7 Billion People: A Growing Number of Assets or Liabilities?
In the long run, the biggest economic issue facing the planet today is not the fate of the euro, the price of oil, or the housing market, but the growth of the human population, i.e. overpopulation. The crux of the issue of the planet's overpopulation cuts to the heart of what we regard as the human journey. As such, we would do well to analyze the issue of overpopulation from the proper perspective.
The Issue of Overpopulation
According to the Guardian, "The United Nations will warn this week that the world's population could more than double to 15 billion by the end of this century, putting a catastrophic strain on the planet's resources unless urgent action is taken to curb growth rates". Such warnings regarding overpopulation come as an ominous herald given the planet's other current problems including increasing energy usage, water scarcity, the threat of wars involving weapons of mass destruction, climate change, and international terrorism.
According to the Guardian, the prospect of the world doubling its population by 2100 shocks some academic experts. From the article: "Roger Martin, chairman of Population Matters, which campaigns on population control, said that the Earth was entering a dangerous new phase. 'Our planet is appraoching a perfect storm of population growth, climate change and peak oil.'" Martin stated that the planet "is not actually sustaining 7 billion people".
Economist Jeffrey Sachs recently commented in a CNN article on the prospect of living on a planet filled with 7 billion people. Sachs: "A rising population puts enormous pressures on a planet already plunging into environmental catastrophe. Providing food, clothing, shelter, and energy for 7 billion people is a task of startling complexity." Sachs paints a dire picture of the human journey going forward if the world population continues its rapid rise: "The consequences for humanity could be grim."
Furthermore, Sachs notes that the economic challenges facing the planet with 7 billion people living on it are immense. In this way, "the world's agricultural systems are already dangerously overstretched". From Sachs' perspective, when families in poor societies "have six or eight children, many or most of them are virtually condemned to a lifetime of poverty". Even so, from my perspective, wealth and poverty in a human's lifetime can be relative.
To deal with current overpopulation concerns and ensuring a quality planet for future generations, Sachs offers a solution with two parts. The first part deals with changing technologies so that each human puts "less environmental stress" on the planet. This means using low-carbon energy sources such as the sun or wind for going about our daily business. The second part is "the stabilization of the global population". This means reducing the fertility rates across the planet -- thereby decreasing the number of children. Sachs: "The reduction of fertility rates should be encouraged in the poorer countries as well". Sachs suggests that voluntary means for reducing high fertility rates include things like modern family planning and contraceptives.
In light of the specter of overpopulation and global catastrophes, Sachs states that "we face an urgent task: to adopt more sustainable technologies and lifestyles, and [to] work harder to achieve a stable population of some 8 billion or so by mid-century, rather than the current path, which could easily carry the world to more than 10 billion by 2100".
Is the Planet Really Overpopulated?
On the topic of overpopulation, a recent editorial in the New York Sun suggested that America is actually underpopulated. From the editorial: "America just has enormous room for population growth." The author of the editorial suggests that in comparing the population density of America to that of India or China, America must have abundant space for further population growth.
While the editorial makes no mention of differences in land quality, housing patterns, agricultural issues, water supply comparisons, or geography, the author appears to have relied on the raw numbers of population density in comparing the US to India and China. To back up the argument that America has so much space for population growth, the author cited the Wikipedia page on population density.
While the US does have quite a bit of space for more population growth, the question of whether or not that space is actually habitable is not answered in the editorial. I would highly doubt that the author of the editorial (or anyone else for that matter) would want to move up to northern Alaska to embrace all this glorious living space the US has to offer. Nevertheless, the author of the editorial raises a pertinent point to the prospect of overpopulation.
Agricultural, energy, or water issues aside, the problem with contemporary analyses on overpopulation is that such analyses are usually based in the contemporary mindset of functional needs, way of life, housing, reproduction, technology, and energy usage. Contrary to popular belief, humans do not need cars, cell phones, televisions, indoor plumbing, electricity, and computers to survive. As I have repeatedly discussed before, the question of reproduction is definitively the primary issue with respect to political economy in a human society. In the basic form of the human experience, the struggle for survival of the species is the actual economy in which humans toil. Though the issue of the perpetuation of the species may hardly be mentioned in a treatise on economics, it is the center of the metaphorical solar system around which all the other numerous & complex spheres such as housing, agriculture, education, labor, energy, and production revolve.
That being the case, to frame the question of overpopulation in terms of contemporary needs and current technology does not give due justice to the viability and innovative capabilities of the human species going forward. As Friedrich Engels once wrote regarding overpopulation: "In short, if we want to be consistent, we must admit that the earth was already overpopulated when only one man existed." Thus, overpopulation goes beyond the question of a "sustainable population" in a given region; overpopulation goes beyond even the question of population density. If we are going to frame overpopulation on a global scale, then we have to first get all the cards on the table. This means taking into account the course of nature, technological development, and changes in the human journey.
The bottom line is that Nature is ultimately in control of the planet Earth and not humanity, and if indeed in the scope of Nature the human species is worth allowing to survive, then humanity will indeed survive -- with the agreement and consent of Nature. If not, then Nature has plenty of ways to deal with overpopulation. For the sake of this article, I need not go into the brutal details of how Nature could execute a plan to thin the herd of humanity. To say the least, Nature has a sufficient array of tools at its disposal to accomplish such a task.
The fact that Nature has not yet wiped out humanity appears to suggest that perhaps humanity is not so much of a threat to the planet. Nature does know how to take care of its own. And we do live in an emergent and symbiotic universe after all. In the end, if humanity as an intelligent form of life is meant to survive in this universe, it will find a way to survive -- with or without overpopulation.
Coming Face-To-Face With Overpopulation
If we are going to discuss the prospect of overpopulation, we have to give due deference to the adaptable, innovative, and creative abilities of humanity. On an economic level, where we can compare individual humans to being assets and/or liabilities, we have to show human life in all forms due respect and we have to cherish the inherent value of human life going forward.
Just as children can be compared in economic terms to being "normal goods" or "inferior goods", so too can individual humans be compared to being assets and/or liabilities in this great struggle to perpetuate our species. As humanity continues to evolve, many individuals can demonstrate that they are assets in the perpetuation of the human race and also the expansion of intelligence in the universe. The greater the number of humans living, the greater the number of potential assets to the human race in the struggle for the species' perpetuation. This means that in the future, steps can be taken by innovative humans to creatively build ships that can travel to outer space or construct platforms upon which human societies can flourish (such as in seasteading colonies).
If scientists and economists choose to discuss overpopulation, then they should do so while also addressing ongoing efforts such as seasteading, aquaponics, and arcologies. There are ways around what we view today as overpopulation, and those ways have to be unlocked by human intelligence -- which means that we will require, yes, more humans! If overpopulation (as discussed by economists like Thomas Malthus) is bound only to the issue of scarcity, then we will have to concede that the world will always be overpopulated owing to perceived scarcity courtesy of humanity's doing. The problem of scarcity rests not in the inherent nature of the Earth, but in the inherent nature of mankind. If we can embrace alternative methods to accomplish efficient economy in human living by using technology, creativity, and intelligence, then I believe in the future humanity will be able to make the issue of overpopulation as extinct as the issue of "tooth worms". (In case you didn't know, humans used to believe that tooth decay and cavities were caused by "tooth worms" living in one's mouth; with the rise of modern dentistry, many were shocked to learn that there is no such as "tooth worms".)
Rather than getting bogged down in doomsday, dismal, and dark projections of an overpopulated, crowded planet where we're all eating soylent green, why don't we use our energy and our brains to figure out ways to get humanity off this planet? Where the fact that humanity is bound to this planet currently is quite suspect, we would do well in using our intelligence to figure out better and more efficient ways of living today. As Stephen Hawking has said, humanity's future is in outer space. Humanity cannot get bogged down with global catastrophes this early in the game when there is an entire galaxy left to colonize. Therefore, we must put the issue of overpopulation in the proper temporal context, and we must frame the question of overpopulation with due respect for Nature and deference to the ever-innovative capacity of mankind.
If we choose to discuss overpopulation without also keeping in mind the innovative power of humanity, the ever-evolving nature of reality, and the strength of natural forms of population control, then we are not living up to our true intellectual potential. Therein lies the true rub: humanity living up to its true potential. If humanity develops and evolves to one day live up to its true potential on this planet and in the rest of the universe, then hopefully by that point overpopulation will not be an issue.
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