Just what is overpopulation?

Another extract from another book for all those intelligent 10 to 12 year olds out there, and that’s all of them.

Overpopulation is a word that gets all its meaning from the over bit. Population is good, so the story goes (unless it’s nits in your hair), overpopulation isn’t. Overpopulation means you’ve gone over the limits.

Too many people means you could run out of things like:

  • Food (including pizza)
  • Water
  • Land and space to move
  • Air (if it’s really bad)

<Art of a girl squeezed by dozens more into a lift. “I can’t breathe,” she’s saying. Caption – You can definitely overpopulate a lift.>

A famous old dude named Thomas Malthus said that increasing our food supply was good for people. For a while, he added. He thought growing more and more food meant that populations would eventually grow too big (well fed people have more babies) and a lot of people would eventually starve. We’d have a population crash because we’d overpopulated and outgrown our food supply.

Malthus thought it was mostly poor people who’d suffer from overpopulation (which I guess was good news for wealthy people). He said there was a best or optimal population that we should not get bigger than but humans couldn’t help themselves. God (Malthus was a churchman) had imposed limits on population. Humans weren’t good at listening to God.

<Art of a female goddess sitting in the clouds proclaiming: “Thou should not have too many children or I’ll take away the food.”>

Malthus got it wrong; sort of. He certainly would never have thought the earth could grow enough food to feed its current near 8 billion people. That’s 8,000,000,000 bodies. We do in fact grow more than enough food to feed all those 8 billion. We are not so good at getting the food to everyone though, which is one reason why we have starving people.

Malthus was – despite getting how many was too many incorrect – very clever, and we can’t blame him for getting it wrong. He was basing his ideas on everything his world knew at that time. And they didn’t have engineered seeds and tractors and advanced agricultural techniques.

Malthus knew what had happened in the past. Good times meant people grew more food. The population increased. It got too big for conditions and the food supply. Then things went ‘not so good’. Famines happened. People died.

The most famous case of this ‘too many people, bad things happening’ was something called THE PLAGUE, aka The Black Death.

<Art of death riding a rat.>

The most famous plague of all (there had been earlier ones) happened in the 14th Century. It started in China and then spread through the Middle East and Europe. It even reached Russia. Malthus knew that before the plague came along there had been years and years of warmer than average temperatures in Europe. People grew more and more food and the population also grew. Too large, he’d argue.

Then it suddenly got colder. Food supplies fell and people started to sicken. We were already not in a good way when along came Yersinia pestis, or the bug that causes the plague. The population crashed. There had been perhaps 750 million people in Europe before the plague. One in three or even as many as half of them died (not all of them from the plague), which means the population fell in the space of a few years (1347 to 1349) to somewhere between 375 to 500 million.

If you’re keen to learn more, any encyclopaedia [1]will have information on the 14th Century plague.  

<Art to mimic the picture below>

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.png

And if you want to see how some famous comedians deal [1] with The Plague and this horrible period in history, watch this.

How long can we keep on growing the population?

The big question remains – how many people is the right number? Sure, better agriculture and SCIENCE (I’m a big fan of science) means we can have a lot more people than Malthus ever thought possible, but how many is the right number?


[1] This famous scene about bringing out the dead features a rather rude word right at the end: https://youtu.be/QcbR1J_4ICg


[1] Like this one: https://www.britannica.com/event/Black-Death/Effects-and-significance

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