Will Overpopulation Exceed the Capacity of Our Global Infrastructure?

Perhaps the question is, more appropriately, when will population exceed the capacity of our global infrastructure? I am amazed that enough food and other goods can be produced and delivered today to sustain cities like Karachi, Pakistan (12-18 million) and Mexico City (19-35 million), especially since the average family income in these cities is relatively low compared with that in the more developed countries. I wonder how long such cities can continue to grow, and why the infrastructure to sustain them doesn’t appear to be increasingly fragile and at risk from human and naturally-caused problems. What are the signs that tell us that we are pushing our infrastructure to the point where risk of problematic or disastrous collapses is significantly increased?

The past has lessons, but they are often unclear and difficult to obtain. Archaeological findings indicate that once-thriving civilizations like those of the Mayans in Central America and at Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan could have been challenging their regional environments before they collapsed declined. They apparently had well organized agricultural systems and transport infrastructures which sustained their populations in cities, achieving integrated and efficient regional systems similar in many ways to the global infrastructure we rely on today. It is noteworthy that their largest cities were still only a hundredth of the largest cities existing today. In any case, understanding what went wrong for them will be important as human population growth increases the load on our global infrastructure, as there most certainly are important parallels.

Our global infrastructure, like many things human, could be both a blessing and a curse. Is the advanced transportation infrastructure behind globalization mitigating regional disasters, first by making large supplies of goods available at low cost, and then by enabling us to move goods quickly to where they are urgently needed? That may be the case, though I’d like to read some scholarly discourse on the topic. Even if this is the case, I can still see good reason for population control and reduction. The risk is that the resilience and power in our infrastructure could lead us to a dependence on it that would put huge numbers in peril should it partially fail.

Either natural or human events could create critical challenges for our infrastructure. Could regional infrastructures in the most heavily populated and high growth areas be challenged beyond their limits by war, natural disaster, or other large scale problems, such that they would suffer collapses resulting in millions of deaths? In recent times we have seen larger and larger humanitarian disasters, such as the cyclone (Nargis) that hit Myanmar this past year, the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004 (link), and, though much less deadly, hurricane Katrina in the United States. Similar events will only be worse when populations in such relatively-higher risk areas are more dense, and infrastructures are nearer to their limits. In the grand scheme of overpopulation, however, no disasters have been seen which noticeably impact total population, and it continues to grow unabated, most rapidly in the poorest and most at risk parts of the world. Will we reach a population where our global infrastructure will be challenged, or will we limit our own birthrate as a species through educated choice?

Birthrate and population reduction are the only lasting ways to reduce our risks. I believe, to mitigate our growing problems with energy supplies, immigration, and susceptibility to natural disasters (to name a few), our governments should be taking steps to increase educational, economic, and family planning assistance to the fastest growing and poorest parts of the world. This will only happen if we actively communicate with our representatives on these matters, and vote accordingly whenever possible. For the sake of our descendants we must work towards a sustainable world situation, and it can only be done incrementally, in small and focused actions, by all of us.

As always, I welcome your comments.


7 responses to “Will Overpopulation Exceed the Capacity of Our Global Infrastructure?

  1. We’ve already exceed global carrying capacity. We are now in “overshoot”. Global population is nearing 7 billion. Global carrying capacity is about 2 billion. (This assumes some level of social justice and a moderate, low by US standards, standard of living.) We will get to that 2 billion number the hard way (wars, famine, disease, and their accompanying losses of environmental quality, freedom, and social justice) OR the less hard way (immediately and drastically reducing our population voluntarily. It’s too late for any “us” vs “them” dances or any belief that national boundaries will do much to help anyone. One of the key factors in this scenario is our sense of time. This is a slow motion crash that requires immediate action, a bit like trying to steer a supertanker. (And it was oil that allowed us to get this far out on a limb, and peak oil has already happened.) For more on this I suggest http://www.paulchefurka.ca

  2. Thanks for your comment, Paul.
    I, too, am deeply concerned for our future, but believe the alarms being raised today will create a common will to do and invent things that will mitigate the issues we face, and which will eventually lead to a more sustainable world situation. I am hopeful for the development of fusion-based electricity sources and, while we will have to deal with an increasing energy shortfall until fusion is a mainstay for our civilization, I believe the carrying capacity of the world can stabilize, probably at a smaller number than today, but at a number perhaps in the 4 to 5 billion area. I am sorry I won’t be able to watch all that happen, but I know that humans have a way of turning great cataclysms and triumphs into muddling trends that realize neither the best nor worst of projections. It is vitally important to keep the discussions and invention of all sorts going, in any case, and I hope to stimulate that with my writings, as I hope yours will as well.
    Thanks again for your comment – Tim

  3. Tim,

    The first comment wasn’t mine, Evasta just referenced my web site (thanks, E). It just so happens that I posted a new article about fusion on my web site. I use Bussard’s Polywell as the canonical example. My conclusion is that fusion really won’t help us much. In it I say the following:

    In order to bring the global ecosystem back into balance by taking homo sapiens out of overshoot, two things would be required. The first is a reduction in human numbers, and the second is a a reduction in human activity. Now, we could accomplish this rebalancing by reducing only one of those factors, but the multiplication in the shorthand ecological equation I = PAT suggests we would have to reduce either factor far less if we could address both simultaneously. Simply retaining the status quo with minor changes in the kind of energy we use won’t work because we are already in overshoot. Ensuring the status quo would simply guarantee that we remain in overshoot.


    Speaking as a Deep Ecologist, even stabilizing the human carrying capacity at 4 billion isn’t a very comforting thought. The habitat destruction, anthropogenic extinctions and our decimation of the oceans would probably continue unabated.

    One of the mental images I have is of a population of 4 billion, all determined to live and eat well. Then into the picture sails a fleet of 10,000 fishing vessels the size of the Queen Mary, each powered by a Polywell reactor, and able to go anywhere on Earth and keep fishing until their holds are full. this dystopian daydream ends with one of those ships chasing the very last bluefin tuna across the Pacific, and finally hauling it in.

    We will not (can not) reduce our numbers or even our birthrate enough to matter before the effects of overshoot overtake us within the next decade or two. We also appear to be past the point where preventive action would avert the converging crises we face on a number of fronts, from energy shortages and climate change to food production and the global financial crisis.

    Fortunately, a lot of people are waking up to this fact. In fact, a lot of people are waking up, period. If there is to be no secular salvation, then the global stirrings of consciousness that seem to be happening all around us may point to a completely orthogonal, and ultimately superior, mode of response.

    Paul Chefurka

  4. Interesting that Evasta spammed that in so convincingly – the spambots are getting more clever all the time – it really fooled me.

    I guess I’m not as negative on possible futures as you are, Paul, but appreciate your comment. I believe the very fact that we’re having this discussion is part of a global consciousness-raising that will cause people to act in ways that will mitigate the risks and help avoid the worst scenarios. Historically humans have done this (fortunately). That doesn’t mean there isn’t need for new understandings and actions – that is what will dig us out of the hole we’re still creating for ourselves.
    I agree that we are in an overshoot condition in population and energy use, and need to do a lot of extremely creative work to move towards sustainability, but am encouraged that birthrates are low in the developed world and declining in developing countries like China. One of the points I stress here is that the developed countries should be helping the less developed with family planning, education, and economic aid aimed at curbing birthrates and building greener infrastructure the first time around. The only way we’re going to accomplish that is with informed citizens demanding these things from their governments, worldwide.
    Thanks for your comment. – Tim

  5. Tim, here are five general questions that inform my outlook on our situation:

    1. How bad are things right now?
    2. Are things getting better or worse?
    3. How fast is the situation changing?
    4. Is the rate change in human responses keeping pace with the rate of change in our situation?
    5. How responsive is collective human behaviour to reason and logic?

    I agree we must continue to point out the need for changes in human birthrates and behaviour, and to demand collective action to support those changes. However I have given up any expectation that our concerns will be addressed in any significant way. We need to find other, more promising avenues for change.

    Our future is unlikely to look anything like our past, and taking comfort in our historical successes blinds us to that probability.

  6. Thanks, Paul.
    All I can say is, I am a bit more optimistic by nature than you. I believe that, while necessity is the mother of invention, it is best complimented with hope. Some people will become overwhelmed and stop trying if they feel there is no hope, and the purpose of this blog is to sustain hope, accept the high probability that humanity will survive and continue for millenia to come, and address how we can minimize how bad things may get at points along the way.
    I have been pleased to see a great deal of change in the past two years in people’s awareness of our long term issues with overpopulation, fossil fuel exhaustion, and the lack of long term planning by governments. Granted, not all of the new understandings have been exactly in the right direction, but all of it is leading people to learn and think more about these vitally important topics. The increased understanding needs to be translated into more action and education, and I think we are both involved in that.
    Thanks again for your points. – Tim

  7. Pingback: More Haiti-like Disasters Are Coming as World Population Continues to Explode « Tim Prosser’s Futuring Weblog

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