Too many people + unbridled consumption = trauma for billions

Does disaster loom, brought on by population increases and a governing economic system predicated on ever more growth?

Scratch a problem involving homo sapiens. Smog choking cities. Carbon dioxide and methane warming atmosphere or ocean. Forests rapaciously slashed. No fish where fish used to be. Nuclear waste with no safe home (ever). Pollution everywhere. Children without education. Billions of poor without hope or safe drinking water or adequate food. Disease and death induced by the absence of health care.

And wars. Plenty of wars.

In such examples of human trauma amid conflicts over life-sustaining resources, there’s a centrality rarely discussed.

Too. Many. People.

When I was born, in 1946, America housed just over 141 million people. Today, the 50 states approach 320 million people. Despite a declining birth rate, America gains a person every 16 seconds, thanks largely to the admission of about 1.5 million legal foreign workers each year.

When I was born, the Earth had about 2.5 billion people. The Census Bureau anticipates 9.3 billion people globally in 2050. That would be almost a four-fold increase in the people Earth would seek but likely fail to adequately support.

Fail, you say? Look around you. There’s adequate evidence our stewardship of the planet is one enormous clusterfuck. From the warming of the atmosphere and the oceans, to the Texas-sized Great Pacific Garbage Patch of plastic debris, to the temporary and risky storage of more than 55,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste at more than 121 sites in 39 states in America alone, to the highest rate of concentration of greenhouse gases in a quarter of a century. (By the way, we cut down enough trees each year to contribute about a tenth of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Imagine that: We cut down that which would mitigate the warming of the planet. We may have opposable thumbs, but we sure as hell aren’t the smartest species on Earth.)

These can be linked to consumption — often unbridled consumption — tied to population increases and our governing economic system predicated on ever more growth.

If our species was more egalitarian and far less selfish, perhaps such a pending increase in homo sapiens would be less of an issue. But we are greedy little bastards. We will take as much as we can get of available resources. We induce scarcity.

And a few of us get a helluva lot more.

Just 1 percent of the world’s population — that’s about 37 million people, about the population of California — controls nearly half of the world’s wealth. The richest 85 people on the planet control about $1 trillion in wealth — about the same as the world’s poorest 3.5 billion people. These 85 people are nation-states unto themselves.

The consequences of population growth are inextricably tied to the inequities of global wealth. Spread the global wealth of about $270 trillion evenly across the world’s population, and perhaps better decisions are made about resource sharing.

But wait! you shout. You want to kill off capitalism! You want communism! You’re a goddamned socialist! You want to take wealth away from those who earned it and give it to those who did not! You want a Star Trek future where everyone’s got the same stuff!

Well, that criticism’s a stretch. I believe in fair reward for fair work. But I’m among those who want billions more people to be socially, culturally, politically, economically, and morally productive. I want more people of all cultures and ethnicities to have far more influence about creating a sustainable population that makes wiser use of the planet’s resources. (And I’d like more people to be able to pay more taxes so I don’t pay as much as I do now.)

Ask: Is the issue of population growth too often quietly labeled as being about too many poor people instead of just too many people? As riches accrue to the few at the top of the global wealth pyramid, the poor at its base increases.

Human beings are all about differentiation — how can I be different (read better off) than everyone else? That’s selfishness. That’s greed. At the highest end of the wealth scale, it can be at best amoral and at worst evil.

That just sucks. And I’m embarrassed. I do okay. I can pay my bills and buy things I want but do not necessarily need. Hey, that’s at the heart of capitalism, isn’t it? Disposable income ready for whatever new gadget the ads say we need? We are bred to consume. We are conditioned to get more stuff. We obey the omnipresent advertising. The more we haves consume beyond our needs, the more we stress resources worldwide, leaving less for the have-nots.

As Earth bears more people and our capitalistic resource-depletion engine continues to fail to reflect a higher morality, wealth inequities will increase. We’ll continue to fuck over the planet. Billions of people will be born suffering from deprivation of everything and die suffering from even less of everything.

Homo sapiens is a selfish species. If the lives, no, the life styles of too many of the haves become compromised by scarcity, will they look at the have-nots? Will they see too many resources expended on those whom, they may believe, amount to nothing more than cogs in the machine of capitalistic production? Will the haves see their own excesses not as resource wasting but instead as a perpetual right?

Perhaps they’ll begin to think: Too. Many. Poor. People.

I wonder what they’ll do.

photo credit: James Cridland via Creative Commons

2 replies »

  1. Righteous, Denny. Righteous – and I mean that in the most hippy-dippy tree hugging, wishing well for my fellow inhabitants of the planet use of the word.

  2. Malthus. The problem with helping the poor is it just creates more poor. It sucks and it breaks my heart, but the Bible was right. Matthew 26:11