The global human population reached 8 billion people in November 2022, marking a fourfold population increase over the past 100 years. Population has ballooned during the past two centuries, prompting concerns that runaway growth could outpace the Earth’s resources. 

Some fear overpopulation could lead to mass famine and environmental disaster, whereas others believe overpopulation is an overblown myth. Some are even warning that below-replacement birth rates in every developed nation will actually lead to a population collapse. Below are some common misleading and misinformed narratives to be aware of. 

Table of Contents:

  1. Where Do Overpopulation Concerns Come From?
  2. What Are the Concerns of Overpopulation Theorists Today?
  3. Is the World Really Overpopulated?

Where Do Overpopulation Concerns Come From? 

The earliest popular overpopulation theories are generally credited to British economist and cleric Thomas Malthus. In 1798, Malthus published “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in which he argued that unchecked population growth would outpace human production capabilities — especially food production. 

Malthus outlines “a positive effect of the standard of living on the growth rate of population,” meaning he believed wealthy countries were more likely to experience overpopulation. Malthus also observed that food production tended to increase arithmetically (increasing at a constant rate), whereas the population increased exponentially. 

Because of fixed resources – like land – Malthus theorized that too large of a population would diminish a nation’s standard of living, resulting in famine and other crises.

Malthusian theory became a central underpinning of numerous countries’ economic policies, justifying population control, reduced wages, and discouraging traditional forms of charity. One example is the United Kingdom’s Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, a Malthusian-inspired law. The law rejected established forms of charity, embodying a belief that helping the poor would encourage reproduction, thus contributing to overpopulation.

Today, many of Malthus’ predictions have been disproven. Malthus failed to predict the innovations of Britain’s Agricultural Revolution and impending Industrial Revolution, where production capacity far surpassed previous capabilities, allowing food production to outpace population growth. 

It is also evident that a high standard of living does not lead to overpopulation, as Malthus predicted, but instead reduces birth rates. This reduction is clear in Europe, where birthrates have steadily declined over past decades – save a short-lived jump during the COVID-19 pandemic. For over a decade, deaths in Europe have outnumbered births

Additionally, the wide accessibility of contraceptives, and – to a lesser degree – abortions, acts as something of a roadblock to overpopulation today – something Malthus did not predict.

Still, Malthus’ work more or less remains the bedrock of overpopulation theory.

Another influential literary work is Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, which kickstarted a new age of overpopulation fears still present today. Ehrlich, a Stanford University Professor, co-wrote the book with his wife Anne – though only Paul Ehrlich is credited on the book’s cover – after a visit to Delhi, India, where they observed the densely populated slums of the city. This experience acted as the impetus for their hugely successful book.

In The Population Bomb, Ehrlich makes similar arguments to Malthus, noting that within a single generation the global population had doubled, leading him to believe the Earth’s resources – most notably food – were approaching their limits. The book went on to sell over two million copies worldwide. 

In the opening pages of The Population Bomb, Ehrlich writes, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Ehrlich’s theories painted a grave picture of an apocalyptic future, predicting India’s population was doomed, and “England will not exist in the year 2000.” 

Although Ehrlich explained the books’ theories were “just possibilities, not predictions”, The Population Bomb would contribute to a global movement of population alarm. According to the Smithsonian Magazine (Center bias), “The International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Population Council, the World Bank, the United Nations Population Fund… and other organizations promoted and funded programs to reduce fertility in poor places.”

Many developing countries, like India, embarked on forced sterilization campaigns. In 1975, enticed by millions of dollars in loans from the World Bank – among other international organizations – the Indian government forcefully sterilized 6.2 million impoverished men in a single year. Overpopulation fears would also lead to China’s 1979 one-child policy, which aimed to reduce the country’s birth rate to one child per family until its repeal in 2016. Today, the Chinese birth rate remains among the lowest in the world. 

Similar to Malthus’ concerns, Ehrlich’s grave predictions about food production have not taken form, and have seemingly been stymied by agricultural innovation. This is partially the result of the Green Revolution – a period that saw the introduction of high-yield grain varieties in many developing countries. In India, the nation of focus for many of Ehrlich’s pessimistic predictions, high-yield hybrid grains contributed to a 3.6 times increase in food production between 1961 and 2009, compared to a 2.6 times population increase during the same period. 

This is not unique to India – every decade since the 1960s, food production has increased faster than population worldwide. Still, many countries continue to experience food insecurity, not because there is not enough food being produced, but rather because food is distributed unequally.

Another concern of Ehrlich and his contemporaries was the depletion of non-renewable resources. The most common method for assessing the availability of resources is through prices – low prices indicate abundance and high prices indicate the opposite. 

In a famous example, Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon, author of The Ultimate Resource and critic of Ehrlich’s theories, made a wager: In 1980, Ehrlich bet Simon that the prices of natural resources, specifically nickel, copper, chromium, tin, and tungsten, would increase by the year 1990, indicating a depletion of nonrenewable resources. Conversely, Simon believed that technological innovation would improve the output and availability of resources, resulting in lower commodity prices. After 10 years, prices went down and Simon won the bet

While the Simon-Ehrlich wager seemingly dispels concerns of resource depletion and price increase, a clearer understanding may be more complicated. Some critics argue that Simon was simply lucky because the bet’s conclusion fell on a year when the market favored Simon’s position. In 2010, Economist Alex Tabarrok wrote: 

“If you started the bet any year during the 1980s Simon won eight of the ten decadal start years. During the 1990s things changed, however, with Simon the decadal winner in four start years and Ehrlich winning six – 60% of the time. And if we extend the bet into the current decade … then Ehrlich won every start-year bet in the 2000s.” 

The bet itself may not be entirely representative of resource availability, as prices alone are not the perfect indicator of long-term availability. Commodity markets are volatile, and subject to short-term price movements – as this graph indicates. One 2011 analysis suggests that, in the big picture, “important nonrenewable resources cost about the same today” in 2011 as they did in 1960 “despite the addition of 4 billion people."

What Are the Concerns of Overpopulation Theorists Today? 

While Malthus and Ehrlich may have been alarmist in their fears that Earth’s resources would be rapidly depleted, many scientists argue that overconsumption from a growing population remains a concern for the health of the planet. 

Today, there are numerous organizations advocating overpopulation concerns, including UK-based Population Matters, the Vermont-based Population Media Center, and several others. Many of these organizations argue that an ever-increasing number of people is putting a strain on the environment, with human development destroying biodiversity, and driving economic woes in developing countries, whose small economies cannot meet the needs of increasingly large populations.

Famed biologist and broadcaster David Attenborough, a patron of Population Matters, said, “All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people.”

However, some scientists argue that overpopulation concerns are being addressed from the wrong angle. One report published by the Union of Concerned Scientists says the focus on population growth in regards to changes in the climate is “misplaced,” as it “conflates a rise in emissions with an increase in people.” This report explains that it is not population alone that is a threat to the climate, as a very small portion of the global population – about 10 percent – is responsible for “50 percent of annual global warming emissions.” Much of these emissions are coming from countries with low birth rates. These scientists argue that it is overconsumption rather than overpopulation that is the true concern. 

The report also argues that the framing of overpopulation as a primary culprit in environmental degradation is often used to “advance discriminatory, racist, and xenophobic arguments for population control” and promote “coercive population control measures and human rights abuses, including forced sterilization and family-size limitations, that primarily affect Black, Brown and Indigenous communities and people who live in poverty.”

Overpopulation theory has often been considered to be intertwined with eugenics and racism. These beliefs are built on the idea that some groups are not fit to reproduce, and only the “fit” should be allowed to birth children. This led to the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of poor women of color in the United States. In the 20th century, historians estimate that up to 70,000 people – mostly black, Latina, and Native American women – were either coercively or forcefully sterilized.

Instead of reducing population, the Union of Concerned Scientists argues the focus should be on reducing humans’ overconsumption and climate footprint, particularly for “segments of the population who have an outsized footprint.” These changes include shifting toward more sustainable dietary practices, redeveloping cities to be more walkable, and reducing dependence on fossil fuels. 

The Sierra Club (Lean Left bias), which published Ehrlich's The Population Bomb in 1968 and is arguably one of the United States’ most influential environmental organizations, maintains a similar opinion in its updated Population Policy (2022). On its website, the Sierra Club writes, “Contraception and family planning are not climate mitigation measures. Restricting fertility and using coercive measures to address social and environmental problems and stem population growth has a long, racist, and violent history that violates human rights and undermines bodily autonomy.” 

The page goes on to state, “Mitigating climate change requires immediate emissions reductions and transformation to sustainable consumption and production, especially in higher-income countries. Systemic transformation and responsibility for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions should not be placed on people, particularly women and girls, in low-emitting countries who contribute very little to the causes of climate change but are highly vulnerable to its effects.”

The Sierra Club’s updated position marks a notable change in overpopulation theory – one which shifts the blame of climate change away from developing countries with high fertility rates.

Other organizations like the Cato Institute (Lean Right bias) argue that overpopulation is a myth in its entirety. Marian L. Tupy, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity and co-author of the book Superabundance, argues that an increasingly large population is a valuable resource. Tupy argues, “The more people the planet has and the more freedom they enjoy, the greater the likelihood that new, useful ideas will be generated to tackle our problems.” 

Similarly, the Population Research Institute, a pro-life think tank, argues that overpopulation is a myth. The think tank cites economist Julian Simon – mentioned previously – who asserted that “the multiplication of humans has directly led to the improvement of our species.”

However, Tupy, the Population Research Institute, and the Cato Institute, among other conservative organizations advocating against overpopulation theory, often underplay or reject the role of humans in affecting the change. Tupy, for one, believes that, while human fossil fuel usage does contribute to climate change, its effects are negligible, and “is not an existential crisis,” arguing that “humans will innovate our way” out of climate change.

Additionally, some scientists warn that too low of a birth rate could lead to population collapse in many countries. Population collapse can occur when the birth rate falls below the replacement rate, meaning there are more deaths than births. As a population ages, this low fertility rate can bring about a host of economic and social challenges. One report explains

“A decline in population implies a reduction of labour supply… and a fall of the labour input in production; and on the demand side, a reduction in the demand of consumption goods and services and of housing because these goods are demanded by people, and by extension a reduction in the demand for investment.” This can lead to “a fall in gross domestic product. Also, a reduction of population means an increase in the dependency ratio which involves risks for the viability of the pension systems.”

Still, other sources remain unconcerned with population collapse, arguing that a reduction in the birth rate remains a positive, and the risks of population collapse pale in comparison to those posed by climate change. One study finds that a reduction in population growth will help combat climate change and even have beneficial economic outcomes, explaining their “results imply that 1% slower population growth could be accompanied by an increase in income per capita of nearly 7%.” 

While population collapse is a concern, many demographers believe that the global population will plateau rather than collapse. In May 2024, the Wall Street Journal (Center) published a feature story titled, "Suddenly There Aren't Enough Babies. The Whole World Is Alarmed."

Is the World Really Overpopulated?

Whether overpopulation poses a severe threat to the planet is subjective and will likely remain a matter of debate. As it stands, the concerns of Paul Ehrlich and Thomas Malthus have not come to form, and some organizations wholly reject the threat of a growing population.

According to UN estimates, the global population is expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. In this same period, 26 African countries are expected to at least double their population. 

By 2100, the world population is expected to level off at around 11 billion people

With this growing population presumably comes urban expansion, further fossil fuel use, and increasing consumption of Earth’s other resources. Still, the effects of a large population are not entirely certain, and the Earth's carrying capacity for a human population remains a point of scientific contention – though many scientists place the carrying capacity of Earth at around 10 billion humans.

Meanwhile, amid declining birth rates in some countries like the U.S., others remained concerned about a population collapse and the wide range of socioeconomic consequences it would bring.

In the coming decades, the consequences of an ever-increasing population, good or bad, may grow more apparent.

Quinn Poseley is a news intern at AllSides. He has a Left bias.

Reviewed and edited by Andy Gorel, News Editor and Bias Analyst (Center bias), Malayna J. Bizier, AllSides News Assistant (Right bias), Julie Mastrine, Director of Media Bias Ratings and Marketing (Lean Right), and Henry A. Brechter, Editor-in-chief (Center bias).