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Overpopulated?

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Posted on : 8:51 AM | By : Nic | In : , , ,

In all my reading about sustainability and peak oil I often find that overpopulation is also one of the causes (or scapegoats) commonly mentioned.  It is true that there is more people than ever and that means we are having more babies than ever, even when many cultures are limiting the number of their children to 1 or 2.  In fact, the world average is 2.65, while in the 1950's it was 5.  People also live longer though, so even though we have about 6.7 billion people, by 2050 there is projected to be 11 billion.  


But how much is 11 billion people?  

Suppose we gave all of those people 1 acre of land (let's not worry about whether it is farmable or not) in all the fairly flat, large regions and avoiding the Amazon...
United States = 2,428,202,240 acres
Mexico = 487,429,120 acres
Canada = 2,466,614,400 acres
   ....we are almost at the current population so far - that's 5,382,245,760 acres.  Let's keep going...
Australia = 1,912,897,280 acres
Europe =  2,515,200,000 acres
Central America = 129,428,857 acres
Africa = 7,467,902,720 acres
TOTAL = 17,407,674,617 acres

Alternatively, we could put everyone in the world in Asia, which has 11,015,680,000 acres.  But more realistically if we gave everyone an acre everywhere in the world besides Asia and South America, leaving those places as a kind of nature reserve I guess, we would have about 6 billion extra acres.  But those are simply some leeway for all of the unlivable, un-farmable land in regions that are too cold, to rocky, too wet, etc.

So it is possible to fit all those people onto the earth and spread them out, but then we have another problem.  Not everyone can support themselves on an acre like the Dervaes family from Path to Freedom simply because not all land is that fertile and not everyone lives in California.  It is possible that with tons of compost, and utilizing many season-extending techniques most people could do it.  But it would require 11 billion people all becoming sustainable agriculturalists. It also would mean everyone on earth changing their lifestyle.  In India currently it takes 2.4 acres to keep someone fed and clothed.  In Western countries it takes 20.  Everyone on earth would have to become self-sufficient.  Possibly some of these people could cooperate and make group sustainable farms, but it would still take most people cooperating with each other.

One issue surrounding population food shortages is the current control that agribusiness has over food.  In order to maximize profits they don't use very efficient farming methods and instead choose to modify seeds in order to make bigger vegetables.  It is cheaper to grow a bigger plant than to fit as many plants into a space as possible, because the second option is labour intensive and they don't want to pay people to do that.  So on top of everyone cooperating, all of those big companies would become obsolete and they would fight it tooth and nail.  It would be an uphill battle.

On Christmas Eve John and I gave ourself a treat and watched the television upstairs.  There is actually cable hooked up in the house but we don't use it - we just went up and borrowed our landlord's tv.  We ended up watching 17 and Counting which was having a marathon.  The Duggars just had baby #18 and I just get fascinated with them probably for the same reasons they are on tv - so many kids, so many matching outfits, and so much organization.  Most people know the reason they keep having babies is because they are part of the Quiverfull movement, a Christian culture that believes that God should determine how many kids you have, basically.  That's a very rudimentary description but I think it could be seen as the group of people that believes the exact opposite of the group of people who believe in overpopulation.

I've always been a bit of a fence-sitter on this.  I like having kids.  Right now I'll be having three and that's more than the average.  After that we'll adopt a couple more.  I'm not really against people that have lots of kids - I think that what has happened population-wise is the natural consequence of our medical and agricultural advancement.  We personally try to live as sustainably as we can, but most people don't.  I'm also not sure we could support ourselves completely on one acre.  Which means that in 40 years there will be too many people and I seriously doubt that everyone will change their lifestyle that dramatically so that they would be living on less than 20 acres.  I might find that when I'm 67 years old cancer will be cured and we'll finally have clean energy, but I'll be hungry.

In calculating how much acreage there is in the world, it is also important to realize that even sustainable farming is kind of bad for the environment because it replaces the natural ecosystem, and all of those medical advancements keeping us alive for longer would go downhill.  If everyone in the world was farming we would pretty much be back to a time in history of subsistence living and very little science, art, literature, etc.  Unfortunately if population grows that much in the next 40 years that's what we'll have to do just to keep up with the food demand and to become more sustainable.  In either scenario it's possible we would see a population drop simply because medical care would suffer or because there would be a food shortage.  It seems as though the earth will simply right itself no matter what we do.

This is kind of a dark post for me - usually I am quite upbeat about these things.  Peak oil doesn't bother me that much because I think we should live without it anyway.  But too many people and not enough food?  That's a serious thing.  It really is our own fault - we could have been figuring this out ages ago and researching sustainable agriculture and replacing agribusiness with it.  Instead we went through the 50's and filled our soil with poison.  I think the real solution at this point is the simplest - victory gardens in everyone's backyard, and as much support of local sustainable agriculture.  And not only for food - for every product that goes into your house.  Clothing needs to be recycled, household products need to be reused, locally made or made by you.  People need to fight to built sustainably with cob, strawbale or other locally sourced materials besides wood, and they need to use as many recycled materials as possible.

The communities that do this will create a pocket of survival for their children.  And I mean literally your children - not some generation far into the future after you die.  There will be people that suffer in the near future, and I think there will reach a time when people will go into survival mode.  It no longer will be about the hungry people in Africa.  It will become an issue right next door.  

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