Will Human Overpopulation Eventually Cause Lemming-like Mass Migrations?


Animal populations migrate to find food or better living conditions, often in huge numbers, when populations become too large for available resources. For the caribou, whales, birds, and other creatures an annual migration is part of their ritual of survival, but some other species, such as lemmings, only migrate when under pressure. Humans have managed to remain more sedentary as we invented shelter, clothing, and technology to keep us comfortable and well fed. How will this change when the cheap energy we use to sustain our food production and comfort becomes too expensive for most people? Will we see larger and larger “migrations” from the poorest and most overpopulated countries to the most developed?  Have the migrations already begun?

The populations of many developed countries are already cited as stable or declining, and it has been observed that China solved serious economic problems such as high unemployment with the imposition of a “one child” law, under which there were penalties for parents having more than one child.  As a parallel, India’s population is growing much faster, but average economic status and social welfare have suffered in contrast with the Chinese (link).  Contrary to assertions by some that stable, limited-growth, or declining populations are likely to be associated with poorer economic performance, it appears that the avoidance of over three hundred million new citizens during the past couple of decades has left more resources for the rest, but had minimal impact on gross national product.  (I previously wrote about the Chinese one-child law here.)  Note also that the apparent assumption by some economists that workforces need to be maintained does not address the problem of energy shortages that will occur in the coming decades if we maintain our current rate of consumption.

The United States’ population growth rate, moderate as it is, is substantially increased by immigration. At present, a substantial part of the annual growth in United States’ population is due to immigration, much of it illegal. People, especially in the Southern Border States, are already objecting more and more loudly to the flow of illegal immigrants, and vigilante groups have formed to “help” the border patrol.  It is likely that this trend will expand significantly unless we take steps to help the poorer countries reduce their birthrates, which is best done by raising their standards of living through economic, educational, and family planning assistance.  Both history and logic suggest that when the contrast between living conditions is reduced, the incentive to immigrate will be reduced as well.  Efforts to prevent illegal immigration through walls, fences, and border patrols have typically been expensive and ineffective, and (fortunately) the American people don’t seem to have the collective will to pursue these avenues though concern for illegal immigration remains high.

Overpopulation creates a compound incentive for migration. Because a larger population decreases available resources per person, and this lowers living standards and increases the contrast with those of more developed countries, overpopulation is likely to cause increasing migrations from the poorer to the richer countries.  Current trends indicate that most of today’s human population growth is occurring in the very poorest countries, and if the world is to reach 9 billion by 2050, as a United Nations report says, in the future the percent population increase in the poorest countries will be much higher than today.  Since many of the poorest countries are already struggling to provide basic food and shelter for their people, it is likely that situations in those countries will get much worse, especially without substantial and immediate help to reduce their birthrates and improve their average education levels and standards of living.  Therefore it is likely that increasing migrations of humans will originate in the poorest countries and move towards the most developed countries.  (Note that there is only one mention of the impact of energy shortages in the entire 254 page UN report.)

Migrations are hazardous in even the best of circumstances. Since the poorest people will be involved in the mass migrations of the future, they will most likely not be able to afford standard commercial transportation.  That will mean a great expansion in the numbers of “boat people” in the world, and corresponding increases in the numbers who will be lost at sea or otherwise imperiled.  This scenario begins to sound much like the pattern of the lemmings, who will swim to get to places with better living conditions.  Unfortunately, many of them die along the way.

Birthrate reduction is needed in the developing countries. Reducing the birthrate as soon as possible is needed in many developing countries if we are to prevent lemming-like scenarios and long term, worsening immigration issues.  In addition, the increasing population already creates similarly increasing risk of energy shortages and infrastructure collapses.  If an energy source to replace fossil fuels is not developed in the next couple of decades it is likely that serious problems will confront the increasingly-global community.

Can we do better than the lemmings? The lemmings have only the option of migration to escape overpopulation.  That is not an option for humanity, as space travel is prohibitively expensive and likely to remain so.  We need our government officials to be aware of the immediate need for long term planning, assistance to the poorest countries in the areas of education and family planning, and major research funding for new energy sources such as fusion.  The alternative for us and our descendants is too unpleasant to contemplate for long.  We can each make a difference if we demand these important measures from our government representatives and vote for those who understand these important issues.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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3 responses to “Will Human Overpopulation Eventually Cause Lemming-like Mass Migrations?

  1. Vincent Radosevich

    The fact that there are no comments on this concerns me. People are a lot like lemmings, both apparently can’t see what is happening to them until it’s too late. Lemmings have a boom/bust cycle as far as their numbers go. If you look at the steep population growth curve for humans, we are racing for a bust. I favor a policy of not giving any food, or medical aid on humanitarian grounds. Think about it, if we can’t sustain constant aid, and there are not sufficient resources to set people up to take care of themselves, then aid just prolongs the suffering of these poor people. Also, what happens if as we are giving food aid, the recipients of that aid continue to reproduce beyond the replacement level? It means that each year we have to give more food than the previous year. Obviously, this is unsustainable. Of course the humanists, insist that if people are hungry, we must feed them! And, the corporatists will say, that this is fantastic because we have a virtually unlimited supply of cheap labor. The consequence of this kind of thinking is the cliff.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Vincent.
    I don’t think many people read this blog – it once topped out at over a hundred reads/day, but is now down to less than 30, mostly due to my own distraction with other things (making youtube videos as “themandolinmaniac” – one of my music projects).
    I personally go beyond humanitarianism, and extend the concept to all species – we all evolved to need each other, and will have serious problems if we let major ecological functions die out. Humans are not better than other species, just more evolved at this point in time. Are we smart enough to understand that and act to preserve this wonderful planet we inhabit?
    We’ll see.
    In the meantime, I saw a news item in the past couple of days mentioning that birthrates are not only dropping faster in the developed countries, but are turning around in a lot of the less developed countries where population was previously exploding. This is encouraging news, but the population bubble will still require decades to pass, and will wipe out most of the fossil energy sources in the process. Hard times are a strong likelihood, though they will be less difficult if we curb our population growth before reaching the United Nations’ projection of 9.5 billion.
    I don’t think withholding aid, or any form of isolationism, can really help. At best it would do little except make us the ogres of the world, and at worst it could result in war. Incidentally, if you study the population effects of wars, too few people actually are removed from the population and there is an inevitable baby boom when the rest of the troops go home – the last thing we need now.
    I still do not agree with your concepts of “humanists” and “corporatists”. I really don’t think these stereotypes are valid, and feel they distort and dilute the reality of the situation. If you can’t clearly identify a group of people, and if they can’t be dealt with as a group, does it help to label them so?
    As for the lemmings, if you study them you will find that they actually swim quite well, and migrate between islands and land masses when searching for new food sources. In the course of that they sometimes jump from cliffs into the sea, an act which some naturalists in the past interpreted as suicidal when it was not. As humans have integrated our society globally, we have no more “islands to swim to” for resources, and must now reach a new plane of evolution in which we manage our numbers as well as our environment in order to achieve a sustainable world situation. I would love to see that realized, but doubt it will be achieved in my lifetime, though I hope it occurs soon.
    Thanks again for your comment. – Tim

  3. Vincent Radosevich

    Hi Tim,
    I enjoy discussing our predicament with you, even though we usually diagree. I think you are asking the right questions. I think you have a great website, and it was easy to find. It would be self sustaining if people had these question in their minds. I came back to this subject after about 10 years of putting it on the back burner. I studied it full time, from 1968 to 1980. During that time I graduated from college with a BA in Environmental Studies, minor in chemistry. I worked for Alaska State Parks as a park planner, and for two cities as a water filter plant operator. But things got harder and harder in the environmental field, and eventually I could not make a dignified standard of living. During the 80’s I saw people reject the environmental message. I went back to school and got a BS in mechanical engineering, and things got a lot better for me, at least for 12 years until the free trade policies took hold, and sent the jobs overseas. These things are decisions, and people make these decisions. I think we have to find out who’s leading us toward disaster, and why they are doing it. There must be a explaination.

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