Overpopulation and wide open spaces

Bob Hatcher

November 25, 2012

My article last week, Fondue in Gruyeres, described the beauty and low population density of parts of Switzerland and France. It is hard to comprehend that there could be places as serene and sparsely populated as the mountains, hills, valleys and pastures I visited two weeks ago and yet live in a world many already consider to be tragically overpopulated. 

There seems to be a disconnect between overpopulation and wide open spaces. We see wide open spaces, beauty and sparse population in Rabun County.  People in our county could certainly wonder why anyone would say there is a world population problem.

There are even less populated areas in many of our nation’s western states. Canada’s low population density is even more striking.

Here is the population density of several areas:

Location:                              People

 per square mile:

Shanghai                           100,000

Singapore                            18,885

Palestine                                1,847           

New Jersey                            1,170

India                                            989

Israel                                           930

Japan                                          873

Switzerland                              500

China                                           365

Florida                                        339

Georgia                                      167

The entire WORLD                  135

United States                             89

Oregon                                         39

Canada                                           9

Australia                                        8

Alaska                                             1.2

So how can overpopulation be a problem when there are vast areas where are there are almost no people?

The problem is that people need water, jobs, protection from the elements and ways to educate their children.  They do not want to live where there are no medical services, libraries or stores.

People will also try to avoid living where rivers flood repeatedly, droughts occur each year, temperatures are extremely low or extremely high or high velocity winds are the norm.

In China serious problems from overpopulation have included unemployment, incredible crowding and severe water shortages where there is high rainfall. Shanghai had a population of 20 million people in 2000 and there are almost 100,000 people per square mile. Housing shortages are serious in Shanghai where the average person lives in a space the size of a small closet (12 square feet per person). When I returned from China in 1987 our house in Atlanta had 4,000 square feet. If it had been in Shanghai it would have been home for 333 people!

Population pressures eventually forced draconian measures upon Chinese leaders.

The pressures of overpopulation ushered in the day when population control became the law of the land in China. The “Later, Longer, Fewer” policy that is the cornerstone of China’s birth control program was put into effect in 1976, around the same time that Mao died. It encouraged couples to get married later, wait longer to have children, and have fewer children, preferably one. The program forced some married couples to sign statements that obligated them to one child. The one-child policy has, of course, been roundly criticized throughout the world.

So we see this apparent disconnect: people crowded together in incredibly deplorable conditions when there are vast areas with almost no people at all. Human beings simply cannot live in many locations even though some of them are incredibly beautiful. 

Said quite simply people go where there are jobs and where the environment sustains the kind of life they want to live. These spaces are becoming harder and harder to find.  

Robert A. Hatcher MD, MPH
Professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics
Emory University School of Medicine
Atlanta, Georgia