Overpopulation has been a topic of discussion for centuries. From Plato and Aristotle to modern day scientists and philosophers, the questions of population control – whether we need to impose controls and what those controls should be – have been hotly debated. The world’s population currently stands at approximately 7.6 billion people and every day, around 360,000 babies are born. That’s roughly 15,000 new mouths to feed every single hour. On the flip side, only around 150,000 people die each day[1]. The disparity is obvious and at this rate, population growth is inevitable, but is it a problem? Fifty years after Paul Erhlich terrified the world with his vision of starvation and death in his book The Population Bomb, do we still need to worry about the effects of overpopulation?

From Before Christ Onwards

As far back as the fourth century BC, overpopulation has been a concern. Plato and Aristotle recommended instilling strict birth controls to ensure that the population didn’t rise above 200 million people worldwide[2]– a stark contrast to today’s 7.6 billion! Later, Thomas Malthus famously warned about growing population in 1798, and by 1968, Paul Erhlich argued that it was too late – we’d surpassed a sustainable level and control was no longer an option. Instead, he argued, we needed to actively reduce the population through enforced, compulsory methods. Skip forward to 2018, however, and the fiery conversations about overpopulation have been somewhat dampened. The urgency around reducing the birth rate or even reducing the population itself seems to have fizzled out. Does that mean that it’s no longer a problem, though, or have we simply become apathetic? 

The Illusion of a Problem

Latest figures suggest that global population will stabilize at around 9 billion by 2050 and 10 billion by 2150, and that we have the capability to feed and sustain those 10 billion people[3]. If that’s true, though, today’s 7.6 billion cannot be considered overpopulation. If there are starving people in the world, supporters say, it’s not a result of overpopulation but a result of bad distribution[4]. What’s more, Ehrlich’s frightening vision of death and starvation around the globe simply hasn’t come to fruition – or at least, not to the scale that he claimed. That, coupled with the dwindling debate of the issue, has led many to believe that overpopulation simply isn’t an issue anymore. In fact, many countries are now introducing measures to increase their birth rate as they face an aging population and economic imbalance, such as in Romania, where over 25s who remain childless are heavily taxed, whilst couples with three or more children are offered cash rewards[5].

Overpopulation in 2018

That said, there are still a great number of people who argue overpopulation continues to be a problem, and there are many countries around the world imposing controls. India, for example, offer financial rewards to newlyweds who wait two years before conceiving their first child, and Pakistan encourages couples to wait three years between each child[6]. There are even countries who enforce more shocking measures, such as forced sterilization in Uzbekistan once a woman has had two children[7]. So why the inconsistencies?

There are differences in population estimations, for a start. The UN, for example, have suggested that by the year 2100, global population could be as little as 6.2 billion or as great as 15.8 billion[8]– implying that in reality, these estimates are little more than guess work. What’s more, many argue that this reprieve in hunger and disaster is temporary, “a lucky, generation-long break but not indication of a better future”[9]. In fact, many argue, “overpopulation remains the leading driver of hunger, desertification, species depletion, and a range of social maladies across the planet”[10].  

Perhaps, then, it’s not so much that Paul Ehrlich was wrong when he warned of the disasters to come as a result of overpopulation, but rather that the book succeeded in what Ehrlich had hoped it would do. Ehrlich himself states that the purpose of the book was to encourage debate and allow the conversation about overpopulation to enter the public domain on an acceptable level[11]and he certainly managed to do that. What’s more, his warning and the debate it engendered allowed governments to take a serious look at the potential future, and the controls that may be required. 

A Directional Change

In 2011, Ehrlich is quoted as saying, “I wouldn’t focus on the poverty-stricken masses [today]. I would focus on there being too many rich people. It’s crystal clear that we can’t support 7 billion in the style of the wealthier Americans”[12]and that, perhaps, is the crux of the issue. Travis Rieder, bio-ethicist at John Hopkins University in Baltimore makes the same claim, arguing that “my American kid is way more problematic than the many children a family might have in poor, high birth rate countries”[13]. It’s not about there being too many people in the world then, but rather there is too much over-consumption, a lack of fair distribution, and a whole lot of greed that is causing untold environmental and societal problems. 

 Fair Solutions

What can be done to solve that, though? Education and development, certainly. A re-evaluation of distribution methods would help too, as would reduced greed and consumption. In the meantime, though, perhaps the easiest and quickest route to a solution would be giving people the tools and knowledge they need to make the right decisions for both themselves and the wider society. As Adrienne Germain, formerly of the International Women’s Health Coalition, claims, “if you give women the tools they need—education, employment, contraception, safe abortion—then they will make choices that benefit society”[14].  


[1]Ecology, 2011, World Birth and Death Rates, (online). Accessed 04.05.2018

[2]Georges Minois, 2011, Too Much Life on Earth?(online). Accessed 02.23.2018



[5]Rebekah Kuschmider, 2013, 10 Astounding Population Laws from Around the World, (online). Accessed 02.23.2018

[6]Rebekah Kuschmider, 2013, 10 Astounding Population Laws from Around the World, (online). Accessed 02.23.2018


[8]Scientific American, 2018,Human Overpopulation: Still an Issue of Concern?(online). Accessed 04.05.2018

[9]Charles C. Mann, 2018, The Book That Incited a Worldwide Fear of Overpopulation, (online). Accessed 04.05.2018

[10]Alon Tal, 2018, Overpopulation Is Still the Problem, (online). Available 04.05.2018

[11]Mann, op. cit.

[12]Mike Gallager, 2011, Population control: Is it a tool of the rich?(online). Accessed 02.23.2018

[13]Daniel Cossins, 2017, The ethics issue: Should we impost population controls?(online). Accessed 02.23.2018

[14]Gallager, op. cit.