Overpopulation and the Disease of Growth
By Howie Wolke
Back in the early ’80s when I still lived in Jackson Hole, a local reporter asked me who was most responsible for the global environmental crisis. It was a very general question, so I gave a very specific answer: “The Pope,” I immediately suggested, citing overpopulation and his opposition to birth control, abortion, and women’s rights. I stand by that answer still, though I now realize that such regressive sentiments are shared by the orthodox wings of nearly all organized religions (in order to avoid offending her readers, the reporter didn’t publish my response).
It has now been 11 years since I wrote “Wilderness and Overpopulation” (Wilderness Watch Blog, March 2, 2011). A few readers took vitriolic issue with that essay, but I stand by it. Since then, the global human population has grown from about 6.9 to 7.9 billion, now increasing at roughly 75 million additional hominids each year. In the U.S. during the last 11 years, the population grew by about 20 million to 333 million today. Twenty million additional humans is roughly equal to the total populations of New York State or Florida. And although population growth in the U.S. has recently stagnated in the wake of Covid, it is likely that without a concerted effort and policy to stabilize and reduce our population, we’ll be back on track toward 400 million before long.
I am no demographer. My passion is wilderness and wildlife. Yet I’ve been alarmed about the growing human hoards since I first read The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich back in the late 1960s. I am still alarmed, now more than ever, both because of our still-increasing numbers and the direct link between population growth and the destruction of wildlife and wilderness.
The refusal of many on both the political right and left to acknowledge overpopulation as the root cause of most of our problems also alarms me. Not just religious zealots but industrialists and right wing politicians all clamor for unrestrained growth. But many on the left are equally obtuse, valuing humans above all other life while arguing for reducing consumption and waste rather than reducing our collective biomass. We must do both! And the United States is leader of the pack when it comes to profligate resource consumption. Yet we avoid action on overpopulation at the peril of losing what remains wild, natural, and beautiful on this planet. As Ed Abbey once noted, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
Human population projections vary, from stabilizing at 9 or 10 billion in a few decades to continued growth to 12 billion or more by the end of the century. Yet we destroyed wild nature on a massive scale with “just” 5 billion humans. We destroy it faster now at 7.9 billion, and one can only shrink in horror at the prospect of 9 or 10 or 12 billion of us chewing up whatever natural habitats that remain. After all, we are already in the midst of the Earth’s 6th great extinction – a human-caused debacle with climate disaster looming as the potential coup de grace. Habitat destruction and fragmentation, pollution, over-hunting/fishing and poaching plus the spread of exotic species are the primary culprits. Today’s extinctions are occurring at about 1,000 times the pre-civilization background rate of natural extinctions, according to experts such as the late ecologist E.O. Wilson. And although greed, waste, and inefficiency play a role, overpopulation is the fundamental driving force.
Viewed from the perspective of animal numbers and biomass, the picture is even bleaker. According to a study by the World Wildlife Fund and others, in the 50 years from 1970 to 2020 the Earth’s human population roughly doubled from 3.7 million to 7.8 billion, while during that time period the number of wild animals (vertebrates only) on the planet declined by 70%! And humans plus their livestock now account for 95% of the total mammal biomass on Earth! Indeed, human population growth and the destruction of wildlife are the undeniable cause and effect of ecological disaster. At the local level or on a global scale, and everything in between, more people nearly always equals less wildlife and less wildlife habitat.
Many people don’t realize that the destruction of biodiversity isn’t just about the loss of species and distinct subspecies. Species extinction is the ultimate manifestation of population growth and associated forms of habitat destruction. Yet when any natural habitat is logged, mined, drilled, fenced, roaded, over-grazed, border-walled, or converted into strip malls, subdivisions, or cultivated farms, local populations of plant and animal species bite the dust. As local populations disappear, with them go genetic traits that might otherwise have proven beneficial, leading to new or better-adapted forms of life. In other words, even if a species is elsewhere secure, the broad-scale loss of local populations due to expansion of the human enterprise knee-caps the very process of evolution, the driving force behind life on Earth. This is a rarely discussed and tragic aspect of the biological meltdown.
Fly over our country’s heartland in a window seat and literally for hours one sees little but cultivated farmlands, literally hundreds of thousands of square miles where nature has been almost entirely obliterated in order to feed the ever-expanding mass of humanity. Most of that farmland, by the way, was once a magnificent expanse of prairie, an ocean of grassy biodiversity teeming with wild evolving life that in our landscape amnesia, society has collectively forgotten.
Unmitigated land-eating sprawl (Phoenix, for instance), strip malls, strip mines, gigantic-scale monocultures, massive areas of deforestation, livestock-induced desertification, plastic-clogged oceans and waterways, plugged up rivers (reservoirs), not to mention mind-boggling traffic jams, overcrowded national parks, wars over territory and resources, even genocides and more are all related to overpopulation. And then there is the climate crisis wild card. Human overpopulation is the fundamental driving force behind nearly all environmental and social ills, yet this travesty rarely punctures the public discourse.
In the U.S., our public lands are also under siege by various manifestations of over-crowding including growing armies of destructive off-road vehicle recreationists. Plus, population growth encourages more resource extraction on public lands, such as logging, mining, oil drilling, and livestock grazing, in order to feed, house, and transport the growing population. Even the race to build more wind and solar projects has environmental costs that are exacerbated by the growing mass of humanity and its needs. And studies also show that having fewer children is by far the most efficient way to reduce one’s carbon footprint.
Population growth and development on adjacent lands damage and isolate Wilderness areas and national parks. As these nature reserves become more hemmed in by humanity’s ever-expanding footprint, their ability to protect biodiversity, evolution and natural processes diminishes. If nothing else, ecologists have taught us that species and populations tend toward extinction as habitats shrink and become increasingly isolated. That’s due largely to inbreeding depression, genetic drift, and the vulnerability of small isolated populations to environmental cataclysms such as disease, wildfire, or a volcanic eruption. Isolated national parks and wilderness areas become “WINO” nature reserves: wild in name only. For example, studies have documented the copious loss of native species in U.S. national parks due to varying degrees of isolation. Yellowstone is one exception, still harboring at least small populations of all known native vertebrates, mainly due to its size and the large designated wilderness areas that buffer most of Yellowstone’s boundaries.
As mentioned earlier, the U.S. population has grown by about 20 million during the previous decade. Most of that growth is due to immigration, as the U.S. birthrate has dropped to near replacement levels (yet many other countries are still experiencing rapid population growth). This is not anti-immigrant; it is a simple fact. I am the grandson of Russian immigrants. One way or another we are all descended from immigrants. Four demographic factors determine population trends: births, deaths, emigration, and immigration. In order to stabilize and reduce the population of the U.S. we must limit either births or immigration or some combination of each (or increase the death rate, which most would agree is not the best option). Make no mistake, overpopulation is a global problem, and although some western countries have low birth rates, rapid population growth elsewhere spills over, like an overflowing water fountain. To stem this global problem, each nation needs to have policies in place to halt population growth. Stabilizing and reducing the Earth’s human population is every nation’s responsibility. Recognizing that immigration is part of the demographic equation simply acknowledges basic mathematics.
Certainly, recent immigrants are rarely conspicuous consumers. Many of them immigrate to escape violence and political retribution in their home countries. We need to make room for political refugees. I am on board with that. But we cannot simply continue to accommodate more immigrants without making fewer babies (“carbon bombs”). This is a touchy subject, I know, and there are no easy answers. But right now a comprehensive U.S. population policy is completely lacking.
Here in the U.S. more people mean more sprawl, highways, parking lots, concrete, crowding, plowed farmlands, resource extraction, and yahoos tearing up public land on off-road vehicles (ORV’s). According to a study by Numbers USA, in a recent 15 year period we lost about 18,000 square miles of undeveloped lands to sprawl. That is about 11.5 million acres, or the equivalent of over 5 Yellowstone National Parks! And 67% of that acreage loss was due entirely to population growth. It makes little difference to imperiled wildlife whether urban sprawl houses Central American immigrants or Utah Mormons (Utah has our nation’s highest birth rate).
Many facets of habitat destruction are simply a function of numbers. Look at India. Or New Jersey. Jam-packed with humanity, there simply isn’t much room for wild nature. Everyone needs housing, food, plus transportation, and associated infrastructure, no matter how careful they are to consume less and recycle more.
So yes, of course, overpopulation is global and we in industrial nations need to consume less and become less wasteful. We need to abandon the use of fossil fuels. Soon. To halt population growth, good health care and family planning, including access to birth control and abortion, must be available to all, everywhere on the planet. Women must become empowered, a tough challenge in countries ruled by religious fundamentalists. Also, human males can impregnate females 365 days/year – unlike women who can’t get pregnant more than once in nine months. Males must take more responsibility for birth control. In addition, our government should implement foreign policies that minimize refugees. And tax systems should reward small families and penalize big ones (Good luck with all of that).
Moreover, economies that rely on perpetual growth are not sustainable. Economies in the industrialized world are already too big, their national products too gross. So, we need to re-tool economic systems so that they are not dependent upon perpetual growth. In college, I nearly flunked Economics 101, so I admit to having no idea how to remove growth dependency from global economic systems. But the survival of life as we know it on Earth depends upon doing exactly that. Of course, a by-product of declining populations would be a welcomed halt to economic growth.
Human nature is a tough nut to crack. I’ve yet to see evidence that we can get nearly 8 billion humans in sync with everything that needs to be done. Witness the failure of the Biden Administration to get even its minimal baby steps toward climate action through Congress.
A word about news-media. It is complicated in this age of social media and its related deluge of internet misinformation. Yet we “wild preservatives” (an Abbeyism) could do a better job educating and cajoling news editors, TV and radio commentators, reporters, bloggers, and others with a forum. Think about it. How often do we see or hear a news report that discusses population growth in the context of environmental destruction? Rarely. On rare occasions when it is mentioned, it is usually in the context of problems such as traffic jams or human health issues. Typical news is entirely anthropocentric. Yet as we quibble about the arrangement of the deck chairs, the Titanic continues full speed ahead, icebergs be damned.
Carrying Capacity is a fundamental ecological concept. Exceed it and your environment fails to provide life’s necessities. Nature has evolved to keep species in dynamic balance with their habitats. Extirpate the wolves and the elk overpopulate. Too many elk gobble up the willow and aspen and therefore beaver disappear because aspen and willow are their primary food. So the biologically diverse wetlands that the beavers produced also disappear. Too many humans gobble up wild nature nearly everywhere on Earth, resulting in massive documented depletion of wild habitats and life. We humans live an illusion: we pretend that technological or behavioral fixes allow us to circumvent nature’s laws. But they do not. The inevitable is here. Has been for decades. Look around. Less than ten percent of the U.S. south of Alaska is still in a wild condition. We’ve already destroyed so much, yet we remain in denial, oblivious to the root cause of nature’s demise: overpopulation. When you get right down to it, more babies equal less nature, whether those babies are born in Utah or Columbia or Siberia. The more people, the more nature bites the dust, in literally every country and habitat, from the Arctic to the Amazon to the depleted depths of the oceans.
We cannot recycle our way out of this mess, and buying an electric car won’t counter the annual loss of millions of wild acres due to human expansionism. Scientists estimate that there are somewhere between 10 and 30 million species of multi-celled organisms on Earth, while just one species now dominates essentially every corner of the planet. That’d be us. We are already severely overpopulated. The 6th Extinction is proof. So is a drive through Denver – or most any other gigantic growing mass of over-crowded urban humanity. Although this is subjective, I suspect that the true carrying capacity for humans on Earth is closer to 2 or 3 billion, rather than today’s 7.9 billion.
So yes, be sure to recycle. Buy an electric car. Eat less meat. Work to elect politicians who will promote wild wilderness and renewable “green” energy. Install solar panels on your roof. But also limit reproduction and help to bring the population conundrum into the public debate. Accept no excuses from governments, industrialists, news editors, religious fanatics, anthropocentric humanists, or anyone on either side of the political divide. Because ultimately, even the Pope requires a habitable planet, despite the widespread myopic illusion that growth has no limits, a philosophy that viewed rationally is absolutely utterly and patently insane.
Howie Wolke is a retired wilderness guide/outfitter from southern Montana. He is on the Wilderness Watch Board of Directors and The Rewilding Institute’s Leadership Council. The views expressed in this essay are his own. This essay first ran in COUNTERPUNCH.
Howie Wolke is a retired wilderness guide/outfitter from southern Montana, just north of Yellowstone. He has been a wilderness proponent in the U.S. Northern Rockies since the mid-1970s and is currently on The Rewilding Institute’s Leadership Council.