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Overpopulation Crisis

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"Titan was like most planets: too many mouths, not enough to go around."

The population of an area, whether it be a small region, a country, a planet, or a Galactic Superpower has grown so large it is causing problems. The result might be societal instability, war, ecological catastrophe, cannibalism... the specifics do not really matter — what matters is that there are too many people and it is causing problems. This is often a feature of a dystopia and Cyberpunk, and can be used as a form of Green Aesop about uninhibited growth in a finite area.

May be prevented or resolved through the use of Population Control, settling new, uninhabited places, or even good old-fashioned Depopulation Bombs if the powers that be feel it is the only way. If unhandled, the crisis can cause The End of the World as We Know It if it grows severe enough as riots run rampant for what resources remain.


The Earth-centric version of this trope is largely broken in contemporary and 20 Minutes into the Future stories due to societal and technological advancements in our real world, but fiction outside of these can still make good use of it, often making conjoined use of its Sister Trope Absurdly Huge Population to handwave the question of 'How did we get so many people?' with the answer 'Of course there are many people, it's the future.'

This is one of the threats of the Explosive Breeder — even if it's not malicious, the sheer amount of offspring will eventually cause trouble if left unchecked. An Eco-Terrorist may resort to a Final Solution largely out of fear of a Malthusian crisis.



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    Anime & Manga 
  • In the Gundam franchise, this is the impetus behind building the Space Colonies in many shows: the Earth had become overpopulated, so enormous space stations capable of supporting billions of people are built in orbit. A few series have gone further and included a Mars terraformation project in addition.
  • Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann: Adai village has no ability to expand its pool of resources, and so limits its population to exactly 100. The village's leader presents this idea as religious dogma (from an ancient text no one can actually read), and enforces it by banishing someone whenever a birth brings things over the limit. Note that it's implied the village has done this for hundreds or thousands of years, but an indefinitely stable population would require a thousand or more people.

    Comic Books 
  • Judge Dredd: Part of the reason the setting is so crime-ridden is that most of the planet was rendered uninhabitable by nuclear war, forcing people to live in the megacities. Exacerbating the problem is the equally high population of Job Stealing Robots, which keeps unemployment rates soaring.
  • In a '90s Silver Surfer arc, Death resurrected Thanos and tasked him with destroying half of the universe's sentient life in order to prevent a massive population crisis. Thanos demonstrated the problem to the Surfer by showing him the effects that overpopulation and a lack of natural resources had on an inhabited planet, and claimed that the rest of the universe would soon meet with a similar fate. This plot eventually led to The Infinity Gauntlet crossover, where Thanos used the Infinity Gems to accomplish Death's goal.

     Fan Works  

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In Avengers: Infinity War, it's revealed that overpopulation and the subsequent abuse of natural resources led to the destruction of Titan and the death of all its people... except for Thanos. His desire to save the rest of the universe from suffering the same fate as Titan has motivated his actions in the Marvel Cinematic Universe ever since, and in Infinity War his plan is to finally gather all the Infinity Stones and use their combined power to simultaneously wipe out half the universe's population. He ultimately succeeds. However, when on Titan, Star-Lord notes that something seems off about the planet's axial tilt, which could have been responsible for the actual devastation. Thanos' speech with Dr. Strange detailing this problem is the page quote.
    • Avengers: Endgame shows that it backfired hard. Five years after the Snap, instead of teeming with life, from the brief shots we see of New York and San Francisco, indicate that the Earth left behind has stagnated at best, and is rotting at worst (and the space-based Avengers (Captain Marvel, Rocket Racoon, Nebula), state that the rest of the universe is no better, if not worse, off) - and that's on top of the wave of terror Thanos unleashed on his way to claim the Stones. Whales are returning to the Hudson River, and depopulated areas have been claimed by nature, but these small improvements pale in comparison to crumbling societies and despairing and barely-functional populations across the universe.
  • Elysium: Among the problems that plague the dystopian Earth of the future is overpopulation, along with high crime, poverty, and medicine being restricted to the rich on Elysium. At the end of the film, all of Earth's people are approved as Elysium citizens and so can receive medicine, but the director admitted afterward that this was an Esoteric Happy Ending that would only worsen the overpopulation problem (though it does seem like contraception may also be provided).
  • In Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), Emma Russell, the human who frees King Ghidorah, believes that the Earth is overpopulated with humans leading to depletion of resources and pollution, and feels that releasing the monsters will help restore the earth to its natural green state. Of course none of the protagonists support her eco-radical theory about releasing the monsters to restore balance to the ecosystem and environment, as King Ghidorah is even more destructive than the humans.
  • The Big Bad Ensemble of Sacha Baron Cohen's Grimsby justify their plans to create a virus that is fatal to humans in order to curb overpopulation. They also believe the virus can kill off the "stupid" people who are a waste of space as all they ever do is eat and reproduce.
  • Rampage (2009) has Bill Williamson, an angry and highly intelligent man working a low-paying job as an auto mechanic, go on a killing spree upon his hometown of Tenderville, Oregon and he uses this trope as his Casus belli to justify his killings.
  • An overpopulation-induced resource crunch is stated in the introduction of Serenity to have prompted the settlement of the star cluster the Firefly franchise takes place in, and led to Earth becoming Earth That Was.
  • A central theme in Soylent Green. Earth is so overpopulated that the only way to feed the people is through a product called Soylent Red and Yellow. A new product called Soylent Green comes at the market and in the film's climax it turns out that it is made of people!
  • Z.P.G. (Zero Population Growth) features a world so overcrowded that having babies is banned for thirty years on pain of death. Its plot involves a couple having a baby in secret and having to flee.

  • A recurring theme in many of Robert A. Heinlein's novels, to which the solution is often Faster-Than-Light Travel:
    • When the Howards' families return to Earth at the end of Methuselah's Children they find that the planet has become so crowded that there's literally no room left for them, fortunately one of the Howards has invented FTL and offers it freely. Still, in the distant sequel Time Enough for Love Lazarus Long mentions in one of his stories that at one point Earth's government declared everyone over 70 to be legally dead in an attempt at population control.
    • Tunnel in the Sky: China apparently conquered Australia and paved over the entire continent to make room for its growing population before the Portal Network was developed, now they chuck hordes of settlers to new worlds through the gates.
    • Starship Troopers: Rico writes an essay on how war is always the result of overpopulation, from the Crusades to the current Bug War. And that humanity doesn't dare institute Population Control, lest some other species like the Bugs expand first and wipe them out for more real estate.
    • Farmer in the Sky: The Earth has so many people that everyone on the planet is put on strict food rationing. It's the major reason why the protagonists decide to emigrate to Ganymede (one of Jupiter's moons). Late in the novel one of the characters says that Earth's overpopulation will inevitably lead to a nuclear war within 40-70 years.
    • Time for the Stars. The family of the twin protagonists live just above the poverty line because their birth raised them above the tax threshold. It's mentioned that the Earth barely has enough food to feed it's population of five billion despite colonising the solar system, melting the Greenland icecap, putting a lake in the Sahara and farming the steppes.
  • In "Billennium" by J. G. Ballard, the world population is over 20 billion, most of the planet is used for agriculture, roads are permanently filled with crowds of pedestrians so that people have to weave through a Mobstacle Course every time they want to cross the street, and each person is limited to four square metres of living space, with plans to reduce the allocation even further.
  • Referenced in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge says that the poor should die in order to "decrease the surplus population." At the time this was written, overpopulation fears were often cited to justify the mistreatment of the poor.
  • In Aeon 14, the Sol system's government resorted to extrasolar colonization beginning in the 2100s to try and deal with population-induced resource strains, hence the colony ship Intrepid around which the series revolves. Even so, it's mentioned once in the early books that the Sol system's population in 4123 is now so high that they're in danger of mining out the entire Sol system within the main characters' (admittedly hundreds of years long) lifetimes. The advent of Faster-Than-Light Travel in the 5,000 year Time Dilation-induced Time Skip between books 3 and 4 takes the strain off, but also causes a partial collapse of civilization and loss of much knowledge because interstellar warfare is now practical and humanity no longer has to be as efficient with its resources.
  • Ender's Game: Due to overpopulation, most of Earth's nations have enforced laws stating families are to have no more than two children. However, a few nations such as Poland openly flout the law, with many large families but the consequence being that only the first two children are eligible for public education and benefits. The protagonist, Ender, is a rare example of a state-approved Third, as the International Fleet authorized his parents to have another child because they recognized military potential in their first two. Since Peter and Valentine were examined but rejected for various reasons (Peter for being too aggressive, Valentine as too pacifistic), the military hopes Ender might be a balance of their traits.
  • In Larry Niven's Known Space books, Earth is so crowded that picking pockets isn't illegal — how could it be enforced?
  • Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison is set on an overcrowded future Earth. American ports are swamped by shiploads of starving Asian refugees; a wealthy man's mistress is allowed to pour the juices from his steak on her oatmeal as a special treat.
  • In Fred Hoyle's October the First Is Too Late, a time-traveller from the future explains that civilisations have risen and collapsed half a dozen times since the present day; each time, the civilisation was brought down by overpopulation leading to war.
  • Led to The War of Earthly Aggression in the backstory of the RCN series. Earth was so overpopulated that it started shipping people to offworld colonies without their consent, which eventually led to a galaxy-wide war that ended in a new dark age and Earth being so thoroughly bombarded with asteroids that the continents were rendered unrecognizable. Adele once wryly observes that, technically, Earth got what it wanted.
  • In ''Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner the world is so overcrowded that people with minor birth defects can't get permits to breed.
    • In The Sheep Look Up by the same author, the problem manifests as extreme pollution.
  • In The Starchild Trilogy by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson, the population of Earth has reached the thirteen billion mark, and the only thing which has prevented chaos and a massive die-off is the dictatorial control of the powerful computer known as "The Plan of Man".
  • In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick, all the planets of the solar system have been colonized, but Earth is still so overpopulated that the government has had to institute a draft to get people moving to the colonies fast enough. Life on the colonies isn't terrible, but it's harsh enough that volunteers don't begin to keep up with Earth's needs. Deferments are available for those with sufficiently important jobs, but this just adds an extra fear to the fear of losing your job.
  • In "Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow" by Kurt Vonnegut, overpopulation is connected to the invention of a medicine called anti-gerasone, which stops the aging process and people no longer die of old age and related diseases as long as they keep taking it. It's is cheap and easily obtained, made from mud and common flowers. The world now suffers from severe overpopulation, lack of living space and shortages of food and resources.
  • Three of George R. R. Martin's Tuf Voyaging stories (''Loaves and Fishes", "Second Helpings" and "Manna from Heaven") chronicle Haviland Tuf's encounters with the people of the planet S'uthlam. Their religion has the doctrine that all life is sacred and that humans should, therefore, breed as much as possible. As a result, their planet is dangerously overpopulated. The government repeatedly tries to seize Tuf's Lost Technology bio-warship to use in conquering other planets and relieving population pressure, he tries to appease them by providing new food sources and the third and last time he adds a Sterility Plague to the new crops.
  • In the Warrior Cats prequel series Dawn of the Clans, the series starts with the Tribe of Rushing Water suffering from overpopulation: the Tribe has grown too big to survive on the amount of prey that their environment can provide, and cats are starving to death. Their leader has a vision of new lands teeming with prey, and half the Tribe leaves, eventually becoming the forest Clans, while the other half remains in their mountain home and is able to support themselves better with fewer mouths to feed.
  • The setting for The White Men, is a dystopian future version of Denmark, which underwent such a crisis and transformed into a fascist state where the State Sec, the titular "White Men", kills off anyone who they deem unfit to live, which includes the handicapped and chronically-ill, people who commit any sort of crime, even minor ones, anyone who reaches the age of 65, and even students who fail to pass their exams with a high enough grade. Throughout the story, it becomes evident that even if these draconian and inhumane policies were at some point necessary to solve the crisis, that is definitely not the case any more, as the country currently teeters on the edge on of a serious underpopulation crisis, and it is obvious that the fascist government only still upholds them as a means of controlling the leftover population through the fear they instil in them.
  • Isaac Asimov wrote The Winnowing which has six billion people on the planet, and famines are thus widespread. While that prediction has shown to be wrong in Real Life, at the time of its writing it was definitely an example of this trope.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Aftermath: The episode "Poppulation Overload" explores exactly this, when the population of Earth spontaneously doubles overnight. At first humanity tries to cope by rationing resources and rapidly expanding construction, but eventually society breaks down, resulting in huge population movements and an eventual Depopulation Bomb.
  • In "The Mark of Gideon", an Anvilicious episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, the crew visit a planet which is so overpopulated that even the president's office has a crowd of people milling around in the background. The people of the planet believe "all life is sacred" and reject birth control. They also have medicine so advanced that people never get sick and live to a very old age.
  • The Outer Limits (1995):
    • In "Manifest Destiny", Earth is severely overpopulated and other planets are being terraformed and colonized as a result.
    • In "Stasis", Earth's severe overpopulation results in its resources being significantly depleted.
  • Overpopulation is what jumpstarts the plot in Terra Nova - the plot being "send some humans through a wormhole to an alternate Earth resembling the cretaceous period."
  • The premise of Torchwood: Miracle Day is that people have stopped dying. Governments do the math and realise that the world population level is going to rise to unsustainable levels within a few years.

  • Pink Floyd's early single "Point Me at the Sky" suggests this scenario for 2005.
    ''If you survive
    Till Two Thousand and Five,
    I hope you're exceedingly thin;
    For if you are stout,
    You will have to breathe out
    While the people around you breathe in.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000
    • Of the Imperium of Man's many, many problems, this is surprisingly not one of them. Yes, many worlds house billions of people in Hive cities, but this is actually encouraged. Most of the logistics and spacing problems are handwaved (e.g. many worlds resort to recycling the dead into edible material), but it recognizes keeping people suppressed, indoctrinated, and packed like sardines is a very efficient way to manage very large populations. It's something of a joke that the Imperium is short on everything but people, and human labor, press-ganged or volunteered, is a major driver of the Imperium's military and industrial forces.
    • Later Edition show that many Hives are supported by other worlds in their system. This is actually played straight on Earth, where the population is so massive that there simply isn't enough food or jobs to go around.
    • Also averted with the Orks. Humanity is the most populous species behind only the Orks, and they manage to support their population by bringing their ecology with them to keep themselves fed, and the occasional mass migration. Also, they have a strong population control in the form of constant violence aimed in all directions.

    Video Games 
  • In Black & White 2, it's not the population itself so much as population density that causes problems. Your citizens will become unhappy if there is insufficient housing or food resources, or if their housing is too tightly packed (e.g. "skyscrapers", really tenements, are efficient with space but bad for happiness, while mansions with lots of space between them make for happy citizens but require lots of building room; villa clusters are generally the best choice).
  • The Ark in Brink is a City on the Water which was originally designed to host a population of 5000, but an influx of refugees due to global warming caused its population to swell to 45000. As a result, many of these refugees were forced to live in poorly designed and shoddily constructed shantytowns, and many feel resentment toward The Founders, Ark's original inhabitants who live in safety and luxury.
  • In Civilization V every city has an assigned number representing its population. Densely populated cities will produce more research and are able to work more tiles and specialist spots. They also produce more unhappiness which, if left to fester will severely decrease your nations growth and golden age frequency. If your citizens are unhappy enough, civil wars might break out.
  • Crusader Kings II:
    • Played with for nomads such as the Khazars and Mongols. The Nomad government form has a special resource called "population" and get bigger armies and increased income the longer it is allowed to grow. Once it reaches 90% of maximum, they gain access to the unique "Nomad Invasion" casus belli which allows them to conquer entire de jure kingdoms from other realms. This essentially means overpopulation is good for the nomads and bad for everyone else (since their cavalry- and horse archer-heavy armies can be difficult to counter).
    • The "Prosperity" measurement added in The Reaper's Due measures wealth and population of a province. Higher Prosperity increases your tax income and can unlock additional holding slots in a province, but also increases the province's vulnerability to epidemics. It also has an opposite form, "Depopulation".
  • Mass Effect:
    • Even after the development of Faster-Than-Light Travel, it's noted In-Universe that in the late 22nd Century, Earth is still vastly overpopulated, with over 11 billion humans and an unknown number of aliens living on the planet, and dealing with problems caused by environmental damage which peaked a century ago. Earth's overpopulation and pollution is mocked by many aliens in the series, as an indication of humanity's inability to get its own "house in order", so to speak. A possible origin for protagonist Commander Shepard is to have grown up in a gang of orphan criminals in a polluted megatropolis on Earth.
    • Drell society collapsed into warlordism due to the overpopulation of their homeworld, which they were unable to escape due to having no element zero. The hanar took pity on them and brought many of the survivors to their own homeworld Kahje as a Servant Race.
      Shepard: Why was your race going extinct?
      Thane: Overpopulation. That must sound trite to you. Humans developed mass effect drive before the problem became acute. Our homeworld, Rakhana, had few resources. We hadn’t even developed fusion power when the soil began to fail from overuse and pollution. The Hanar found us a century ago. They send hundreds of ships. Evacuated thousands of us. Billions more had to be left behind.
      Shepard: What’s the state of Rakhana now?
      Thane: Do you read your philosophers? A man named Thomas Hobbes? “When all the world is overcharged with inhabitants, then the last remedy of all is war, which provideth for every man, by victory or death.” As Rakhana died around them my people slaughtered each other for mouthfuls of water. Crumbs of food.
    • After being uplifted from their homeworld to fight rachni, the Krogans found little opposition that would keep their natural birthrate in check, often overpopulating planets in just a few generations. The Salarians responded by devising a genophage which would make only one in a thousand krogan births viable. It would supposedly revert Krogans' birthrate to what it was back on Tuchanka with all the fatality rates taken into account, which was sustainable... But the Krogans saw this as their descent into a Dying Race, and turned to mercenarism to cope with their natural Blood-knight tendencies... which put their species at actual risk of extinction.
  • Inverted in Pharaoh, and Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom where underpopulation is a much bigger problem: due to the game mechanics, huge populations are easier to maintain by keeping the population happy in attractive, high-density housing rather than vast slums (the basic hut holds 5-20 people, the best high-density housing holds 80). Yes, the people consume more, but the higher population means more people to produce goods at a much faster rate than consumed.
  • In Stellaris: Population can cause no shortage of problems if not handled.
    • As the population working your Empire's jobs increases, the demand for consumer goods and amenities increase. Both are produced by specific jobs which means you need to set aside a subset of your population and economy to keep the rest of the population happy as failing to do this will lower the planet's stability, which lowers production on top of the risk that the unhappy population will turn to crime to get what they want.
    • Overcrowding (as in, too many people, not enough housing) will eventually also erode the stability of the planet, but unless your entire Galactic Superpower is bursting to the brim, the people will generally just move to greener, more spacious pastures. Of course, no one says you have to give the people what they want - if you want to maintain the planet's stability through force, that's perfectly doable
    • Overcrowding is, however, dwarfed by the damage that having too few jobs for a population can present. People without a home generally tend to make do with what they can, but if they don't have a job, they will near invariably turn to a life of crime to keep themselves fed. The game warns you when there's a substantial risk of this and prompts you to give special benefits to the unemployed (Increasing the strain on your ressources) or risk the increased crime (reducing the output of the planet). You can avoid this completely by enacting a policy of civil welfare - which increases population happiness as well as preventing the unemployment crime, but welfare does not come cheap either.

    Web Animation 

    Web Comics 
  • The fear of this — and the damage it could to the planet — is the primary motivation of Malthus, co-leader of the Light Demons, in White Dark Life. As such, he seeks to kill most of the planet's population to ease the strain on the environment.

    Western Animation 
  • In Brickleberry, Squabbits (pink squirrel-rabbit hybrids) after breeding very easily and quickly eat up way too much of the park's grass and having run out of food they resort to eating human flesh to sustain themselves, forcing the Brickleberry crew to exterminate them.
  • In the Ed, Edd n Eddy episode "Flea-Bitten Ed", the Eds agree to clean up Rolf's farm animals but as while Ed is having a severe allergic reaction, two bunnies start multiplying through rapid reproduction and they overwhelm the Cul-de-sac in the end. The Eds got out lucky by managing to escape to the roof (with a TV and couch) and the episode ends with Eddy screaming at the other kids suffocating from the rabbit flood to shut up so he can watch TV.
  • In the Futurama episode "The Birdbot of Ice-Catraz", a wildlife preserve of penguins on Pluto gets covered in liquid dark matter that drastically increases their egg production (and the males start laying eggs too), leading to them overpopulating and an Animal Wrongs Group deciding to give them a Mercy Kill to keep them from exhausting their food supply.

    Real Life 
  • The concern is Older Than Feudalism, having been raised by Plato and Aristotle in the fourth century BC. Note the world population was then around two hundred million, or about the same as present-day Nigeria. To be fair, they were writing from overcrowded Athens.
  • Around the turn of the 19th century, Thomas Robert Malthus warned about overpopulation in his book An Essay on the Principle of Population. Overpopulation became a concern during the Victorian era, with proposed solutions tending to be of the Kill the Poor variety. Malthus' theories were cited to justify Britain allowing the Irish Potato Famine to go on.
  • There was another overpopulation scare in the Cold War era, largely spurred by the 1968 book The Population Bomb. The population of Earth was rising and there would soon be too many people to sustain. Since then technology has marched on along with society and not only is the population growth slowing down (the population is projected to stagnate around the 11th billion), but we also produce more food than ever and the percentage of people living in extreme poverty has never been as low as of this writing.
  • Although the idea of the entire Earth becoming overpopulated has been largely discredited, localized overpopulation has still been a common concern. Many cities are struggling under the increased traffic that increased population brings because the original city was built in such a way that roads which formerly allowed for horse-drawn carts now need to support the eighteen-wheeler trucks and the huge numbers of cars needed to support the population. Add in a need to dig up roads to perform sewer/cable/pipeline maintenance and you have the city equivalent of growing pains.
  • China's One Child Policy was a result of this belief. However due to the culture having it where the males of the family took care of their parents in their elder years, this policy had the side effect of Chinese families killing their child if they gave birth to a daughter, causing a massive imbalance of males to females in the general population. In 2015 the policy was lifted to a two child limit.


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