Numbers Matter: How Overpopulation Fuels Complexity That Will Undo the Future of Humanity

Each new human being adds to the complexity of, and further threatens, human existence.

As our populations rise to unsustainable levels, they also rise to levels of complexity that undercuts the ability of our governments to function, and thus threaten human civilization. There are plenty of apocalyptic films and series that show how a man-made catastrophe – a climate crisis, worldwide famine, a super pandemic – can damage a civilization, or brought to extremes, crumble it. But what if we can’t see the perfect storm of a combination of damaging factors that will finally end our current civilization?

Throughout history, human civilizations have fallen as their rising complexity undercuts their social support systems, richly demonstrated by Joseph Tainter, in his classic historical analysis The Collapse of Complex Societies – Global Systemic Risk [entire book available at]. He argued that as a civilization combines its communal resources and energy to tackle problems, it introduces layers of complexity in its social support structure, comprised of governments, bureaucracies, class structures.

Indeed, a government gets more complex as it tackles providing more, increasingly important, services. Early on, for example, the United States simply provided protection from foreign entities, and from behavior that undermined basic freedoms, as outlined in its Constitution. But as the nation redefined what it required to pursue a decent existence, its Constitution expanded via a growing list of amendments through the centuries to ensure a means of providing the services needed to ensure a decent existence.  In turn, the government itself expanded in increasingly complex layers of bureaucracy to provide those services. The early U. S. government did not include, for example, services that ensured decent housing, medical care, a healthy environment, and a source of energy that heightened those services for much of its citizenry. Its current government does so now, among a plethora of other services, and as a result, is far more complex.

And this is good, Tainter argues, up to a point.  That point is reached when the energy and resources invested into that added complexity is not compensated by the resulting provided services or improvement of life. He provides examples of how this ultimately undermined civilizations eons ago.

However, those civilizations had far fewer people to govern than the population of our current global civilization.  How does population size, especially unsustainable populations, affect complexity?  If a population, such as our current global population, is undermining its resources [eg, clean water and air, beneficial climate, arable land, energy sources] as it grows, it will not be able to sustain itself. The ensuing problems will overwhelm the capacity of the government(s), lacking adequate resources, to solve them. With that, the existence of government, as well as that of civilization, ceases.

Furthermore, complexity increases far faster than population size, and can be incredibly damaging to our environment. An activity can result in ramifications far beyond the initial actions, he notes, because it can create feedbacks, both good and bad, or pass crucial thresholds in some of the systems that intersects with that activity. Perhaps one of the most famous example of this is how the relatively simple action of burning fossil fuels, the main source of energy in our civilization today, is creating catastrophic climate changes, polluting the air and the water we drink, as well as damaging our very health seriously through the inhalation of particles that disrupt all parts of our bodies.

This is just one of numerous examples of how human activity both degrades humanity, and the environment upon which we depend. All the resulting problems from this environmental degradation and rising complexity will also decrease our various resource bases and the ability of our governments to address proliferating problems. At that point, civilization collapses.

To understand how this is tied to population growth on a very basic level, try this exercise, taken from the pages of the 2010 book A Pivotal Moment: Population, Justice, and the Environmental Challenge, Chapter 9.   Imagine 3 dots, symbolizing populations, as the points of a triangle. How many possible lines can connect them?  The same number as there are populations. Now, add 3 more dots anywhere to double those populations. The number of possible lines connecting all dots is far more than the 6 populations now existing – it’s 15! If the number of populations triples, the number of lines are far more numerous.  The lines are increasing far faster than the populations. Now, imagine that the populations are towns, the lines roads, and the area enclosed within this network is the local ecosystem that helps provides clean air and water to the populations, and which is being increasingly damaged from as this network fragments it.

Complexity increases far faster than population growth. On an individual level, no matter where a person is born on the planet today, their resource cost is far greater than the simple intake of water, air, food and shelter. The addition is the very real cost in energy and resources incurred by the complexity of  underlying social support structure that provides services, however minimal, for that person.  

In the four minutes it took to read this piece, 800 more people were added to our global population.


About melharte

Mel (Mary Ellen) Harte is a biologist (PhD) and climate change educator. She co-authored the free online book, COOL THE EARTH, SAVE THE ECONOMY, available at www.CoolTheEarth.US, and writes the CLIMATE CHANGE THIS WEEK column at the HuffingtonPost. Living summers in the alpine Rockies, she is on the frontlines of watching what climate change can do. Her diagnostic digital photographs of wildflowers have appeared in numerous publications.
This entry was posted in population, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s