Friday, September 15, 2006

Why Overpopulation is Not a Problem

Ever since the 1960s, the issue of overpopulation has been a hotly debated topic. Overpopulation, however, might not be as big of a problem as it seemed at the time.

Accelerating Future
has written another blog post that deals with this issue. As the population of the US surpasses 300 million, many are worried that the US will not be able to hold many more people. This is one of the arguments being used against immigration. Never mind that China, which is of similar area to the US, holds 4 times as many people. But how uncrowded is the US? It is often said that all of the world's people could fit on a very small island. But then again, the issue of overpopulation is not about real population density, but rather whether there are enough resources to go around. Is there enough farming space to feed the world? Here's what Michael Anissimov had to say:
So it turns out that if 5% of the United States were converted into urban area with a population density of 6,000/km², and 45% were converted into suburban area with a population density of 2,000/km², with the remaining 50% left for rural area, parks, and farms, there would be enough room for 3 billion in the urban areas, and 9 billion in the suburban areas, for a total population of 12 billion. This is in the US alone. This scheme could be extended to the other countries and continents for a total population of around 100 billion. Everything between the Arctic and Antarctic circles are potential targets for colonization. This is about 130,000,000 km² of land area (the circumpolar regions have about 20,000,000 km² of land).
12 billion people in the US? That's a lot of people. To do this, the five major obstables to this are
  • colonizing the deserts
  • colonizing the highlands
  • providing energy
  • providing food
  • disposal of waste
In the blog entry, he sets forth many solutions to these problems, so be sure to read it. During the 1970s, it was believed that the Earth had a carrying capacity of about 10 billion people. With the advances in science and technology at this time, we now know that the number could be much, much higher.


  1. Wow. He's exuberant. In comparison, I'm somwhat of a wet blanket, though I've done some

    speculating recently on my blog.

    A few comments:

    I agree totally that overpopulation is barely the problem it's made out to be.

    Misanthropy, more than anything drives it. No one wants to live around "people".

    However, for as long as people can produce more than they consume economically, nations

    will grow wealthier due to population, not poorer. And that trend doesn't start

    levelling off until you begin hitting actual (not imagined, like most to date) resource

    constraints. Trade and industry become multipliers to the effect.

    In any case, I'm all for living as long as ethically possible (not stealing organs from

    other people, ect)

    I'm happy to see someone advocating nuclear power. When you evaluate it next to many

    popular "alternatives", such as biodiesel, it seems the one of the only things that can

    provide energy anywhere near that degree of scale. (Some would contend solar, but the

    efficiency still stinks for silicon panels, they're highly energy expensive to

    manufacture, and you're not paving millions of square miles with gallium arsenide)

    Earth moving aircraft? Hauling around thousands of tons of dirt is best done on the

    ground, unless you plan on blowing arbitrary amounts of aviation fuel, and have a

    tireless maintenence staff.

    Putting respirocytes in people's blood? In 20 years? He's certainly cutting the work out

    for the medical community.

    I'd actually like to see arcologies. It sounds like they could indeed compress a whole

    lot of city. They'd need to be designed for the actual demands and needs of the city,

    however, and not according to someones idea of an elegant vision (I can too easily

    imagine it being turned into an art project about the way people are "supposed" (by

    whom) to live).

    "Arrays of hundred-kilometer-wide solar panels put in geosynchronous orbit will give us

    enough energy to boil all the oceans in the world, if we wanted to." How many arrays

    would that be, I wonder? I've investigated solar sattelites due to my interest in space,

    and I guarantee you, any one such sattelite is not going to be that powerful. But that's

    okay. Only Darth Vader needs that kind of power. :-P

    "For artificial compounds such as plastics, we can incinerate them in gigantic sealed

    autoclaves, burying the ash in km-deep caverns carved out for the purpose, or, more

    simply, only produce recyclable plastics and ensure that the recycling process is as

    efficient and waste-free as possible."

    Plastics, being organic (mostly CHON), when incinerated will break down into CO2, H20,

    nitrogen products, ect. You can save your underground caverns for nuclear waste.

    I'm a nanotechnology sceptic, as previously explained on my blog. Here you see nanotechnology concieved as magic grey goo that can do anything. Manufacturing without waste? Every single process produces waste of some sort. It's thermodynamic necessity. However, with enough energy to blow, you can recycle most waste products below the level of your primary energy source fuel. (You couldn't use an oil plant to generate hydrogen, for example, or a nuclear plant to undo the atomic decay processes that power it) We could probably do that now, with arbitrary amounts of energy to throw around. And you'd need the same minimum energy, even if you used nanotechnology.

    Side note: I've always liked the distribution of city lights as you cross the US, how

    you have that nice non-uniform spacing. It's almost a time-lapse photo of the evolution

    of our transportation technology. Same with our state boundaries.

  2. Anonymous3:02 PM

    Well dont you think al those report speak against you, melting ice,desertspreading, deforestation, greenhousegases and so forth.

  3. anonymous writes: Well dont you think al those report speak against you, melting ice,desertspreading, deforestation, greenhousegases and so forth.

    Not necessarily. Those are not problems of overpopulation. They are technological and scientific problems. Those problems you mentioned all have solutions to them.

    In the book The Millennial Project, OTECs is a solution to global warming, by cooling the surface of the oceans enough to absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere.

    The cutting down of forests has several possible solutions. Hemp is a good replacement for wood. We can also grow trees in large, multi-level structures to use as wood, instead of cutting down natural forests.

    The problems you mention are often touted as overpopulation problems. But by using advanced science and technological tools, we can grow the number of humans on Earth AND fix those problems you mentioned above.

  4. The UN estimates that Earth's population will level off at 9 billion around year 2050. This is due to more nations becoming modernised and settling for a lower birth rate. Much is due to the status of women, since we have more options than just making babies. Having careers drives the need for stockings and lipstick. Thanks for including my little blog on your roll.

  5. Anonymous4:43 PM

    I couldn't disagree more with the idea that overpopulation is not a problem. If we had half the people in the world, as we do now, it would cut in half the polution, the waste, the resource use, etc. We should conserve, regardless. We should look for new energy sources, regardless. But the bottom line is, if there were fewer people on this earth, it would be cleaner, more pristine. The problem is that there were be less consumers, so manufacturers of all kinds would make less money. And that is why it is seen as a good thing to have more people (consumers). But it's bad for the world.

  6. Anonymous5:48 AM

    Actually we wouldn't cut pollution in half if we had half the population. This is because there is not any set per person pollution rate because there is not any set coal power plant, car, or factory per person ratio. Most of the worlds pollution comes from highly developed nations with low or negative (shrinking population) birthrates that have alot of electronics, machines and so on. Getting rid of half the wold population would mostly focus on poorer nations that have alot of people but low development (thus most of the people you would be getting rid of are in the low pollution generation range.

    A major problem with many people who complain about overpopulation is that they never look at the pollution generated by low birthrate nations in comparison to high. And thus they wrongly blame poorly developed nations for things like global warming when it is really mostly caused by wealthy, high resource use, and low birthrate nations.