Andy Kusi-Appiah: Is overpopulation real? – Thinking out loud.


Andy Kusi-Appiah

Andy Kusi-Appiah

Last Friday, on our way back from a football game (we lost this game so badly that the ride back home was really boring, even though there were four of us in the car for the 45 minute ride back to Ottawa), I overheard one of my team mates saying (and I am not going to tell you what his skin colour is……it is my ‘privilege’ and I am going to defend that):

“Over-population is going to kill all of us on this planet. Look at the way these Africans are having babies back in Africa – even here, they are not relenting, they are having babies left-right and centre, and then they go on welfare….”

I couldn’t help myself but to respond to his outrageous and insensitive comment, but in a very calm Canadian tone:

“My brother, overpopulation is a myth!”

My team mate was not ready to let go, he accused me of dishonesty and an unwillingness to call a spade what it is (it was in good fun by the way, and since we couldn’t talk about the game that we had just lost, this was a better use of our time, I think).  He even went to the extent of insinuating that I was trying to defend the indefensible just because the majority of the people who scam the system are my kith and kin! As he puts it quite confidently, resources on planet earth are finite, and therefore an unrestrained level of breeding and high immigration levels will only lead to a crippling of any economy. According to him even we in Canada are headed to the ‘gallows’.

Yes, for the first time after so many years of observing the way in which municipalities work so hard to make sure that resources are available and accessible to its members, I could not help but come to the conclusion that it is not the number of people living in an area per se that is the problem, rather it is the relationship of the people in that place and the resources produced and distributed in that place that determines whether there is poverty in that place or not. A society or community is what it is based on whether the rights of its people are respected or not and how the people react to perceived abuses in the system in which they live. 

What is the myth?

My comment (i.e.: “my brother, overpopulation is a myth’) was coming from the bottom of my heart, it was a “coming out of the closet” type of comment.  I wanted to say it out loud for the first time (not in a classroom) and debunk that myth; the myth that says that there are too many people on earth, and this has resulted in the proliferation of poverty and abject poverty around the globe.  This myth is stated as follows: too many people, according to a certain mathematical calculation of what the ‘carrying capacity’ of an area is, lead to poverty and abject poverty, and therefore in order to do away with poverty and abject poverty, we need to limit the number of people we have on mother earth.  At best, the above is simplistic and at worst it is a ply to ignore the real issue – i.e., distribution of global resources. Now, when I say ‘distribution’, I am not in any way shape or form advocating for a situation where we take from the ‘rich’ and give to the poor’.

I am not in any way advocating for a “Robin Hood” kind of distribution (I do not believe in such communist inferior tactics that do not lead to progress)!  I am advocating for a situation where those who steal/take what does not belong to them/evade taxes/cut corners/jump queues are named and shamed (i.e., bring them to court before an independent judge and jury and when found guilty, sentenced to serve as precedent for others in that society). I am advocating for a situation where society – all members of society get to the root of the problem anywhere and everywhere and find out what is going on with resource allocation and accessibility.

New era of accountability everywhere

I am calling for a new era of accountability where every human being is made aware of what is really going on in the world in order for us to make our own decisions about “what is”, ‘what ought to be’, ‘what is ours’, ‘what does not belong to us’, and ‘how a fair society can be created where all human beings are seen and treated equal. This myth I am talking about is really interesting because it has been couched in the mould of a global north-global south demarcation.  For example, we never say that England is ‘overpopulated’ although with a population of over 60 million people, England has  a population 3 times that of a similar geographical area in the global south, but England is not ‘overpopulated’ but this place in the global south is considered overpopulated.

Re-thinking conventional wisdom

When I look at the above scenario again, I cannot help myself but think that maybe, just maybe, there is too much greed, apathy and pettiness in that ‘geographical area in the global south with a similar land area as England’, and this may be the reason why there is so much poverty in that area compared to England. In other words, if people in this ‘similar geographical area in the global south’ continue stealing without any reprimand…….poverty will continue unabated regardless of the number of people in that area/place. On the other hand, if greed, apathy and pettiness is reduced to the barest minimum in that that “geographical area in the global south with a similar land area as England”, the population of that area (a third of what England holds at the moment) would be reduced to the barest minimum and 20 million people in the same areal extent like England would not be deemed ‘overpopulated).

Re-visiting the idea of ‘overpopulation’

This ‘overpopulation-finite world’ argument took root in the eighteenth century with Thomas Malthus, an English priest and economist who reasoned that population is growing at a geometric rate while food production is only growing at an arithmetic rate and so if food production does not keep pace with population growth, then we will die of famine and other ‘checks’.  Malthus was right, except that he did not take human innovations and technology into consideration (Esther Boserup).  Esther Boserup, D.J Bogue and Julian Simon believe that the human being has the ability to develop technology that creates an infinite resource base.  Since Malthus` famous postulation in 1798, world food production has ballooned to the roof and so too has world population – the catch is that even though world food production ‘has hit the roof’, more than half the world population is hungry!.  We (humankind) can now produce food that can feed over 9 billion people on earth (Julian Simon) be the food is not reaching all the people all of the time.

If 7 people share 7 dollars but 5 people do not get anything, one has to stop and think again about what is happening with the distribution system.  Neo-Malthusians like Paul Erhlich and the Club of Rome are all insisting on this overpopulation myth even in the presence of evidence on the contrary, because they argue that the world has finite resources and therefore at some point there would not be enough resources to food the ‘ever growing world population’.   Japan has almost no known resources but Japan is considered as a member of the global north, and in terms of density, Japan has more people that China.

Food for thought

But let me go along with this Neo-Malthusian reasoning for a second, and agree that resources are finite and that we humans are heading toward a population explosion, but I would like the following questions to be thoroughly considered:

1. Where are the resources that humankind has already extracted from the earth?

2. Why are certain places lacking in resources for usu-factory?

3. What is the role of the global north in the poverty of the global south?

4. What is the role of the so-called elite of the global south in the poverty of the global south?

5. What is the role of civic society in the poverty of both the global north and the global south?


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