The topic of overpopulation is widely studied in Geography, both at A-Level and undergraduate level. Isn’t it amazing just how quickly population is rising? Just look at these population milestones:

• 1 Billion 1804
• 2 Billion 1927
• 3 Billion 1960
• 4 Billion 1974
• 5 Billion 1987
• 6 Billion 1999
• 7 Billion 2011
• 8 Billion 2024 (projected)

Such a rapidly growing population brings challenges for resource use and supply; for example, more food is needed to feed a rapidly growing global population. The resources in this topic cover many high-profile issues in Geography, including Malthus’ theory of overpopulation and Hardin’s idea of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. You might be familiar with Malthus from your Sixth Form studies, but if you take Geography at undergraduate level it is almost certain that you’ll come across the work again in much greater detail! When taken together, both of these theories help us to explore the question of whether there are too many selfish people on Earth?

Too many people?

Malthus’ theory about overpopulation, written in ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ (1798), might be familiar to you. If not, or if you just need a reminder, look at the graphs and explanations on the link below. This is a very basic guide to Malthus, but it’s a good start:

In the absence of positive checks (e.g. disease, famine) and preventative checks (e.g. sexual abstinence), Malthus thought that population could grow exponentially and outstrip food supply, which would grow at a slower rate. At this point, there wouldn’t be enough food to feed the high population.

Task 1:

1. What do you think of Malthus’ theory? Can you spot any flaws?

2. Do some further research about how popular Malthus’ theory has become. The below article is a good place to start; Sir David Attenborough has argued that we should control population to prevent the strain on resources. Can you also think of any examples of population control; perhaps start with a bit of research on China’s one-child policy?

Task 2:

There is a report here, and a much shorter associated article, which lists the challenges that overpopulation can cause:

Remember to maintain a critical eye. In the case studies on the link above, do you think that overpopulation is the only source of problems?

Resource activities

Was Malthus Right?

In one sense, it is hard to deny that a high population could place a heavy demand on food and other resources, so Malthus’ warning about overpopulation should not be dismissed. However, lots of scholars have found flaws in Malthus’ work. Download this resource to consider other arguments against Malthus.


Tragedy of the Commons

The resources on overpopulation helped you to consider the strain placed on resources by a growing population. Garrett Hardin used some Malthusian-style principles to put forward his theory of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968), which is widely studied in Geography undergraduate courses. Read Hardin's original paper and then answer the questions in this activity.


Drama of the Commons

While Hardin’s theory of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is still widely talked about in Geography, scholars have demonstrated that it contains several flaws. One of the most famous scholars to criticise Hardin is Elinor Ostrom. Work through this activity to see what she said. 


Reflective questions

To answer and record these questions you will need to have an account and be logged in.

Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

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Further reading