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Saturday, 13 November 2010 16:15

Psychological aspects of overpopulation

Albert J. M. Wessendorp, Psychologist-Psychotherapist
 
While our opinion, as members of the foundation, is that the population needs to shrink, there are others here in the Netherlands who feel it is not quite busy enough yet to merit concern.
If we could understand why many people do not feel any need to put overpopulation on the political agenda, it would be easier for us to come up with better ways of conveying and arguing our point of view.
 
Types of Arguments
Various kinds of arguments are used when people discuss whether or not the Netherlands should be regarded as full or not. For the sake of convenience, we will distinguish two main types of argument. The distinction is roughly on a line with the distinction between prosperity on the one hand, and welfare or wellbeing on the other.
 
The first category of arguments consists of considerations which, to put it simply, directly concern our survival as living beings. They involve such basic questions as: Is there enough food, water and fresh air for now and in the future and are we using up our energy supplies too quickly? These can be related to the most basic needs within the hierarchy posited by Maslow.1 according to Maslow, man is motivated by a number of fundamental needs. Apart from the primary needs, for food, sleep, sex and safety, he distinguishes a category of “higher” needs: for love, esteem and “self-actualization”. His reason for placing needs in a hierarchical structure is that a “higher” need only demands satisfaction as and when a “lower” need or needs have already been, to some extent, satisfied.
 
The second group contains arguments from experience: they convey the simple fact that people feel crowded and experience the Netherlands as “too full”. People feel that their freedom of movement, their individual freedom and their freedom to choose, are all being limited. In the context of Maslow’s framework, these are primarily higher needs which people feel to be under threat.
 
Where the lower needs are concerned, measurements can result in concrete, objective facts.3   Quantifying higher needs is much less straightforward, though. We often verbalize these needs on the basis of our subjective experiences: “Having all these people around stresses me out, I could really do with being in a peaceful environment”. Another can simply react by saying he is not affected in the same way: “I prefer the city any day, silence drives me crazy”.
 
On reason for the fact that many people do not worry about the Netherlands being overpopulated could be that overpopulation does not impinge upon their lives. They are not bothered by it directly. They do not feel inclined to worry about possible problems in the sphere of food provision or the environment, no matter how solid the arguments for concern are. As long as their freedom of movement and individual freedom(s) (i.e. their higher needs) are not threatened, they will not rouse themselves.
 
Much has been said about the lower needs (by the Club of Rome, for example). Much less is known about the effects on the human psyche of a situation in which large numbers of people live in a limited amount of space. It seems no more than sensible to pay some attention to this question, not in the last place because it will allow us to argue more cogently for measures to be taken in this sphere.
 
“Overpopulation” among Animals
Some time ago, John B Calhoun performed an interesting experiment using rats. He wanted to find out the effects of the growth of a population of rats on their social behaviour. The increase in the number of rats took place within a limited space that remained the same throughout the experiment. As the number of rats rose above a certain level, the effects became dramatic. The female rats showed behavioural disturbances. Many pregnancies were terminated prematurely and many females who did give birth after the normal term, did not survive the birth. The females who did survive often did not care for their young adequately. Males started to show deviant sexual behaviour and there were incidents of cannibalism. Some of them became hyperactive while others withdrew themselves. They also tended to be listless and hang around together in a pathological way, which disturbed the normal behaviour patterns, such as courting the other sex, building nests and caring for young. In some groups the rate of deaths among the young was even as high as 96%.
 
It is known, moreover, that it is not just rats that take measures to keep their populations at certain viable levels. Other species also take radical measures at times. Perhaps the most dramatic example is that of whales, who are known to commit collective suicide.
 
It is relevant to this issue to ask ourselves what the difference is between animals’ reactions to a surplus of fellow species members in their territories and peoples’ reactions to comparable situations. Can we even use the term territory in the human context? Would it be possible to live in the Netherlands together with a population of 30 million, without people driving each other crazy? Is it not worth posing these kinds of questions?
 
Overpopulation in Human Societies
Evidence seems to suggest that the effects of overpopulation among people manifest themselves in a different way than among animals. Studies have been done on the effects of crowding, and also on the relation between the presence of large numbers of people as a social stress factor and people’s health. Until now, this type of research has not resulted in any spectacular new insights. Neither does the National Monitor for Mental Health (annual report 2002) make for very exciting reading. What is generally known, though, is that the life expectancy of inhabitants of certain disadvantaged neighbourhoods is below the national average. This cannot be straightforwardly attributed to the density of inhabitants in those neighbourhoods, though. Other factors could be involved. The inhabitants of large cities do, however, appear to suffer from depression more frequently than inhabitants of rural areas, but it is not clear what the relation to population density is exactly.
 
There is an existing idea that, when a certain level of population density is reached, a range of regulating processes occur (which combat the possible negative effects of population growth). The existence of the foundation the Club of Ten Million is an example of this. We can also imagine regulating processes which are less consciously led. As a result of improved medical care, people remain alive who would have died earlier under less favourable circumstances. “Nature”, in its regulating capacity, could redress the balance through illnesses such as AIDS, SARS, cancer, diabetes and asthmatic ailments, but also through such illnesses as hyperactivity, depression, alcoholism etc. The following scenario could serve as an example of a regulating process. Being packed together far too closely feeds a growing sense of frustration, which can be vented through aggression and can even, in some cases, lead to murder or suicide. The greater the number of people using the roads is, the greater will be the number of accidents, including the number of fatal ones. The feeling that the country is becoming overcrowded can be a reason for some people to emigrate. This feeling was an important factor in the historical movement of migration to America, for example. It is not unreasonable to suppose that, as the population of a country grows, the “normal” feelings of frustration and aggression can be turned towards surrounding countries and manifest themselves as the urge for expansion and war. However the case may be exactly, humans do seem to react differently to (excessive) growths in their own numbers than animals do.
 
The Difference between Humans and Animals
Unlike animals, people are capable of reflection. People can mentally project themselves in to the past or the future by virtue of their imaginative powers. As they are also capable of reasoning, they are able to plan their actions. You could say that man has used his powers of imagination (his inner life) to create his own outer world, and, by doing so, has increased his chances of survival. As a species, humans have done this very effectively, because they have made themselves much less dependent on their direct environment. A squirrel cannot import his supply of nuts from abroad, but people can get food supplies in this way. 
 
Their capacities have also allowed humans to deal with stress in a more varied way than animals. Being able to either ignore unwanted external or internal stimuli or give them different, positive meanings, is also an aid to our survival. These psychological strategies are known as defence mechanisms.
 
Compared to animals, humans take a long time to develop into relatively independent individuals. Their physical maturation and psychological development proceed side by side. The success of both these developments depends on a person’s biological inclinations and on their environment. Some people know how to deal with stress while others fail to cope. There are people who manage to direct their behaviour in a satisfactory way, while others are not so good at this. The latter group of people have no control over their impulses, for instance, or have a low tolerance threshold for frustration. Some people are able to relax, through nature, by meditation, fitness, sport or reading. Others are depressed, anxious, suffer from all manner of physical ailments or combat their “over-stimulated” state by consuming alcohol or other, potentially addictive, substances. There are also people who deal with excessive stress in an extremely negative way. They react by using verbal or physical violence or get involved in crime.
 
Apart from these examples, there are also people who crave stimulation, who are always in search of a “buzz”. They throw themselves into all manner of hectic distractions and are always attracted to the places where “the action is” and where it is most crowded; the very thing that others wish to avoid.
 
The Way in which People Experience Crowds
The presence of too many people in the same place at the same time can have direct negative consequences. It simply gets too crowded for comfort. This does not have to be the case, though. Whether we regard the people around us as threatening or benign partly depends on the meaning we attribute to those people. What people signify to us, determines whether we will remain calm or not. This meaning depends on the situation or context, which can be that of a like-minded congregation in a crowded church, who are members of the same club, with the same cultural background and language. The context can also be one in which we are confronted with people who are unknown to us, who are after goods which are in short supply, goods which we need ourselves: in other words, a competitive situation. In that case we are very likely to experience “negative stress”. 
 
We can also identify indirect consequences. Some of these indirect effects of crowding do not concern the direct interaction between people. Due to the sheer number of people, various problems can arise, because a large of people call upon certain services or facilities at a certain time, resulting in lines at the supermarket, waiting lists for medical operations, traffic congestion etc. These problems evoke frustration. In a crowded situation, therefore, there is often a need to regulate the interaction between people. Regulation, however, by definition impinges on people’s freedom to decide about how and when to act (their autonomy). The effects can be either positive or negative. In the second case, people no longer feel there is a connection between their environment and themselves. This is when alienation occurs.
 
Another indirect consequence of crowding is its effect upon our political system. Within the framework of democratic decision-making, looking after the diverse interests of so many people is a complex undertaking. Sometimes people do not feel their interests are reflected in the decision making process, or do not feel they are involved in any way. If the geographical or psychological distance between those directly involved and those charged with serving their interests (politicians and administrators) is too large, then this will also result in alienation.
 
Conclusions
  • Population growth is subject to limits. People need to be able to survive, in a psychological as well as a physical sense, and this requires space.
  • Where our actual survival as human beings is concerned, these limits can be determined reasonably objectively.
  • Where our quality of life is concerned, it is far more difficult to indicate a clear limit, in the sense of a critical number of people in a limited area.
  • It is plausible to suppose that if we fail to regulate our population size ourselves, we will be “corrected” by the “workings” of nature.

Recommendations

  • In order to raise awareness of the fact that overpopulation is the underlying cause of an important number of “daily inconveniences”, the relation between those inconveniences and the greater issue should be made clear.
  • Problems which can be expected in the future need to be “brought closer”. Naturally this can be done by presenting figures concerning potentially disastrous situations. It is also worth considering actually sketching these negative scenarios and showing concrete visions of what the future could turn out if no changes are made.
  • People are only stirred into action when they feel their basic needs to be threatened (Maslow). That is why it is not enough to point out that, now and in the future, food provision will deteriorate, along with the supply of clean air. It is also important to emphasise that our safety and security are at risk.
  • A clearer distinction should be made between the direct and indirect effects of people “crowding together”. The indirect effects should be described in a more systematic way.
  • More research should be done into the effects of overcrowding on people’s physical and psychological health.

Notes

  1. Abraham H. Maslow, psychologist, chairman of the American Psychological Association in his lifetime, wrote “Motivation and Personality”, 1954.
  2. John B. Calhoun, an American psychologist
  3. See the ecological criteria set out in “Mijn land van veel en vol” (Approx. trans: My Country, Full to Overflowing) by Paul Gerbrands', ISBN 90 5573 413 6

World population

earth Psychological aspects of overpopulation - Stichting de Club van Tien Miljoen