In sustainability circles, you hear a lot of concern over future baby-making and population growth. Here are three ways overpopulation is a myth.

Busy? Try the speed read.

The scoop: Overpopulation is a myth because Jack Ma and Elon Musk said so.

Some talking points for your New Years rant:

  1. Overcrowded cities ≠ overcrowded planet. The entire world population can fit in the state of Texas with the same population density as Manhattan.
  2. Lopsided populations will inevitably occur in modern advanced nations. That means young workers will be unable to support aging populations, causing population declines.
  3. ‘Malthusian traps’ refer to eventual food shortages as a population grows. Either Malthus was right and some of us go hungry naturally (as in we don’t need to artificially halt population growth), or he’s wrong and the population keeps growing sustainably through innovation.

Bottom line: The Earth has plenty to offer for 9 billion mouths. We just need to spread out more.

Dig deeper → 2 min

Overcrowded cities ≠ overcrowded planet

Chart showing overcrowded cities in America

The world has overcrowded cities, not overcrowded countries. In the US for example, the West Coast and East Coast alone make up around a 1/3 of the total population.

New York City and LA County each have the same population size as 630,000+ square miles of land near Idaho and the Dakotas.

Meanwhile, if the entire world population lived in Texas, we would still be less crowded than New York City. Texas has over 6 billion plus square miles of land for a planet of 8 billion plus people.

Lopsided populations

Last year at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, billionaires Elon Musk and Jack Ma talked about population collapse, futurism and AI.

VCG | Visual China Group | Getty Images

“Most people think we have too many people on the planet, but actually, this is an outdated view,” Musk said while on stage with Ma.

The two business moguls discussed how a population decline would affect advanced nations like China and the US. Every continent with the exception Africa is expected to see population growth decline in the 21st century.

Experts fear the emergence of lopsided populations, and the impact can be catastrophic.

Lopsided populations refer to the ability of the young working class to support a growing population of older people. In China, the rate of aging is growing much faster than the growth of new babies. Eventually, this can cause serious economic instability.

The emergence of AI will further deteriorate human population growth in rural areas as families start depending less on family size to maintain land.

Malthusian traps

Thomas Robert Malthus was an influential economist from the early 19th century who believed that population growth would eventually be stifled by its inability to feed a growing population.

Eventually, diminishing returns would occur and the population would fall back again. Modern economists call this catastrophe a “Malthusian trap”.

Malthus’ population theory has been well-criticized in the industrial age, where technological advances in automation and production allows humans to sustain populations well beyond what was previously thought possible.

For example, Henry George argued against Malthus by distinguishing humans from other creatures.

As a population of jay-hawks grow, there are less chickens. As human populations grow, there are more chickens because we are able to artificially create more.

So there are two possible scenarios:

  1. Malthus is right about overpopulation, and worst case the world population will decline again on its own due to a shortage in food supply.
  2. Malthus is wrong, and the human population will continue to sustain itself regardless of population size.

So why are we colonizing Mars?

If we fear too much inhabitable land from climate change, why colonize Mars?

Let’s figure out a way to make Siberia and the Russian tundra habitable for modern cities.

How can we prevent harsh wildfires in California and Australia? How can we disaster-proof Haiti and Taiwan?

The Earth can handle way more than 9 billion people. It’s just a matter of allocating resources properly. Overpopulation is a myth because the world is not overpopulated. Cities are.

The COVID-19 forced city-goers to reconsider the modern urban lifestyle. Hundreds of thousands scattered to the Midwest, Southeast and Southwest in hopes of a more idealistic lifestyle.

In my opinion, this population shift was inevitable. As much as the World Economic Forum wants it to be true, the modern mega-city is not sustainable.

The best thing you can do for a sustainable human future is to live as far away from a skyscraper as possible.

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People reacted to this story.
Comments to: Three ways overpopulation is a myth
TL;DR: Because Elon Musk and Jack Ma said so.
  • December 29, 2020

    You\’re forgetting that we can only produce the crops to sustain us and our cattle thanks to artificial fertilizers which are made from non-renewable resources and need energy resources to extracted, transformed, distributed and applied which are also non-renewable.

    Just like everyone else pointing the finger at Malthus you forget that we bought time when we invented artificial fertilizers and that just because what he predicted hasn\’t come true doesn\’t mean it won\’t.

    • December 30, 2020

      I agree Malthus hasn’t been disproven just yet… I am curious to see how lab-grown meat will change the food game. I’m certainly more a Promethean than a dooms-dayer, but realistically unless something big changes with food security billions are at risk of starving during this century.

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