Saturday, June 18, 2016

If Switzerland had a Sahara Desert, it would be a small Africa. Does the world really have an "overpopulation problem"?

It is already politically charged to deal with such issues as oil depletion and climate change but, at least, these are physical problems that we can examine using the scientific method. But overpopulation? That's the recipe for an instant politicized or religious quarrel.

The movie "Population Boom" by Werner Boote is a good example of how politicized and emotional the population question can become. It starts almost immediately with a potshot at the Reverend Malthus, wrongly accused to "have predicted a catastrophe for 1860." Poor Malthus never said that!

Then, it goes on for one hour and a half in the attempt to demonstrate that there is no such a thing as an "overpopulation problem." The film's thesis is that the world is seeing a conspiracy by the elites of the rich countries who are trying to stop the people in poor countries from having as many children as they want so that they could become rich, too, and challenge the world dominance of the present Western elites.

If we accept the idea that all opinions are legitimate, then also this one should be. The problem is that the way the film tries to demonstrate its thesis oscillates between the boring and the silly; without ever providing a serious argument. Mainly, we see the filmmaker, Mr Werner Boote, walking around while carrying his umbrella in places where it never seems to rain. In his ramblings, Mr Boote interviews people who, frankly, don't seem to have a clue about overpopulation, except for seeing it as an invention of the evil Western Elites (and the same is true for global warming, explicitly defined as such in one of the interviews).

Most of the arguments made in these interviews are so silly that they are not even worth deconstructing. Just as an example, in a scene we see Mr Boote (for once without his umbrella) discussing with a man who tells him that Africa is not overpopulated because it has only 40 inhabitants per square km, compared with the 170 of Europe. Then, the man takes Boote somewhere and he shows him an empty landscape, saying, "do you see? Africa is not overpopulated!"

Now, there are several problems here. First, the datum for the population density in Africa seems to be correct, but the population density in Europe is 105 inhabitants per square km, not 170 (and it is just 31 if one includes the European part of Russia.). Maybe Mr Boote's informant meant Western Europe, but if you take that as meaning the European Union, then the population density still is only 116, not 170.

Then, one would be tempted to remind to Mr Boote's informant that Europe doesn't have a Sahara desert; to say nothing about the Kalahari desert and other areas unsuitable for human occupation in Africa. So, he conveniently forgets that an African country such as Nigeria has about the same density of population as Switzerland (nearly 200 people per square km), to say nothing about Rwanda, that has 460 people per square km (more than twice than Switzerland).

Finally, one could show Mr Boote and his informant the Yosemite Valley the Death Valley and then tell them: "you see? Almost no one lives in California!

I could go on, but I think this is enough for this movie. Let me just add that if you think that the poor don't pollute the ecosystem, you would do well reading this post by Jacopo Simonetta.


  1. Well you clearly have never been to Yosemite Valley! In summer, it has a population density that rivals San Francisco, at least on the valley floor. Course your example would work just fine in Lassen, or Death Valley, or really anywhere in Yosemite National Park other than the valley. Since the point is that saying "look, hardly any people here" is the population equivalent of making a snowball to discredit AGW.

    1. Oh, yes, I have been to Yosemite valley. And I can say that, seen from the road that goes there, it doesn't look so crowded as Los Angeles!

  2. I did read that post by Jacopo Simonetta. It explicitly states that the rich pollute more than the poor. (For example: "...we can argue that the very rich produce about 20 tons of CO2 each per year. The affluent 10 tons each; the middle 6 tons each, the poor 2 tons each, and the very poor 0,1 tons each.") So I'm not sure what point you're making in your last sentence.

    I haven't seen the movie, so I won't comment on it. But I can understand why poor people are skeptical of rich people telling them to sacrifice for the good of the planet, when the rich aren't willing to change their behavior at all.

    1. Right, it was an unclear sentence. I modified it.

    2. Tom

      You make a good and simple point.
      I do not wish to sound anti-USA or complacent about the rest of us well-off people, including me, but every extra 10 million Americans consuming fossil fuels is like adding another half to one billion to the lowest income world population. And these low income people do not consume the high meat diet that needs so much more fossil fuel input as well as directly producing higher GHG emissions.

      It is ironic and sad that so many Americans have such a seriously hard and unhappy time.


  3. In discussions of human overpopulation, even among experts such as Paul Ehrlich it is rarely if ever mentioned that a formula for the impact of humans on the landscape is not

    impact ~ NR.

    Rather it is something closer to

    impact ~ cN + NR

    c = some constant
    N = number of people in a particular region
    R = average consumption of resources per person in the same region

    Another factor should also be added, the waste that an average person produces in a given period of time. It varies greatly depending on the technological development of the community in question.

    The main point I am making is that every person takes up space, cooks food (using external energy sources such as wood, natural gas or electrical energy), stores food and other materials, builds a residence (house, hut, tent, teepee, etc.) and produces waste.

    Hence, compared to other creatures of comparable size, people have an outsized impact on their environment even if they live a very meager existence. The notion that the poor have a minimal impact on their environment compared to the rich is misleading.

    There is no substitute in the world today for human population reduction. Simplification of lifestyle helps, of course, but is insufficient.

  4. The "film's thesis" reminds me of Pope Francis' 2015 encyclical:

    50. Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”.[28] To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.

    1. His Popeness, Vicar of Christ on Earth is correct. The problem is not that the Birth Rate is too high.

      The problem is the Death Rate is too low. If you raise mortality rates high enough, Birth Control will be unnecessary.

      TPTB are working on this problem as we speak.


  5. If the whole world was Alaska, we would not have a Homo Sap population problem. 1.2 Homo Saps/square mile here. :)



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)