Op/Ed Fridays: Is overpopulation a problem?

December 13, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog, Nature

Is overpopulation a problem?

You probably have an opinion. A post on a forum asked that. I wrote the following, which I stand by.


Dozens of answers and nobody has had the humility to give the answer that we don’t know, finding out is complex, the uncertainty on what we do know is large, and we have to extrapolate with many assumptions we can’t check to draw any conclusions at all.

The question is in principle a scientific question and “I don’t know” is the best scientific answer I can think of.

Anyone who tries to tell you a definitive answer almost certainly has an agenda beyond mere accuracy.

There are many other questions we can probably answer now, for example

  • Is it a problem for a given community? We may be over capacity in some areas and under in others. If we can’t learn to distribute more efficiently and equitably this may be inevitable.
  • Is it a problem for rich nations?
  • Is it a problem for poor nations?
  • Is it a problem for hunger and disease?
  • Is it a problem for a given scarce resource or other bottleneck?


But to estimate a carrying capacity for the planet makes huge assumptions. For example

  • Does that mean given optimal distribution of resources? If so, how would we transition from our suboptimal use today to that optimal plan?
  • What is the optimal distribution of resources? We are nowhere close now, but this may be the best humans can do.
  • If suboptimal distribution of resources, how far below optimal? If far enough below, we could well be over the capacity today.
  • On what time scale? We could go over for some time if we went under some other time.
  • How comfortable are people with living with pollution? Having limited access to green space?
  • How efficiently to people want to live? Optimal efficiency increases the capacity at the expense of things like travel, eating meat, and skiing. Lower efficiency lowers the capacity but allows more freedom.


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