09/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Overpopulation: Overhyped

Reposted from Foreign Policy In Focus

According to the overpopulation crowd, the current food crisis is the latest evidence that the world has become too heavy with us all. We are currently at 6.6 billion and expected to approach 9 billion some time before 2050. Mother Earth is mad as hell and isn't going to take us anymore.

We've heard this all before. In 1798, to be precise, when economist Thomas Malthus predicted in his essay on population that humanity would increase more rapidly than our food supply. The mathematical logic seemed inescapable. But Malthus didn't predict how much bird excrement – and later chemical fertilizer – would increase agricultural production. Nevertheless, his fears have resurfaced every generation or so. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich dropped his Population Bomb on the reading public with its forecast of mass famine in the 1970s and 1980s. Certainly people died of hunger then – as, inexcusably, they do today – but again increases in food production exceeded the rate of population increase and mass famine never materialized.

And now, eager to find new evidence to prove their hardy thesis, the neo-Malthusians have latched on to the food crisis. In a recent article I wrote on rising food prices, I failed to mention overpopulation as a key factor. I've never received so many responses to an article before, and 90% of these comments chided me for failing to see "the elephant in the room." As one letter writer put it, "Try to remember: Hunger, poverty, injustice, environmental destruction, and global warming are just the symptoms: OVERPOPULATION IS THE DISEASE."

I don't want to minimize the challenge of what demographers call "carrying capacity," that is, the number of people that the earth can comfortably accommodate without triggering climate chaos, large-scale drought, and mass extinctions. In a provocative analysis of the then-current wisdom on this subject a decade ago, Bill McKibben conceded that Malthus would always be with us: "The idea that we might grow too big can be disproved only for the moment – never for good." Jared Diamond, meanwhile, has chronicled the rise and fall of a number of societies, such as Easter Island, because of the locust-like tendency of humans to breed, devour everything in sight, and then die. If we can do it on an island in the sea, we can do it on an island in the galaxy.

That said, the current food crisis has very little to do with overpopulation. In fact, the current food crisis isn't really about a crisis in production. We still produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet.

More pertinent than how we procreate is how we farm: whether we use the land for biofuels, whether we depend on industrial agriculture, whether we cut down the rainforests, whether we devote large portions of land and grain production for livestock. If we don't change the way we farm, we will still reach our approaching limits – of energy, land, and carbon emissions – at current or even lower population levels. Our systems of production are set up in a way to produce this crisis, regardless of whether there are 6 billion people or 3 billion people who need to eat. Of course, with fewer people, the onset of the crisis wouldn't be as rapid. But if we don't change the systems, the crisis will come nevertheless. Overpopulation, in other words, is an aggravating factor, not a driving factor.

The irony, of course, is that industrial agriculture helped us leave the era of mass famine behind. Our ability to coax so much food out of the soil short-circuited nature's rather cruel method of population control. By absorbing so much water (for irrigation), energy (for fertilizer), and land (for livestock and biofuels), our agricultural system now threatens to hoist us by own petard.

Compared to oil, water, land, and carbon emissions, population is the only positive "peak" that we are approaching. The number of human beings will level off in this century – perhaps in 2070, perhaps 2050 – and the sooner we get there the better. My own guess is that we might see a peak before then, because of rather unexpectedly rapid declines in fertility in countries like South Korea. It's not that we have the population issue under control. But we have figured out that rising living standards and/or concerted government policies eventually bring down family size.

We must address hunger and injustice first as a way of addressing the problem of carrying capacity, not the other way around. And that means that people living in countries with large consumption "footprints" – regardless of how low their fertility rate – must shoulder the burden instead of pointing the finger at countries with smaller footprints but bigger families. A Malthusian future of famine may still await us. But it will be less because of the way we continue to populate the world than because of the way we continue to think about the world.

Read more here.