Our planet has about 1260 quintillion liters of water. This means that 40 billion people using 200 liters a day each would use, over the course of a year, less than 0.00025% of the world’s water.
- Energy. The world used 15 terawatts of energy in 2008. If rising population and increasing technology increased this 100-fold to 1500 terawatts, we would still only need to convert less than 0.9% of the sunlight that falls on Earth. It is highly likely that we will have fusion reactors and space-based solar panels before our energy needs come anywhere near this level.
- Land. The planet’s surface (including oceans) is about 510 million square kilometers. According to Wikipedia, one-eighth of this, 63,750,000km2, is habitable land. For a population of 40 billion people, this is 1593.75m2 habitable land per person, equivalent to a average population density of 628 people per km2. This is comparable to a fairly densely populated country like Taiwan.
100 years ago, 8000 square meters of land was needed to grow food for a person. It can now be done on a few hundred square meters. Why? Because human intelligence has figured out how to extract more resources from a fixed amount of material. The effect of human intelligence is always to enable us to do more with less
: better solar cells can make more electricity from less sunlight, we can make a more powerful computer chip using less material than a few years ago, and more efficient vehicles can travel the same journeys with much less petrol.
Human intelligence is the key that unlocks all other resources. As Robert Anton Wilson has said, “You can starve in the middle of a field of wheat if your mind hasn’t identified wheat as edible.” The greater the population, the greater the store of human intelligence. A large population that is well networked and educated will concoct and communicate all kinds of technological solutions that enable us to do more with the resources we have. And so, paradoxically, an increased population can mean that we have more resources to go around.Space colonisation
There is ultimately an upper limit on the amount of people this planet can accomodate (though, as we have shown, the limit is not very limiting). Colonising space can be thought of as the ultimate solution to any question of overpopulation. Gerard K. O’Neill wrote a classic essay called The Colonization of Space in 1974. In it, he considers the ability of a series of space habitats orbiting the Earth and the Sun to absorb population increase. These colonies could be built from materials available in the asteroid belt and the Moon using the technology available in 1974. O’Neill’s calculations show that they could house 20,000 times the world population at the time he wrote the essay - no less than 80 trillion people!
Our civilization is fast approaching a tipping point. Humans will need to make the transition from nonrenewable fossil fuels as the primary source of our energy to renewable energy sources that will allow us to flourish into the future. Failure to make that transformation will doom us to the endless political machinations and economic conflicts that have plagued civilization for the last half-millennium.
We need new technologies to be sure, but without evolved political and economic systems, we cannot become what we must. And what is that? A Type 1 civilization. Let me explain.” —Toward a Type 1 civilization by Michael Shermer
i’m sitting in front of my keyboard right now trying to think of what to say. i have a lot to say, but i’m not sure how much you’re ready to hear. i’m not sure how to phrase it so you will understand. i’m not even sure who you are. i can be sure of a few things about you though. you have needs. i’m sure you have wants, too. there’s probably some nice shiny item that you’re working towards right now, and that’s ok, but for now let’s focus on those needs.
our needs go unmet… biologically, psychologically, and socially. we have the technical capacity to meet these needs, in fact evidence shows that most of these needs are non-material and would be met with a healthier social order. the needs that are material? they can be met easily without requiring anyone to exchange their labor for survival, all at a much higher standard of quality than we enjoy now. really, it’s kid stuff.
when you deprive a flower of sunlight, does it grow stronger? when you abuse a dog, does its demeanor improve? how then do we expect those who are deprived of necessary mental, social and material resources to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and contribute more to society than society has given them? we live in a society where it is expected that adults will go out, find a job, and “earn” their keep, but it is the structure of that very same society that prevents this from even being a possibility for everyone… and as douglas rushkoff points out, “do we all really want jobs?”
no. if we’re honest with ourselves, we will admit that we do not want a “job”. we do not want to give our limited time on this beautiful and mysterious planet to a private dictatorship. we humans are capable of creating a world where such negative social arrangements are a thing of the past, and where all people spend all of their time how they wish. we can create a global culture of abundance and sustainability, and concern ourselves with understanding our vast cosmos and our place in it - and like i said, it’s not the lack of technology that’s holding us back. it’s our culture.
i love the phrase “we are the 99%”, because it so well captures the potential of the situation. it is absolutely true that 99% of the world has great interest in changing our system and it’s true that they’re being screwed by a few powerful people who could change things if they wanted to. my only problem with the phrase is that we’re not just 99% against 1%, we’re 100% suffering from culture lag. yes, the 1% suffers too, from their own ignorance and inaction. how much more technological advancement would they enjoy in a world where information is open source and all people are well educated? how much more free time would they have? how much less stress? how about real security (meaning we’ve grown out of all the needless violence our system currently perpetuates)? whether or not we all understand it, we all suffer in this social system together, our environment too. we are one planet.
as i watch the protesters at wall street, and i listen to their demands, i can’t help but hear my own concerns in them. some are worried and want their student loans erased, some are angry and want bankers jailed, some empathically want to assert a new level of “human rights”. although they may not have a coherent solution, the protesters are saying, “there’s definitely a problem! let’s talk about it!”
the protesters are trying to wake you up. they’re saying our social order needs challenging. i agree. it’s outmoded methods are failing as we head towards something new. maybe it’s about time for revolution, maybe it’s about time for evolution.
i don’t think we need to physically occupy space to change people’s minds, but i’m glad people are doing it and i do see minds changing. in this, the real occupation that has been ongoing since our birth is ending, the occupation of outdated culture in our thoughts.
i’m ready to talk about what is next. are you?