Less is more

Until September there were 900,000 fatal Covid-19 cases. This is terrible, but on a word scale or in our countries we don’t even notice that in our population numbers. In the same time the world population grew with 56 million people. Despite climate change, wars or pandemics the general trend is a growing world population.

When Columbus arrived in America there were ‘only’ 461 million people in the world. In 1800 this was twice as much, but the real growth started in 20th century.

When my grandfather was born (1926) there were 2 billion people. Today, not even 100 years later, we are with 7.8 billion people on this planet. The world population is expected to rise to 11 billion at the end of this century. That’s an indefinitely high number.

How much is a lot

Still, if we would lump all living organisms together, humans would make only 0.01% of all organisms. The most biomass can be found in rainforests. All plants together make 82% of all biomass. Even bacteria make up 13%.

If we zoom in on mammals, humans not even clearly stand out. But it’s not just about biomass. Where we as humans really stand out, is how we dominate ecosystems. A lot of plants like rice and grain covers the world, we cut wood in the rainforest, we build roads and houses. And most animals live only because they are a source of food for us. We put our stamp everywhere on the planet.

Comparing world animal populations with human population

With the growing number the effects of our dominance gets bigger and bigger. Not only for other organisms, but also for ourselves. So there are 7,8 Billion homo sapiens on earth. All other direct ancestors like the Neanderthals are extinct. Are there any other mammals that come close to human population numbers?

Let us first look at our closest relatives:

Our closest relatives are chimps with whom 99% of our DNA is shared. Compared with chimpanzees humans are 39000 times more populated on the earth. The only other mammals which have relatively high population numbers are domestic animals like dogs (900 million) and cats (600 million).

The only one part of the ‘billionaires club’ are sheep (1 billion), pigs (1 billion) and cattle (1.5 billion). There is one animal who even goes way beyond human population (not a mammal of course): chickens. There are 23.7 billion chickens in the world!

It doesn’t matter if you talk about chickens, pigs or dogs. All domestic animals are dependent and related to human population.

When considering wildlife alone, the numbers are much lower. And it’s keep getting lower. The Living Planet Report of WWF indicates that the populations of various animals have decreased by 2/3 over the past 50 years.

When we talk about humans and domestic animals we talk about billions. There aren’t a lot of wildlife animals that exceeds a million. Let that sink in. Strangely wildlife seems just as much dependent on humans as domestic animals.

It’s interesting to compare these worldwide animal population numbers to our towns and cities. Here is a list comparing the total world population of an animal to the number of citizens of a specific place in the Netherlands:

  • Geitenkamp: 4000 (Tiger)
  • Rijnsburg: 8000 (Hyena)
  • Stadskanaal: 20000 (Lion)
  • Zoetermeer: 115000 (Hippo)
  • The Hague: 500000 (Zebra)
  • Amsterdam: 9500000 (Black bear)

There are just as many tigers in the world as people in Geitenkamp, a village which most Dutch people hardly ever heard of. Or just as many lions in the whole world as people in Stadskanaal. And Stadskanaal is just a small city in the Netherlands compared to others.

The Netherlands: An overpopulated country?

The Netherlands in total has more than 6000 cities and villages, where together 17,3 million people live. All in a country 231 times smaller than the US. If that many people lived in the US, it would have 4 billion citizens.

But even in the Netherlands most people live in a specific area, namely the Randstad (Literally City of the Edge). This is an urban area made of Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam, The Hague and some smaller cities in between.

The Randstad covers 15 percent of the land area of the Netherlands. In the four provinces, Noord-Holland, Zuid-Holland, Utrecht and Flevoland, 8,2 million people live.

With more than 1000 inhabitants per km2 it is sometimes a little ‘crowded’ in this country. It’s of course not just humans which take space, but also agriculture, infrastructure and cities.

In August 2020 there were the following items in the Dutch news:

  • Too much water usage
  • Too crowded on bike lanes
  • Electricity demand will increase 30% in coming years
  • Corona cases rises in big cities
  • Excess emissions of Co2, ammonia(NH3) and nitrogen oxides (NOx)
  • Shopping streets and beaches are too crowded

I didn’t need to search hard for these news items. I just took some articles of one day on the Dutch news website NU.nl.

All of these items have to do with too many people on a small piece of the earth. And it’s not just to sheer number of people, but that everywhere you go there are other people. Sometimes you just need a lot of patience to move around in through the country.

I noticed that increasingly more and more people are wondering if our country wouldn’t be nicer with fewer people. Wouldn’t it be nicer to live? Wouldn’t the environmental and climate problems be less severe?

This is often said in a private context and hardly heard publicly or in politics. The reason is that often these discussions tend to exclude groups or come up with some inhumane solution. And soon they think of Nazi practices or the 1 child politics in China. Couldn’t there be a discussion apart from these connotations? Is less more? And are we ready to address this topic?

Driving at night

The first time this thought occurred to me was on a quiet summer evening. I was driving through the hills in the north of Bavaria, Germany. I already drove the whole day through a lot of busy parts from my home through Amsterdam and the Rhine-Ruhr area and other busy roads (road 44) towards Kassel. Finally, I arrived in a more quiet part of Germany. On a small road I reached a crossroad. I stopped. Immediately I was stressed if nobody was behind me. I was expecting someone behind me, impatient, honking. No one, no stress.

No land is being left unused. I see it in my own town (Zaandam) where every piece of land is debated which destination it will get. At the end everything green is slowly being replaced by concrete, every gap is filled with a building.

In recent years lots of buildings were created in order to be hotels. There are now about 33 million visiting Amsterdam each year. So part of the overcrowding comes from there. We must build new hotels and new houses to give all people a place to stay. We must build office buildings and factories so people have a place to work. And we build parks, cinemas and restaurants, so they have a place to relax.

I noticed that there are sometimes concerns that a decline in population will hurt the economy. So, we build more roads, more buildings and so on. But how worried are we about the quality of life itself? Don’t you think less is more?

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