Are We Really Over-Populated?

One of the seeming premises of the culture of death is that human life is essentially a bad thing. The thinking goes that there are too many of us and that we destroy the planet by our mere presence and use of resources that could be put to better use by more noble creatures like the animals. The Culture of Death has used a lot of fearmongering over the past decades to make great inroads into the western psyche. One of the fearful images I vivdly remember from a Star Trek episode where they visit a planet that is horribly over-populated. Since I am away this week preaching a priest retreat I thought I might re-post this blog from about a year ago. I will monitor comments and so encourage you to comment.

It was always drilled in to us when I was growing up that the planet was overpopulated. We were promised famines, and disease by the doomsayers. Clearly we were headed for disaster and only contraception could save us. Some also suggested forced sterilization and abortion for recalcitrant reproducers, like they have done in China.

But really! How overpopulated are we? What kind of a physical footprint do we really have on this planet? Try this on for size.

  1. There are currently about 6 Billion people on this planet.
  2. Lets put them, four to house on a quarter acre of land. This is the typical size of a traditional suburban lot.
  3. Now, physically, how big is the suburb of houses we’ve created?
  4. Let’s see, 6,000,000,000 four to a house is 1.5 Billion houses.
  5. 1.5 Billion Houses on a quarter acre each is 375 Million Acres.
  6. What does 375 Million Acres compare to? Well lets see, The state of Texas is 171904640 acres. 375 Million Acres is just over twice the size of the State of Texas (2.18 Texases to be exact). It also equates to 3.6 Californias. Why Alaska at 420 Million Acres could hold them all and still have 45 million acres left over.

So there you have it. “But Father, but Father… we can’t all live in a suburb like that. We need roads, shopping centers, parks, farmland, schools, etc.” Yes indeed, but as you can see there is a lot of land left over. I think we’ll squeeze it all in somehow. Point is, there’s plenty good room. We are a long way from fulfilling God’s mandate to “be fruitfull and multiply to fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen 1:28)

What of famines? True there are shortages in the world here and there. We have plenty of food here in America but it is sometimes hard to get it to famine regions due to war and corrupt governments. We have the food, it’s getting it there that is the problem. That’s why allowing starvation is so immoral. We have so much abundance in the god ole USA that our government actually pays farmers not to plant to help keep prices higher.

What of water? Fresh water is limited. But we can desalinate. Right now it costs too much but I have little doubt that as the need grows for more fresh water we will find more cost-effective ways to desalinate.

What about climate change? – not too sure about that. It does seem clear that the climate has always been changing. That was the case even before we were here. Climate has always changed, quite radically actually, and we, and the planet,  have adjusted.

Why is this on a Catholic blog? Well think about it, contraception, abortion, sterilization, even euthanasia all march under banners that, among other things, appeal to fear about overpopulation. The Church has often been ridiculed for being out of touch and insensitive to the great question of overpopulation. This little presentation has had as a goal to spark a discussion if such fears are really justified or is it just another fear mongering myth? How say you?

Here’s the scary Star Trek video I remember. Look at the terrible crowds  outside the window. We were told to expect such terrible things if we didn’t stop reproducing. Notice how Kirk suggests contraception and sterilization.

The following video gives a little more background to the history of overpopulation concerns. I think its a good video but, as you will see, I think they underestimate a little the acreage necessary to house six billion. They say one Texas I say two. But hey, it’s all pretty clear, we’ve got a lot of land, God’s been generous. Also, the video says population will peak in 30 years and then start to go back down. I am not sure how they say that or know it.

43 Replies to “Are We Really Over-Populated?”

  1. I agree that our current problems do not have to do with too many people. They have much more to do with our lifestyle. The richest 20% of the world’s population (which includes all of us) consumes 86% of the worlds goods. If most people in the world lived at the level of consumption that we in America, Western Europe and other industrialized nations do, the environment would suffer a catastrophic collapse. Even with the vast majority of the people in the world living at levels of consumption far below ours we are already straining our oceans to an incredible degree (cf. and species are going extinct at a rate not seen since the KT impact. It’s okay to have this many people, perhaps even many more, but we have to live differently if we are going to do so. (And in fact the Church has called us to do so: “Serious ecological problems call for an effective change of mentality leading to the adoption of new lifestyles” – 486, The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.)

    Unfortunately this will mean a complete restructuring of our economy. Our present economy is predicated on the idea of perpetual growth. As recent times have reminded us, when the economy slightly contracts (or even slows to a low rate of growth) millions of people lose their jobs and suffer economic distress. (Likewise, think of the Ponzi-scheme-like nature of our Social Security system that requires ever more people to pay in to maintain solvency.) But of course the economy cannot grow indefinitely. The earth does have natural limits- there are such things as limited resources and tipping points- and our present rate of consumption of natural resources is demonstrably unsustainable. We must move towards lifestyles where we radically reduce our use of disposable products, use fewer fossil fuels, eat less meat, design communities that don’t require daily automobile use, and probably about 100 other things that I can’t think of. If we’re not willing to go along anti-population growth measures (and I’m totally with you there), then we need to think seriously and realistically about these things. We can’t have our cake and it it too. Living the Gospel of life is going to require sacrifice, and one of the first things on the chopping block is going to be our comfortable consumerist lifestyles.

    1. Along that line I have always been interested to see a statistic on how much of the world’s resources are used by the average Kenyan goat herder for example versus the average suburban living SUV driving soccer loving family with 1.3 kids. It would probably put us to shame.

    2. The Lord provides in abundance, I have no fears of overpopulation or fears of being successful. The Lord has truly blessed our nation.

      1. The bible is full of warnings to the “successful” who overconsume while so many others lack the basic necessities. Begin with the book of Amos, then spend some time with Isaiah, then Jeremiah…

      2. Vincent sounds like a real Pol Pot. I suggest we gather everyone and march them to reprograming camps out in the rual areas where they can sing kumbaya and become vacuous vegans. Then we can let the rulers of his new utopian economic society decide who does what, when and how. Another product of our GREAT SOCIETY.

    3. I think your comment, Vincent, is right on point. Yes God is soo good and has given us so much on this beautiful planet. But it is our responsibility to respect God’s creation. Abortion and contraception are certainly NOT the answer, but a change in lifestyle, I would say, certainly IS. I’m an American but I’ve spent a decent amount of time in Kenya living with Kenyans in their normal lifestyle. The contrast is too much to describe on this blog. Yet the people of Kenya are often just as, if not more, in touch with God than we Americans are. Now I’m not saying we have to stop using electricity, start growing our own food and walking everywhere. But there are benefits to energy efficiency, shopping locally, and using alternative trasnportation (just to name a few). A simple life is not something to mock or scoff at. It’s good for us, good for the planet, and good for our relationship with God.

  2. “Also, the video says population will peak in 30 years and then start to go back down. I am not sure how they say that or know it.”

    It’s been a few years since I’ve read anything on this subject, but I think that this projection comes from one of the UN organizations, and is based on looking at the second derivative of population: ie, the birth rate (world-wide, I think) is slowing down. If this is true and doesn’t change, this means that the population will peak and then start to decline.

    1. This assumption appears to be very inadequate. Though it would be true that, if the second derivative of the population were negative and remained so, the population would peak and then decline; the first derivative would decrease eventually to zero (the maximum) and then would become negative (population decrease).

      However, this second derivative is taken over the total population of the earth, which is an effective average over the whole planet. This is like saying that a top doesn’t move because it’s center is always at about the same place.

      If you were to write a differential equation for the population of the earth, you’d want to do it by region. Some regions are growing exponentially and some are shrinking slowly. The ones that are growing exponentially will, if left unchecked, take over the curve, and change the value of the second derivative in the future. Of course, if birth control actually works out well, these exponential curves will themselves level out, and the population will level out, and likely will decrease slightly.

  3. I have to admit, I have little interest in discussing the humanistic and pantheistic story lines of Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek. However, I am very interested in the success of the priest retreat being preached this week as I believe my parish priest is taking part. May all priests involved experience the same renewal, refreshment and guidance this board and it’s teaching has provided me ten thousand fold. I’ve been praying for all of you all week. To that end, I offer this:

    Te Deum

    O God, we praise Thee, and acknowledge Thee to be the supreme Lord.
    Everlasting Father, all the earth worships Thee.
    All the Angels, the heavens and all angelic powers,
    All the Cherubim and Seraphim, continuously cry to Thee:
    Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts!
    Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty of Thy glory.
    The glorious choir of the Apostles,
    The wonderful company of Prophets,
    The white-robed army of Martyrs, praise Thee.
    Holy Church throughout the world acknowledges Thee:
    The Father of infinite Majesty;
    Thy adorable, true and only Son;
    Also the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
    O Christ, Thou art the King of glory!
    Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.
    When Thou tookest it upon Thyself to deliver man,
    Thou didst not disdain the Virgin’s womb.
    Having overcome the sting of death, Thou opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
    Thou sitest at the right hand of God in the glory of the Father.
    We believe that Thou willst come to be our Judge.
    We, therefore, beg Thee to help Thy servants whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy Precious Blood.
    Let them be numbered with Thy Saints in everlasting glory.

    V. Save Thy people, O Lord, and bless Thy inheritance!
    R. Govern them, and raise them up forever.

    V. Every day we thank Thee.
    R. And we praise Thy Name forever, yes, forever and ever.

    V. O Lord, deign to keep us from sin this day.
    R. Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us.

    V. Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, for we have hoped in Thee.
    R. O Lord, in Thee I have put my trust; let me never be put to shame.

  4. Amen, Monsignor. Since I was a kid, I’ve been hearing gloom and doom that we humans are wreaking. Thank you so much for this.

  5. I think Vincent is right on. It’s important to acknowledge and address the consumption. Without mentioning this, simply adding more people who will over-consume is indeed dangerous to the world. I also think it is unfair to broadly attack a straw man called “Culture of death” in this case, since many people who speak these topics (on behalf of the ecosystem) are simply promoting a broader understanding of life, a sense of our interconnectedness with the rest of creation (very Biblical), and our moral responsibility to “tend the garden”.

    1. May I suggest that you and Vincent call the White House and volunteer your insight and services to promote these ingenious ideas to save the world from mankind. I feel change and hope taking affect.

      1. Not sure where you’re coming from Robert. Hyperbolic agreement or absolute sarcasm? You don’t seem to address the issues…

  6. This should really be a question of how we live on the planet rather than of how much “elbow room” there is. Currently, we have some significant problems managing the land, air and water. Its a question of the amount of resources used, the amount of waste created, ect; in other words, each persons ecological cost. As things currently stand, I think that growing the population might create a nightmare.

  7. Population control is simply another response to an idea that has primarily been a manufactured crisis, in which elites use to control those who are not as enlightened as they view themselves. They attempt to regulate freedoms that are clearly freedoms associated with an individuals natural existence, not a regulatory rule or a written law of the state. In many ways, the green movement appears to be a cult or religion for much of the mob. So Daniel, many if not most, in this movement, are so concerned with the perceived problems of the ecosystem they forget that the garden has been placed here for our usage, no doubt it should be responsible as you point out.

    Back in the 70’s, many believed we would move closer to Stanley Kubrick’s fantasy piece, Soylent Green. This notion is has obviously been debunked.

  8. There are nearly 36.8 billion acres of land on earth, enough for each of us to have nearly 6 acres. The problem is distribution of people over the land, and the use and distribution of resources.

  9. I appreciate Vincent’s post and Daniel’s. “Overpopulation” is often an oversimplification and there are people like the Discovery building gunman who genuinely hate human life. The problem is rather one of original sin, which is to say the intractibility of political and cultural problems. We may have enough food for the time being, but 1-2 billion people are still hungry or malnourished. You’re not going to get Indonesians and Indians and Ghanans and Argentinians to all agree to move to Texas.

    It’s not simply a matter of “people” being bad for “the environment”, although the prophets seem to regard the laying waste of the earth as a sign of sin, but rather what we’re doing now being bad for our children and grandchildren and most of all people we don’t know in places we only think of when we send a small check.

    The only way all of the changes that need to take place will is if people have a genuine sense of crisis; otherwise, it’s simply too easy to give lip-service to stewardship and recycle a few cans while essentially continuing down the same path. The problem is that most of the world, as with most people in history, live with diseases and pest infestations and dirtiness that we’ve simply come to see in our society as intolerable. The only way that people will accept greater want and suffering is if they see it as either spiritually or ecologically necessary (possibly both).

    I’m definitely not there yet. I feel I get no support, admonishment, or encouragement from my Catholic church, friends, or activities towards becoming a better steward of the environment. I feel rather alone and the smug “overpopulation, climate change, etc. are myths” statements in Catholic circles distress me and leave me dispirited. The Vatican, including Pope Benedict, are more concerned about ecological devastation and a moral responsible parenthood, but I’ve only seen them criticized or ignored by orthodox Catholics in the States.

    1. Thanks for your post John M.

      I too have often puzzled over how the pope’s most vocal defenders here in the states are so dismissive of one of the major themes of this pontificate: the ecological crisis and our role as stewards of the environment.

      1. It’s those Neanderthal orthodox U. S. Catholics fault.You go John M. Progress! Where have all you brilliant scholars been hiding man?

  10. I should add, “contraception is the cure” is just as much a false panacea as “overpopulation is simply a myth,” because it just as much blinds us to the ugliness and brutality on which our beautiful society is built. China hasn’t exactly solved the puzzle.

  11. Just like the “Federation of Planets” the First World neo-colonialists expect Third World places like Africa to lead the way in reducing population growth rather than taking responsibility for their own consumption.

  12. I also agree that there’s no population problem yet, or probably in the next few generations. The environmental impact, with the global warming, might place tighter constraints on what would constitute being on the edge of a population problem, but this determination is very flexible. With new technologies, our Carbon footprint could go down while population increases.

    Now, we do need landfills, but maybe we can throw the waste into space. Maybe we can also use some ocean surface for growing crops. Let’s say each person has a quarter acre effect (so 4 people = 1 acre). We multiply your area by 4 and get about 4 Alaska’s.

    If we can use a good part of the ocean, I estimate we’d be able to live on 2*pi*(Earth radius)^2, or half the surface of the earth. If each person takes up 0.25 acres impact, and there are 6 billion people on earth, that means we are only taking up 2% of the available space. Not too bad. Lot’s of room.

    Now, let’s say we start having lots of kids again, like Angola, where the population doubles about every 30 years. So in 30 years, we’d use up 4% of the land. I’d say with improved efficiency over the next generation, we wouldn’t need to worry about current inefficiency dividing up land and resources as we do. So first 30 years, 2-4%, next 30 years, 4-8%. This will last about 6.644 iterations, or 200 years, before we would use 100% of the available space on our planet.

    So if we can live in space in 200 years, or have some other resource solution to population, we’d be fine. If we keep using contraception (which I think is a good thing), then we’d have much longer than 200 years, and that would probably be a good thing. Of course, if there’s a devastating event, population problems may disappear.

    Something else interesting. Nations that use contraception widely are, on average, much wealthier, more democratic, more stable, than nations that don’t. There’s a wonderful Google app that correlates these statistics (population growth vs. wealth, etc.).

    1. Nations that use contraception widely are, on average, much wealthier, more democratic, more stable, than nations that don’t.

      They were wealthier, more democratic, and more stable long before the invention of the Pill, et al.
      At the same time, we are seeing that contracepting nations are on the decline — getting less wealthier, less democratic, and less stable. Just look at Europe and what we have to look forward here in the U.S. as the population ages and there are fewer young people to run the economy to support them (in addition to already being thousands of dollars in debt to the government).

      1. If this is true, how would we know it?

        Per Capita GDP has increased faster for nations with low birthrates than for nations with high birthrates, on average, though there is a wide spread in the data. The same is true for life expectancy.

        This can easily be visualized using

        There is also the point that, if I were to split the nations that have low birthrates and nations that have high birthrates, the nations with low birthrates include all the places I’d like to live. The nations with high birthrates include none of the places I’d like to live. Of course, this is all a correlation. Causal factors might be different.

        Places with Birthrate less than 2: Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, England, Denmark, etc.
        Places with Birthrate greater than 5: Angola, the Congo, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Liberia.

      2. This is a good point. Birth control has only been legal for 45 years, and 40 years ago, every major church took issue with it’s usage. I think the good guys have lost this battle!

    2. Paul – i don’t think i can agree with your view about contraception and wealth. Contraception has the effect of REDUCING population which means highly populated countries should be poor. But consider this – the 2 fastest growing economies (and therefore ‘wealth’) in the world are India and China. Guess what……..these 2 countries are also the most populated countires in the world. This clearly refutes your view or the view presented by the Google applet. Suggestion – don’t believe everything on the Internet – sometimes looking around and using common sense can teach you a lot more then some researchers who spend millions of dollars and hours doing research!!!

  13. The prevailing wisdom regarding population, consumption and the need to bring things into a balance align with the diminishment of God in the public arena. When we lose sight of the blessings, we start to elevate things that, while inherently valuable, are not worthy of elevation to the level of God. Thus, we have people who elevate the spotted owl while ignoring the impact on families. Or people elevating the value of the seal or salmon while ignoring the production of electricity for millions of people and familes. People have been fed this line of reasoning for many years – and, in some areas, it has replaced the foundation of reason. The net result of the diminishment of God (as well as a lack of acknowledgement of our sinful nature) in our lives is disordered appetites – watch the news tonight as congress adjourns – you’ll see this in abundance. Look around your own home and you’ll see this in abundance.
    Trust in God’s providence eliminates worry about over population, consumption and other ills of the world. And, trust in God’s providence opens the door to greater understanding of real solutions (thinking of adult stem cell research here).
    Great article.

  14. Father, the problem in the star trek video is exactly what we wanted to avoid, and our society is reaping the fruits of our new sterilization methods (tubal ligation?) and most modern methods of conception prevention. The fruits are an aging population who can’t maintain the economy, a society devoid of the smile and laughter and the freshness and promise of children. The streets are empty in our suburbs, only cars pass by in all safety and comfort, but devoid of human interaction. We are lonely and isolated because we have fewer relatives. We are affluent and educated but unhappy.

    Pray for us.

    1. I’ve been thinking about our fortunes and I’ve decided that we’re really not to blame, for all the Love that there inside is still the same.

  15. THank you all for your comments and interesting discussion. I have jsut returned and have not been able to particpate in a lot of the comments the past two days as I finished the retreat.

  16. II’ll go see Father Foley at confession on Saturday Msg. I,m just taking a stance like Archbishop Chaput said in his little dioceshall meeting earlier this September up in Denver.

  17. Great article! If you watch the video “Immigration Gumball” on Youtube it will explain about the population increasing and then declining.

  18. Unfortunately, though many of your comments are extremely valid. Overpopulation is cannot be solved by re-distribution..of people OR resources. People tend to gather together in groups..the groups grow.. People CAN redistribute themselves if they wish..Some don’t, some can’t for a variety of reasons. People who become crowded together with no breathing space, since they don’t all have that 1/4 acre, become irritable and arguments, crime and war result. People often think only of themselves and dislike those who are not like there ‘own kind’. Then we have the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. The Palestinians and the Israelians. The Taliban and the Shiites…etc. Overpopulation is a vague word because it means so many things. The overconsumption by so many – even some or our ‘poor’ in the U.S. is absolutely staggering compared to the happy smaller subsistence in some of our smaller countries. One of the big issues is not just U.S. consumption, but the goal it sets for others. It is not healthy or realistic for the whole world to even want that level of consumption. It’s called greed.

  19. Thanks for writing this Monsignor, I used the Texas argument in a family e-mail exchange with a fallen away Catholic family member just a few weeks ago who claimed our planet to be running low on Natural Resources. It is unfortunate that so many do not understand, much less care about the Demographic Winter that is upon us. God bless.

  20. I think even the phrase “Carbon FOOTPRINT” was coined deliberately to somehow imply a demographic cause of GHG emissions…

  21. I’m sorry, but this is short-sighted and merely a play in semantics. Any stat can be turned for or against your argument. We can’t simply say the Lord giveth, and therefore we can taketh. We are responsible…accountable for our actions to God and the planet.

    Overpopulation is not “fear mongering” or anything like that. It is a reality in certain locations. People generally live in cities and it gets crowded…overpopulated. That becomes a problem…serious problem in many different ways. I suppose you can twist the numbers to say we can just give every four people a plot of land and it will take up less space than Alaska. That is so far beyond reality and logical thinking about this issue that it doesn’t make any sense as a valid argument. I see what you are saying, but come on! It’s kind of ridiculous.

    We can’t say God Bless America and then do whatever the hell we want. That is selfish and ridiculous. Bottom line…we have developed the ability to cause serious to harm to this planet and its ecosystem. Whether it’s overpopulation, global warming or whatever…WE are responsible for this planet.

  22. Indeed, overpopulation is a serious problem in the world. To be frank we in Africa because of our low level of education poses the problem. Most people from different cultural backgrounds are of the view that to have many children is to be called a rich man. Others are of the view that they want their names to exist for longer years in life while others are also of the view that some of the children will die so I have to have many. Well, I agree that no research from my side has been conducted on this subject matter under discussion. But, one will concord with me from Africa that the above reasons are real.
    Unless Africans can have higher level of education others will think that it is a normal practice. What can be done is left onto you out there to also contribute in the fight against illiteracy in Africa. Anyway, I am from Ghana. I personally initiated a child education programme to send needy children to have a full course in Basic Education in order that they will not grow to become armed robbers, street children, prostitutes just to mention a few. The children are 34 in number and are in 4 schools in the Municipality. Together we can fight and win.
    [email protected]

  23. I am not sure if we should get too excited about all of this, God always ha and always willl handle things. “seek ye first the kingdon of God and all things will be given…including solutions.

  24. It’s not so much that this planet it over populated, but that fact that people will and they do consume more than we should. To add we are very much wasteful, especially in western societies.

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