Research Article: Human Carrying Capacity and Human Health

Date Published: December 28, 2004

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Colin D Butler

Abstract: The issue of overpopulation has fallen out of favor among most contemporary demographers, economists, and epidemiologists. Discussing population control has become taboo. This taboo could be hazardous to public health.

Partial Text: The issue of human overpopulation has fallen out of favor among most contemporary demographers, economists, and epidemiologists. Discussing population control has become a taboo topic. Yet, this taboo has major implications for public health.

The question of human overpopulation and its relationship to human carrying capacity has been controversial for over two centuries. In 1798 the Reverend Thomas Malthus put forward the hypothesis that population growth would exceed the growth of resources, leading to the periodic reduction of human numbers by either “positive checks”, such as disease, famine, and war, or “preventive checks”, by which (in the absence of contraception) Malthus meant restrictions on marriage. This “Malthusian view” was rapidly accepted by most politicians, demographers, and the general public, and remained popular until fairly recently.

With hindsight, the 1970s can be seen as the decade when widespread concern about overpopulation started to fade. The social and economic milieu of many developed countries, especially in the US, started to change. US foreign aid, as a percentage of the gross national product, declined from the late 1960s, perhaps in part because of the competing needs of the Vietnam War but also perhaps because of the apparent success of development in the Third World. The economic policies known as Keynesianism, which had been dominant since the end of World War II in many developed nations, came under sustained attack. These policies had placed a high value on full employment and social security. Keynesian policies restrained domestic inequality through high taxation and the promotion of social norms that censured conspicuous consumption (such as company executives exercising restraint in their personal salaries and people buying small houses). Shortly before his death, J. M. Keynes had also been crucially involved in the establishment of the World Bank. Keynes appears to have been personally committed to the advance of global justice, and to the reduction of inequality both within and between nations [4].

Often, the carrying capacity of one region at one point in time is boosted by the appropriation of the carrying capacity from other people and even other generations. Such resources include oil, deep sea fish, and the stability of the global climate and ecological systems. But in Rwanda, the most densely populated country in Africa, the importation of such resources has long been limited. Unlike other densely populated countries such as Hong Kong and Holland, Rwanda’s economy at the time of its most infamous genocide, in 1994, depended almost exclusively on its primary production [17]. The country had little industry, few exports, and little tourism. The price of its most important export, coffee, had declined steeply just before the genocide [18]. Unlike many Asian countries, Rwanda also received few remittances from Rwandans working as guest workers abroad [17].

Maurice King refers to the silence on overpopulation as the “Hardinian Taboo”, named after the American ecologist Garett Hardin, who described the taboos that humans use to avoid confronting the need for population control [22]. Daniel Orenstein, at the Center for Environmental Studies at Brown University, has argued that powerful social norms inhibit debate about overpopulation in one of the world’s most intractable trouble spots, Israel and Palestine [23].