CHE 300

Environmental Science

Dr. J. A. Schneider
Dept. of Chemistry
SUNY Oswego
Oswego, NY 13126

Rm: 237 Snygg Hall
Tel: 315.312.2124
Environmental Investigations: Hey! Give Me Some Space... by Jeffery A. Schneider, Ph.D.

Issues and Background

Population growth is the primary source of environmental damage.
~ Jacques Cousteau

It's not because people started breeding like rabbits. It's that they stopped dying like flies."
~ Nicholas Eberstadt, American Enterprise Institute

As we pack more people into less space the population density in that space increases. On the tiny island of Macao (now part of China) the density is approximately 58,000 people per square mile! Compare that to Australia that has a density of only 6 people per square mile. 58,000 people per square mile sounds like a huge number. It works out roughly to there being 480 square feet of space per person, which is an area approximately 22 feet by 22 feet. In actuality if we subtract all of the space occupied by roads and parking lots, buildings, etc, there is even less space available per person. Under these circumstances we tend to build up instead of out and these areas are cluttered with high-rises. In Australia, a density of 6 people per square mile translates to roughly an area of 2200 feet by 2200 feet per person. Obviously, things are not that spread out in Australia, so what gives?

What gives is that as an area gets larger its large size tends to wash out an indicator such as density, meaning that areas having high densities are averaged with areas having low densities making it difficult to get an idea of the true picture. Looking at a map of Australia we see a huge landmass and would think that with so few people, Australia was indeed spread out. The truth is that the vast majority of people in Australia live very near the coastline and in fact population densities in those areas rival large cities anywhere. It also means that there are many places in Australia that are overcrowded. Does this mean though that Australia is overpopulated?

Any place is overpopulated if it cannot sustain its population. Take for example, a small deserted island in the middle of the ocean with a couple of coconut trees. If a ship with two hundred passengers crashed there and needed to survive for a year without supplies undoubtedly many would perish because there wouldn't be enough food to sustain them all. If on the other hand a small two-person sailboat crashed there, the two passengers could probably survive and sustain themselves for quite some time. In the first case, the island is greatly overpopulated but in the second case it is not.

Scaling this up to global proportions we could estimate how much space each person on the Earth has available to them. The Earth has approximately 4.63 x 1015 square feet of land and if we divide this by the number of people (about 6.1 billion) we find that each person has an area about 870 feet by 870 feet. That doesn't seem too bad. We did, however, leave a few things out of the calculations. The available land area we used includes large areas where most people wouldn't want to live (e.g. the Arctic, Antarctica, the Sahara Desert, etc) and it includes areas we currently use to grow food. More people living on the planet means larger areas devoted to food production and therefore necessarily smaller areas devoted to living space. It goes back to the idea of land for food balanced with land for people. There will come a point in time when the two are no longer balanced. Some already believe the time has come.

Ask Yourself These Questions
  1. What's the trend for world population growth rates? Have the rates been increasing, decreasing or staying about the same?
  2. How do these trends influence your thinking about overpopulation?
  3. Are these trends deceiving or in other words is there more to overpopulation than meets the eye?
  4. Is the area in which you live overpopulated? Or just overcrowded? Is there a difference?
  5. If you had to choose one thing to do to help change the way in which we look at overpopulation, what would it be?
Different Perspectives in the Debate

  • World Overpopulation Awareness
    This site talks about how overpopulation is the cause of many environmental problems here on earth and how the human population cannot take care of the environment. It also gives links to many other cool sites where you can get interesting statistics.
  • Negative Population Growth
    This site is updated daily and gives a running count of the U.S. population and world population. According to the website, NPG "is a national membership organization founded in 1972 to educate the American public and political leaders about the detrimental effects of overpopulation on our environment, resources and quality of life."
  • The Population Connection
    Population Connection (formerly ZPG) is a 35-year-old national nonprofit organization working to slow population growth and achieve a sustainable balance between the Earth's people and its resources. We seek to protect the environment and ensure a high quality of life for present and future generations.
  • Overpopulation
    This is a private site run by Brian Carnell with more than 1,000 pages related to overpopulation. The site has archives going back to 1997.
  • Environmental Stewardship: Population and the Environment
    In this 1997 article by Ben Wattenberg of the New York Times Magazine, called "The Population Explosion is Over", the author refutes the "alarmist" views of people such as Paul Ehrlich citing the United Nations Population Division's study that concluded that the population explosion has fizzled.
  • Energetic Limits to Growth
    This article by Jay Hanson, owner of, first appeared in "ENERGY Magazine" in the spring of 1999. It discusses limits to world population growth from the viewpoint of energy production and consumption. His site also contains many other articles related to limits to growth.
  • What can I do about overpopulation?
    This site is run by "KZPG A new-age news broadcaster, using the internet", their words not mine. This page is a list of solutions that individuals can explore to help reduce world overpopulation. The parent site also has links to other sites and a link to the "One Child World" pledge.
  • Consequences of Rapid Population Growth
    This is a very thorough treatise on the consequences of overpopulation with sections on facts and figures, consumption, endangered spaces and species, natural resources, urbanization and steps individuals can take to lessen these consequences.

All material (except for some code and external links) © Jeffery A. Schneider, 2003