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The Human Eco-predicament: Overshoot and the Population Conundrum

The Human Eco-predicament: Overshoot
and the Population Conundrum


This article was originally published by
Vienna Yearbook of Population Research 2023, Vol. 21, pp. 1–19

Abstract: The human enterprise is in overshoot, depleting essential ecosystems faster than they can regenerate and polluting the ecosphere beyond nature’s assimilative capacity. Overshoot is a meta-problem that is the cause of most symptoms of eco-crisis, including climate change, landscape degradation and biodiversity loss. The proximate driver of overshoot is excessive energy and material ‘throughput’ to serve the global economy. Both rising incomes (consumption) and population growth contribute to the growing human eco-footprint, but increasing throughput due to population growth is the larger factor at the margin. (Egregious and widening inequality is a separate socio-political problem.) Mainstream approaches to alleviating various symptoms of overshoot merely reinforce the status quo. This is counter-productive, as overshoot is ultimately a terminal condition. The continuity of civilisation will require a cooperative, planned contraction of both the material economy and human populations, beginning with a personal to civilisational transformation of the fundamental values, beliefs, assumptions and attitudes underpinning neoliberal/capitalist industrial society.

Key words: overshoot, eco-footprint, carrying capacity, sustainability, population, contraction


1 Introduction: Contrasting approaches to populationMy thesis in this paper is that modern techno-industrial (MTI) society is in a state of dangerous ecological overshoot—i.e., that there are too many people consuming and polluting too much on a finite planet. It is not too late, however, to take a lesson in sustainability from the tiny tropical island society of Tikopia. Hardly anyone has ever heard of Tikopia, but its history should be known by everyone who cares about the future of Earth. Tikopia is the remnant of an extinct volcano in the south-west Pacific Ocean with an area of less than five square kilometres, 80% of which is arable…

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