How Many Can Planet Support?

(Square feet per person, agriculture, pollution, recreation, poverty)

Ava Hart wrote:

  Your argument about the number of square feet per person on the Earth is very unsettling and unsatisfactory to me.

First, as our population grows, the number decreases. No one know how many square feet of land are needed for the survival of a person, since we can freely move about and temporarily increase the footage available to us. When will we reach the point that we can no longer survive? Where is that point?

Second, this oversimplified equation doesn't take into account how many square feet of land are needed for cattle, other animals, rain forest, etc.

Third, who would want to live in a world where we truly have only a few square feet per person? Some of the greatest pleasures in life are derived from an unobstructed view of nature. Unfortunately, these views are becoming more and more rare. There is a small creek in Oklahoma that my family used to visit for picnics. Twenty years ago, it was practically a private park for us. Now, any time we visit, there are pickups, cars, trailers, multiple burn sites from campfires, and even a mobile home. This is due entirely to an increase in population. This is not a site that is advertised in any way.

Fourth, what is the purpose of having so many billions of people on the planet?

Fifth, any time you walk outside in a city, you are faced with excessive smog, and overuse of the infrastructure. If you don't believe this, you've been in the country too long. Visit a city.  

Sixth, overpopulation has a lot to do with poverty. Any family with six children is going to have a very difficult time putting food on the table, especially if a member of the family has health problems, and maybe can't afford health insurance.

Seventh, overpopulation doesn't necessarily mean worldwide. That family with six children and parents who are trying to survive on $5.00 per hour jobs is 'way overpopulated.

Don't mean to rant, but you seem misinformed to me. Maybe you should read something other than the Church-published material. 



Dear Ava,

Thank you for your email.  You ask a lot of good questions.  I cannot answer them all, but allow me a couple of impressions.

Many people actually pay more to live on less square feet, surrounded by more people.  Some friends of mine recently sold a spacious house to buy a condo on Seattle's waterfront.  They are paying much more to live in a densely populated area but it is worth it because of all the services available there.  A lot of others must also think its a beautiful area because it gets thousands of tourists.  Do I sound like the Seattle Chamber of Commerce?  I'm not.  Just saying that the presence of many residents and visitors does not necessarily make a place unattractive.  Come & visit us, Ava, and decide for yourself.

Seattle has less air pollution than it did twenty-five years ago.  That has been accomplished in spite of a great increase in population.  The water in Lake Washington, once quite filthy, is now clean enough to swim in.  It is true as you say that people make messes, but we are also capable of cleaning them up.

I wasn't arguing for having as many kids as possible.  The Church believes in responsible parenthood.  But parents themselves should be free to decide the number of children they will have, without external pressure or coercion.  For myself I am happy to have four brothers and a sister; I treasure each one of my siblings.  We were a relatively poor family, but all of us have done fine, have helped one another and other folks along the way. In my parish there are parents who have chosen to have eight or more children.  By having those children and raising them with good values they are making a positive contribution to the welfare of society.  But most important, from the point of view of faith, each one has an immortal soul, a calling to spend eternity with God.

A couple of years ago I wrote a reflection on Hong Kong   The point was (and is) that population density and lack of resources do not in themselves cause poverty.  That same conclusion can be found in many sources that are not "Church-published."  See Brian Carnell's population website

I cannot say at what point we would have absolutely too many people on the planet to survive.  Some experts have estimated the planet could carry forty billion with current technology.  Others, like Julian Simon, have maintained the earth's carrying capacity is unlimited (as population expands we will find solutions to problems of space, food, etc.).  When we get to heaven, we will see why God wanted each unique human soul and why it was necessary for him to make billions and billions of us.

God bless,

Fr. Phil Bloom

P.S.  I don't live in the country, but a heavily populated urban area.  If you ever come here for a visit I can tell a place five minutes away where your family can have a lovely picnic.


What is Overpopulation? (Population Reference Bureau)

Facing Hard Questions: Have We Already Filled the Earth? (cf. Gen 1:28)

Are We Destroying the Environment?


I would welcome your comments or questions.

Population Research Institute offers an in-depth study of these questions.



A letter from Brian Carnell who operates a popular website which discusses both sides of this issue.