GEOG 430
Human Use of the Environment

Overpopulation: Debates on Resource Use, Population Growth, and Scarcity


Overpopulation is the idea that there are not enough resources on the earth to sustain the earth’s population. Key to this idea is that there are certain human needs that must be filled, and that there are finite resources to fulfill these needs. As you engage with this week’s materials, ask yourself—how do these viewpoints conceptualize the relationship between humans and nature? How do these viewpoints conceptualize human wants and needs vis-a-vis natural resources? How does the geography of resource use change this debate? How do these viewpoints echo or conflict with the ideas and arguments from the readings/films that we have covered in previous weeks?

Thomas Malthus is perhaps the most well-known scholar on the topic of overpopulation. Born in England in 1766, he postulated in “An Essay on the Principle of Population” that population growth eventually will place catastrophic pressure on resource use—leading to famines, conflict, and other stress.

As you reflect on these passages, take note of the two general ideas Malthus set forth in Chapter 1. Think about how these two points figure into his argument and his understanding of the demands human populations inevitably can put on natural resources. Malthus suggested that population pressures lead to resource overuse, famine, conflict, and misery, in particular, because exponential population growth outstrips food production. Overpopulation, he surmised, would eventually lead to catastrophe, entailing high death rates until the human population was culled to a more sustainable size.

Driven by some of the pressing issues of his day, Malthus was particularly interested in connecting the predicament of England’s poor to these issues of resources use and proposed moral restrictions on the poor, suggesting that the poor practice sexual abstinence. In the excerpt you will read from Chapter 5, Malthus takes issue with England’s Poor Laws, a kind of welfare system for those unable to work in Elizabethan England which Malthus wanted to see reformed. As you read this passage, you’ll see that he considered the laws to exacerbate the predicament of the poor specifically by enabling the population to increase and not providing the food they needed to survive.

Excerpts from Chapter 1

Excerpts from Chapter 5

Read the following excerpt from Chapter 1:


The most important argument that I shall adduce is certainly not new. The principles on which it depends have been explained in part by Hume, and more at large by Dr. Adam Smith. It has been advanced and applied to the present subject, though not with its proper weight, or in the most forcible point of view, by Mr. Wallace, and it may probably have been stated by many writers that I have never met with. I should certainly therefore not think of advancing it again, though I mean to place it in a point of view in some degree different from any that I have hitherto seen, if it had ever been fairly and satisfactorily answered.


I think I may fairly make two postulata.

First, That food is necessary to the existence of man.

Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.


These two laws, ever since we have had any knowledge of mankind, appear to have been fixed laws of our nature; and, as we have not hitherto seen any alteration in them, we have no right to conclude that they will ever cease to be what they now are, without an immediate act of power in that Being who first arranged the system of the universe; and for the advantage of his creatures, still executes, according to fixed laws, all its various operations.


I do not know that any writer has supposed that on this earth man will ultimately be able to live without food. But Mr. Godwin has conjectured that the passion between the sexes may in time be extinguished. As, however, he calls this part of his work a deviation into the land of conjecture, I will not dwell longer upon it at present than to say that the best arguments for the perfectibility of man, are drawn from a contemplation of the great progress that he has already made from the savage state, and the difficulty of saying where he is to stop. But towards the extinction of the passion between the sexes, no progress whatever has hitherto been made. It appears to exist in as much force at present as it did two thousand or four thousand years ago. There are individual exceptions now as there always have been. But, as these exceptions do not appear to increase in number, it would surely be a very unphilosophical mode of arguing, to infer merely from the existence of an exception, that the exception would, in time, become the rule, and the rule the exception.


Assuming then, my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.


Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.


By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal.


This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall somewhere; and must necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind.


Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand. She has been comparatively sparing in the room and the nourishment necessary to rear them. The germs of existence contained in this spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would fill millions of worlds in the course of a few thousand years. Necessity, that imperious all pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants, and the race of animals shrink under this great restrictive law. And the race of man cannot, by any efforts of reason, escape from it. Among plants and animals its effects are waste of seed, sickness, and premature death. Among mankind, misery and vice. The former, misery, is an absolutely necessary consequence of it. Vice is a highly probable consequence, and we therefore see it abundantly prevail; but it ought not, perhaps, to be called an absolutely necessary consequence. The ordeal of virtue is to resist all temptation to evil.


This natural inequality of the two powers of population, and of production in the earth, and that great law of our nature which must constantly keep their effects equal, form the great difficulty that to me appears insurmountable in the way to the perfectibility of society. All other arguments are of slight and subordinate consideration in comparison of this. I see no way by which man can escape from the weight of this law which pervades all animated nature. No fancied equality, no agrarian regulations in their utmost extent, could remove the pressure of it even for a single century. And it appears, therefore, to be decisive against the possible existence of a society, all the members of which, should live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure; and feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and families.


Consequently, if the premises are just, the argument is conclusive against the perfectibility of the mass of mankind.


I have thus sketched the general outline of the argument; but I will examine it more particularly; and I think it will be found that experience, the true source and foundation of all knowledge, invariably confirms its truth.

And read the following excerpt from Chapter 5:


The positive check to population, by which I mean, the check that represses an increase which is already begun, is confined chiefly, though not perhaps solely, to the lowest orders of society.


This check is not so obvious to common view as the other I have Mentioned; and, to prove distinctly the force and extent of its operation would require, perhaps, more data than we are in possession of. But I believe it has been very generally remarked by those who have attended to bills of mortality, that of the number of children who die annually, much too great a proportion belongs to those, who may be supposed unable to give their offspring proper food and attention; exposed as they are occasionally to severe distress, and confined, perhaps, to unwholesome habitations and hard labour. This mortality among the children of the poor has been constantly taken notice of in all towns. It certainly does not prevail in an equal degree in the country; but the subject has not hitherto received sufficient attention to enable any one to say, that there are not more deaths in proportion, among the children of the poor, even in the country, than among those of the middling and higher classes. Indeed, it seems difficult to suppose that a labourer's wife who has six children, and who is sometimes in absolute want of bread, should be able always to give them the food and attention necessary to support life. The sons and daughters of peasants will not be found such rosy cherubs in real life as they are described to be in romances. It cannot fail to be remarked by those who live much in the country that the sons of labourers are very apt to be stunted in their growth, and are a long while arriving at maturity. Boys that you would guess to be fourteen or fifteen, are upon inquiry, frequently found to be eighteen or nineteen. And the lads who drive plough, which must certainly be a healthy exercise, are very rarely seen with any appearance of calves to their legs; a circumstance which can only be attributed to a want either of proper, or of sufficient nourishment.


To remedy the frequent distresses of the common people, the poor-laws of England have been instituted; but it is to be feared, that though they may have alleviated a little the intensity of individual misfortune, they have spread the general evil over a much larger surface. It is a subject often started in conversation and mentioned always as a matter of great surprise, that notwithstanding the immense sum that is annually collected for the poor in England, there is still so much distress among them….


The poor-laws of England tend to depress the general condition of the poor in these two ways. Their first obvious tendency is to increase population without increasing the food for its support. A poor man may marry with little or no prospect of being able to support a family in independence. They may be said therefore in some measure to create the poor which they maintain; and as the provisions of the country must, in consequence of the increased population, be distributed to every man in smaller proportions, it is evident that the labour of those who are not supported by parish assistance, will purchase a smaller quantity of provisions than before, and consequently more of them must be driven to ask for support.


Secondly, the quantity of provisions consumed in workhouses upon a part of the society, that cannot in general be considered as the most valuable part, diminishes the shares that would otherwise belong to more industrious and more worthy members; and thus in the same manner forces more to become dependent. If the poor in the workhouses were to live better than they now do, this new distribution of the money of the society would tend more conspicuously to depress the condition of those out of the workhouses by occasioning a rise in the price of provisions.


Fortunately for England, a spirit of independence still remains among the peasantry. The poor-laws are strongly calculated to eradicate this spirit. They have succeeded in part; but had they succeeded as completely as might have been expected, their pernicious tendency would not have been so long concealed.


Hard as it may appear in individual instances, dependent poverty ought to be held disgraceful. Such a stimulus seems to be absolutely necessary to promote the happiness of the great mass of mankind; and every general attempt to weaken this stimulus, however benevolent its apparent intention, will always defeat its own purpose. If men are induced to marry from a prospect of parish provision, with little or no chance of maintaining their families in independence, they are not only unjustly tempted to bring unhappiness and dependence upon themselves and children; but they are tempted, without knowing it, to injure all in the same class with themselves. A labourer who marries without being able to support a family may in some respects be considered as an enemy to all his fellow-labourers….


A plan of this kind, the preliminary of which should be an abolition of all the present parish laws, seems to be the best calculated to increase the mass of happiness among the common people of England. To prevent the recurrence of misery, is, alas! beyond the power of man. In the vain endeavour to attain what in the nature of things is impossible, we now sacrifice not only possible but certain benefits. We tell the common people, that if they will submit to a code of tyrannical regulations, they shall never be in want. They do submit to these regulations. They perform their part of the contract: but we do not, nay cannot, perform ours: and thus the poor sacrifice the valuable blessing of liberty, and receive nothing that can be called an equivalent in return.


Notwithstanding, then, the institution of the poor-laws in England, I think it will be allowed, that considering the state of the lower classes altogether, both in the towns and in the country, the distresses which they suffer from the want of proper and sufficient food, from hard labour and unwholesome habitations, must operate as a constant check to incipient population.


To these two great checks to population, in all long occupied countries, which I have called the preventive and the positive checks, may be added vicious customs with respect to women, great cities, unwholesome manufactures, luxury, pestilence, and war.


All these checks may be fairly resolved into misery and vice.


And that these are the true causes of the slow increase of population in all the states of modern Europe, will appear sufficiently evident, from the comparatively rapid increase that has invariably taken place whenever these causes have been in any considerable degree removed.

You might notice that many of the ideas and language Malthus uses resonates with discussions of population, food, and poverty heard in the press today. Malthus’ ideas gained renewed interest in the 1960s and 1970s with the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb which revisited Malthus’ prediction that overpopulation would outpace food production, resulting in catastrophe. The ideas presented in these works conceive of resources as finite. This viewpoint begets discussions of resource scarcity, as it assumes that there are limits to the capacity of nature to produce or supply resources.

However, many scholars have taken issue with these ideas, in particular pointing out that human needs can be met by multiple forms, that needs can be a product of social pressures (do you need Doritos to satisfy your hunger? or an iPhone to have human interaction?), and human ingenuity and technological fixes have helped us adapt ways to meet our needs.

Population Research Institute’s videos - Overpopulation is a Myth:

Take a look at the Population Research Institute’s videos on “Overpopulation is a Myth”. Click on the link to watch Episodes 1-6 and look at some of the associated content under each video (You don’t have to read all the comments that others have posted!!). These videos are short, only a few minutes each, so make sure you watch all of them!

MAKE SURE YOU WATCH ALL 6 EPISODES, this material will be on your quiz!

Ellis 2013 - Overpopulation is not the problem:

In the Week 4 Module on Canvas, you will find a PDF of an op-ed written by geographer Erle Ellis, challenging some of the basic claims about overpopulation and scarcity. Think about how his perspective of human use of the environment differs from Malthus. How does this perception change the solutions he sees?

As you look at these materials, consider what assumptions about human environment interactions, in particular, resource use and scarcity, these authors make. How might you connect some of these issues to Pollan’s arguments in The Botany of Desire?