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The unpopular topic of overpopulation

Letter to the Editor | Thursday, September 21, 2006

As a counter-response to the bevy of attacks on Liz Coffey’s Sept. 14 column “Big families equals big trouble,” I wish to correct the numerous conceptual and factual inaccuracies put forth as rebuttal to her fundamentally sound, if somewhat overstated argument.

Tim Wymore makes the assertion that “while natural resources are finite, our ability to manipulate them with ever-increasing efficiency is not.” I would point out that the concept of a system with a continually increasing efficiency of output is dependent upon the theoretically finite limit to efficiency and that continual optimization steps become probabilistically more and more infrequent as that limit is approached. This nuance aside, in terms of sustainability the question remains: can humanity limit its energetic consumption on a daily basis to the energetic input in terms of primary solar radiance for that day?

We are currently consuming bio-solar energy stored over the millennia as fossil fuels far above any sustainable level and in the process liberating vast quantities of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere and contributing to anthropogenic global climate changes. Additionally, Wymore’s reference to the “tremendous improvements in farming techniques” needs to be highly qualified. With the advent of the Haber-Bosch process for the fixation of nitrogen in 1908, Malthus’ predictions for the time-course of resource limitation and population crisis turned out to be inaccurate, although not altogether un-instructive. The application of industrial fertilizer has led to significantly higher crop yields and enabled the population explosion but it has also resulted in profound global nutrient pollution, such as the annual hypoxic “dead zone” the size of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. This is a direct result of irresponsible farming practices in the Mississippi Basin in the strained effort to feed such a burgeoning population. When Wymore makes the claim that the human population has never been better fed, he is certainly speaking in terms of percentages and not in terms of actual numbers of those underfed, a claim ironically penned on a day coincident with the University’s forum on world health issues.

Gardener’s claim that a reduced population growth in North American and Europe is tantamount to a “civilizational suicide” of the West is absurd. If only it were true then perhaps the at times unrealistic standard of living set by American families wishing to live in gated communities of gigantic houses over an hour’s commute by SUV away from their work would not be a global standard for emulation. Maintaining a zero population growth at the already high current population is truly the only responsible action. Given the pre-reproduction age mortality rate, this translates into a replacement rate of 2.3 offspring for every couple.

Certainly Falvey is correct when he states that the danger of human extinction is not imminent, highlighting an over-dramatization in Coffey’s article; however, responding to a misunderstood statement of hers (I’m sure that Coffey supports the concept of large adopted families) with an emotionally charged insult of his own is unproductive at best.

The conceptually suspect yet pervasively held ideal of an ever-expanding economy is one of the primary motivators for a growing population. On the supply side it keeps labor costs down, which from the perspective of the American laborer has led to unremitting outsourcing of jobs to Asia. As an ironic example of this, China has recently relaxed its population control measures in order to lower rising labor costs which are due to their aging population bubble. Additionally, as a population continually grows, so does its consumption capacity and thereby its demand for goods. One way to look at the increase in the American per capita consumption is to recognize that perhaps the largest concrete American export is the dollar, as evinced by the trillions of U.S. dollars currently held by the Asian Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China. Broadly, this dynamic is driven by aspirations for the accumulation of private wealth more than an interest in the public good or a sustainable global economy and population.

If anyone is confused as to the impacts of the growing human population and its sustainability, I refer them to the writings of Paul R. Ehrlich, the Nobel Prize-winning ecologist from Stanford University who lectured on campus last semester on the topic of human over-population, or to the writings of Edward O. Wilson, the famous biologist from Harvard, such as ‘The Future of Life.’ These highly regarded scientists use concrete scientific data to show that a large portion of the challenges facing our planet and the people that live on it can be drawn back to the fundamental issues of over-population and poor resource management. The topic of over-population is never an easy topic to broach, yet this comes in part from its imperative. I would ask, at what point do we expect to reach a steady state of population, production and consumption in which an acceptable standard of living for all can include a harmonic preservation of the planet’s irreplaceable natural resources? The first step is dispelling uninformed opinions and misinformation.

Thomas Klepach

graduate student


Sept. 18