How Many People Can the Earth Support?

By Joel E. Cohen | Go to book overview

too full of people." The author commented on massive unemployment: "how many miserable people lie up and down, begging and starving; and I am not so uncharitable to think, that all do it out of idleness, some there are, no doubt on't, that would work, and cannot get it." 6 The author advised emigration to America.

In 1758, 40 years before the English Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus ( 1766-1834) wrote his famous short essay on population, the Reverend Otto Diederich Lütken, rector of a parish on the island of Fyn, Denmark, published an article in Danmarks og Norges Oeconomiske Magazin (Danish- Norwegian Economic Magazine) entitled "An enquiry into the proposition that the number of people is the happiness of the realm, or the greater the number of subjects, the more flourishing the state." The article began:

Since the circumference of the globe is given and does not expand with the increased number of its inhabitants, and as travel to other planets thought to be inhabitable has not yet been invented; since the earth's fertility cannot be extended beyond a given point, and since human nature will presumably remain unchanged, so that a given number will hereafter require the same quantity of the fruits of the earth for their support as now, and as their rations cannot be arbitrarily reduced, it follows that the proposition "that the world's inhabitants will be happier, the greater their number" cannot be maintained, for as soon as the number exceeds that which our planet with all its wealth of land and water can support, they must needs starve one another out, not to mention other necessarily attendant inconveniences, to wit, a lack of the other comforts of life, wool, flax, timber, fuel, and so on. But the wise Creator who commanded men in the beginning to be fruitful and multiply, did not intend, since He set limits to their habitation and sustenance, that multiplication should continue without limit. 7

Concerns that the world has more people than it can accommodate, and that increasing human numbers will lead to painful corrective disasters, continue to this day. Here is a moderate expression of this point of view. In 1992, Walter J. Karplus, an even-tempered engineer at the University of California, Los Angeles, summarized what he called "The Scientific Prediction of Catastrophes in Our Time" and offered "a personal view":

Overpopulation is the fountainhead of most of the other catastrophes discussed in this book. If only the world population were to become stable at, say, 50% or 75% of its present level, most environmental and public health problems would become more easy to manage. . . . if the world population continues to grow at its present rate, a plethora of catastrophes, including those represented by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, will be certain to overtake us sooner or later. Ironically, these catastrophes will serve as feedback mechanisms to limit the population, albeit at a terrible cost in human suffering. For this reason, I believe that overpopulation is the most crucial global problem that we face today. 8

Whether or not the Babylonian and Greek gods rightly judged the Earth to be too crowded, whether or not Karplus rightly judged that "Overpopulation is the fountainhead of most of the other catastrophes," it is clear that

-7-

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