People worry about overpopulation because they have not looked into how food, family size, and money work. They have no basic understanding of numbers. I have researched this stuff a LOT but I think I can it make it fairly simple.
The doomers use “the people numbers are big – we can’t feed them”. People seem to have an intuitive urge to believe this lie. It is a quick elevator pitch and it drives the wrong decisions. Doomers say there will not be enough water, energy etc.. The not enough argument reaches lingering caveman psychology that there will not be enough. We do not have a cavemen world society.
The “I will not have enough” is part of the thinking which results in overeating.
This article will address “we will not have enough food and we will have too many people”. We are good on the people and food aspect for at least 150 years. Proof of solutions beyond that goes to technology that people do not believe now and do not need to believe.
My case here is with technologies that are proven and have been used for 200 years or more.
This will not have links to all kinds of science. I have done that elsewhere. Specific requests for proof will be provided in comment responses. I could create a background article with links.
What Matters for the Question of World Overpopulation
I see several parts to the problem where many people believe the doomer overpopulation myths.
The fear story resonates with deep caveman fears of starvation. Any individual person can experience hunger. This reinforces and validates the fear of potential starvation.
The small scale and valid fears and issues for individuals and small groups do not match up to real global risk. There are counter-intuitive aspects.
Is an objection – technical or some other subject relevant? I disregarded areas that I do not impact the core question of whether overpopulation is a true risk.
Scale of overpopulation issue for the world. 30% increase by 2050, 60%-200% increase by 2100. 100%-400% by 2150.
Nations and the world have far more margin for keeping people fed than people realize. We are NOT barely getting by. The avg person in the US eats 222 lbs of meat. USDA recommends that adults eat 5-6 ounces of protein daily, avg person will eat 10 ounces of meat and poultry each day in 2018. 30-40% of food is wasted in the US.
This means 20-30% underproduction would barely be noticed. Prices would go up on certain items which would shave demand. Eventually, this would trigger simple policies to reduce food waste. 10-20% gains from food waste reductions are relatively easy. This is so unimportant that most places do not bother. With a bit more time, an adaptation to 50-60% less food could be handled without people feeling like they are sacrificing. 90% reductions would be more like UK rationing.
Food production is increasing by a lot. The productivity of agricultural land will triple by 2030-2040. This not magic. Dozens of hectares with higher productivity are being grown now. China and other nations will scale them up.
This is all before going to building a lot of greenhouses which can boost productivity by 10-30 times. This is before the possible success of factory grown meat. Factory grown meat is now sold in restaurants. People pay more for the meat at high-end restaurants. It can be made to taste better. What if did not taste as good? Is it unnatural? People did not ask those questions about chicken nuggets. People love those things.
Factory grown meat can boost food productivity by 10X in terms of energy and water.
So we already have 2 to 3 times the food than we really need. The world can drop by 10 times and get by. Food production will go up 3 times within 20 years using business as usual agriculture. There is an option to use greenhouses on a larger scale for 30 times more food. Dedicated skyscrapers for greenhouses can boost food produced in a spot by 100X beyond greenhouses.
Factory produced meat can increase food production efficiency in terms of energy and water by 10X or even 100X.
Overpopulation was at most 3X by 2100 and 5X by 2150.
Wind versus Hurricane – have Ten Times (10X) Difference
There several large 10X are errors that doomers make. Regular people are often not aware of these errors, which causes them to be worried about overpopulation. You cannot get to the right conclusions if one 10X error is made. You will definitely get the wrong result if you make several 10X errors. A simple example of something being off by 10 times is wind. A ten mile an hour wind is a breeze but a hundred mile an hour wind is a hurricane.
People freak out about the population numbers. People have been freaking out about the population numbers for over a hundred years.
People ignore several things that have ten times the impact simply counting people.
Possessions versus People
The developed countries use ten times more stuff than the global poor people. Driving around in SUVs versus walking. Having far bigger houses and flying in airplanes.
The world population could double by 2100. However, 90% of the population will move up from very poor to develop. This will increase resource usage by five to ten times.
Eating at all you can eat buffets and fast food is actually only a tripling in calories versus the calories a poor person eats.
A ten times factor is that it takes ten tons of grain to get one ton of beef. Wealthier people eat more meat.
If we consider trying to feed 10 billion people in 2050 instead of 7.7 billion now. The doomer might say if we could not grow more food then 2.3 billion people would starve and die. However, another option is we can ration and eat half as much meat.
France is the country that does the best on reducing food waste by using public policy. They also have some of the best-tasting food in the world.
We will be able to grow more food. In the next section, I will discuss growing more food. We could just reduce food waste and feed another 2 billion.
How simple are the policies on food waste? France requires that supermarkets heavily discount the price of food that is nearing expiration. The supermarkets have to sell the food or donate before it goes bad.
India is one of the most wasteful places for food. You think but India has trouble growing food. Yes, India has 40% stunted population which means they do not have enough micronutrients. Even India can grow enough food for itself or afford to import what they need. India allows massive warehouses of food to rot. There is corruption and incompetence still allows $14 billion per year worth of grain and food to go bad. Millions of tons is stored in the open which allows about 2 million tons to rot in India alone.
Food rot is only part of the problem. Corruption leakages are where subsidized grain intended for the poor is actually diverted for sale on the open market. This causes the loss of an estimated 25 million tons of rice and wheat alone, according to a study by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.
We could also shift away from ethanol and biofuel production in the USA and Brazil. Ethanol and biofuel use crops and agricultural capacity to generate fuel for cars. Cars can be powered in far better ways that do not involve taking away food for people. This is a huge amount of agriculture which should stay agriculture.
Broadly applying France and Japan like policies, shifting from open storage and stopping the corruption of ethanol are things that I think could help feed 2 billion more people.
There have been no mass starvations in decades except for ones that are war or civil war based. The main starvation events have been the result of extreme incompetence in government. I am looking at Mao’s China and some smaller scale but terrible events in India.
So we are successfully feeding the 7.7 billion now. The world will have about 10 billion people by 2050 because of continued population growth in Africa.
Getting more food from farms.
Farm productivity is about 6 tons per hectare. There are large research farms growing 17 tons per hectare.
Deployment of the newer generation of seeds and we can double food production. Seeds that are at a reasonable scale.
In less than 15 years, we can globally deploy new rice and other crops to triple agricultural production. This alone deals with feed any population we could have by 2100.
Greenhouses are over 200 years old. Even the old greenhouses are ten times more productive than open land. Even if the land has irrigation and fertilization. Greenhouses keep out the bugs and provide optimal growing conditions. The Netherlands, Denmark, and China have a lot of greenhouses.
China builds urban area every year like a city the size of Los Angeles every year or two. Construction could be redirected to greenhouses and scaled up towards 1% of farmland every year. If there was a priority for it. 1% of farmland with greenhouses would be a 10% increase in land. I have run more detailed costing and scaling numbers.
Going to the Less People Solution is Wrong
The doomers answer to everything is get rid of the people. Having the answer of getting rid of people is stupid, sad and useless.
The other guy you try to get rid of will not say ok sure. The other guy will not say… ok I have no kids..you convinced me.
Most of the Population Increase is in Africa
Africa is still unfortunately filled with poor people. They use fewer resources overall. There is the problem of them burning too much forest for cooking and heating.
Asia currently has 4.5 billion people and this will go to 5 billion. This will be almost flat. However, Asia is going from lower end South America per person wealth to high-end South America and even average European level of wealth. This could double certain resource usage.
Africa will double 1.3 billion by 2050 and then will double again by 2100.
Family Size and Immortality
People freak out about the possibility of Extreme longevity.
140 million babies per year and 60 million deaths. How many age-related deaths about 30 million. How many age-related deaths in non-super poor countries? Maybe 10 million per year?
Is that fair? Does an extreme life extension scenario have immortality magic at insanely low cost? Places that have trouble with good vaccination and clean baby birthing kits get even some kind of genetic injection longevity?
I am being optimistic with even people in the USA on Medi-CAL get access.
Ten million per year out to 2050 is another 300 million. Thirty million per year from 2050 to 2100 is 1.5 billion.
Those seem like big numbers. However, Africa staying at four child families versus 3 child families would be a bigger numbers impact.
Also, the scenario is that extreme longevity happens and people still marry and have kids at the same ages and still have the same sized families?
People start having kids at 18 in Angola and start having kids in the USA at 26. Go back to 1900 and most Americans are having kids at 19 or 20. More wealth and more longevity do move the age when a woman has her first child higher. This is when the mothers are only fertile from 14 to 35. 36 to 45 is possible now but with low odds and a lot of costly medical help.
With extreme longevity, fertility ages can go way higher. But it will not be used as much.
Do not fear 200-year-old people having a lot of kids and big families. Fear the 140-year-olds still living in the basement with their 200-year-old parents because the 140-year-old does not know what to do with his life.
Summing up the Food Aspect of Overpopulation
Moving the most wasteful countries toward the least wasteful in terms of food waste and storage could save large amounts of food. Crops are already being grown outdoors in multiple test farms which can triple food production. Those will be broadly deployed over the next ten years or so. Reaching 80% of farms and production over ten to fifteen years is a typical distribution level.
China has a systematic national policy for deployment of the better seeds.
Other Aspects in Other Articles
By 2100, almost everyone will have European levels of income or higher. Everyone will still be fed. The planet will be able to handle supporting 15 billion people with higher income.
The move off fossil fuels will have mostly happened but it will not have been done in a panic. This is a separate article. I will write a new article or articles on this. I have written about it before but I would like to simplify it. It also takes time to proof-read things. I had to re-write and proof-read this article.
There will also be an article about the connections between food, water, and energy. At a high level, tons of crops or meat can be expressed as the gallons of water needed to create them. Relatively simple new technology or methods will make water efficiency a lot better.
I have discussed energy many times in hundreds of articles. You can search for them. I will re-write and simplify some food and energy articles. It will take more time for me to form a clear communication.
There will be offsetting planet cooling technology. It will not be complicated or super-technology. I have discussed this before and I will write try to simplify it.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.