# 6.4: Measuring the Impact of Population

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# Measuring the Impact of Population

Remember the earlier comparison of Russia and Bangladesh? This is the section where we discuss the different ways of calculating the pressure that populations put onto the land that they inhabit. You’ll recall that we began by looking simply at people per country. This is a good way to start, but the limitations are fairly obvious. Countries that are physically larger can hold more people. We need to use a method that changes from a measure of overall population to some kind of per capita measure. There are many of these and each has its merits.

Arithmetic density is the simplest one. It is simply the number of people divided by the area of the country. The area is usually measured in square kilometers, since most of the world uses the metric system (Figure 2.17).

Figure | Arithmetic Density 201514 Author | David Dorrell Source | Original Work License | CC BY SA 4.0

Physiological density has the same numerator (population), but the denominator is different. Instead of using all the land in a country, it only accounts for arable (farmable) land (Figure 2.18). Places that are not used for agriculture deserts, lakes, mountaintops and similar places - are subtracted from the land total. This is useful for demonstrating how much pressure is being put on the farmland that is available. Be aware that food that is gathered or hunted from nonagricultural land is not considered in this number.

Figure | Physiological Density 201515 Author | David Dorrell Source | Original Work License | CC BY SA 4.0

Agricultural density has the same denominator as physiological density, but has a different numerator. Instead of using the entire population, it only uses farmers (Figure 2.19). This provides a number that is a good measure of development, or rather it’s a good measure of underdevelopment. Developed countries have mechanized agriculture and few farmers per capita. Each farm tends to be large in order to generate a sufficient income. Places with high agricultural densities have more farmers per hectare, meaning that farms will likely produce less revenue. Of course, an underlying assumption of this number is the idea that people are growing food to earn a living. If they are eating the produce directly, outside the cash economy, then the comparison is less valid.

Related to food production is the concept of carrying capacity. Carrying capacity is simply how many people can live from a given piece of land. However, it’s not really that simple. Carrying capacity is not static throughout time. Not only do environmental characteristics change (due to desertification, for example) but technology changes as well. The carrying capacity of land in wealthy developed countries has expanded tremendously due to the application of technology. These technologies could be something as simple as irrigation ditches to something as complex as genetic modification of the plants and animals themselves. Carrying capacity is a snapshot taken at a particular time.

Figure | Agricultural Density 201516 Author | David Dorrell Source | Original Work License | CC BY SA 4.0

When we looked at the population pyramids we considered both the current population conditions and the projected population pyramids. When we looked at the first graph in the chapter, it didn’t stop at the current year. It provided three different estimates of the near future. Estimating future populations is important, both at the global level and the national level, but also at the local level as well. Societies large and small attempt to plan their futures in terms of resource allocation and economic development. Population projections are difficult. They attempt to take current circumstances and use them to plot the likeliest future.

The problem is that the future may not be like the present. A disease that is suppressing fertility may be cured. The climate may change more than expected. We could experience another world war. Any number of unexpected large scale events could occur that completely invalidate the reasoning behind a projection. Nicholas Talib calls these Black Swan events. They are things that you don’t know about until you do know about them. Irrespective projections will be made because they are necessary.

When we looked at the population pyramids we considered both the current population conditions and the projected population pyramids. When we looked at the first graph in the chapter, it didn’t stop at the current year. It provided three different estimates of the near future. Estimating future populations is important, both at the global level and the national level, but also at the local level as well. Societies large and small attempt to plan their futures in terms of resource allocation and economic development. Population projections are difficult. They attempt to take current circumstances and use them to plot the likeliest future.

The problem is that the future may not be like the present. A disease that is suppressing fertility may be cured. The climate may change more than expected. We could experience another world war. Any number of unexpected large scale events could occur that completely invalidate the reasoning behind a projection. Nicholas Talib calls these Black Swan events. They are things that you don’t know about until you do know about them. Irrespective projections will be made because they are necessary.

6.4: Measuring the Impact of Population is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.