Population overshoot is behind many of our most pressing economic problems. But the best intelligent response faces terrible obstacles.

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The most disheartening story in today’s Seattle Times today is about the 38 million pieces of trash, almost all plastic, strewn on remote and uninhabited Henderson Island in the Pacific Ocean. When some future alien starship discovers post-apocalyptic Earth, their first impression will be, “What a bunch of slobs once lived here.”

This story can be told in many ways: A runaway consumer culture, globalization and the 10,000-mile supply chain, more affluence even in developing nations, environmental catastrophe from polluting the oceans. But don’t forget the latest estimate of the planet’s population: 7.5 billion. At the turn of the 19th century, it was only 1 billion. It took more than another century to add another billion. Since then, the billions have been piling on with astonishing speed. The world held “only” a little more than 6 billion in 2000.

Virtually every major problem, from climate change and wars to mass migrations and resource scarcity has its root in too many people. Economics are not immune. The lowered prospects of the politically potent white working class, for example, have much to do with millions overseas who can do the same jobs for a fraction of the cost. When you hear about theories of “secular stagnation” and the like, think 7.5 billion.

The enormous and growing costs of human-caused climate change are juiced by those 7.5 billion. Globalization has created large middle classes in nations such as China and India — and its members want the sprawly car-dependent “American lifestyle” and the rights to their share of the atmosphere to heat in order to get it. The greatest deprivation, and lost economic potential, happens in countries with the biggest population overshoot.

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Don’t think America is immune, either. The Southwest is at population overshoot and directly in the path of climate change. Possibly the Southeast, too, beyond soon-to-be-submerged Florida. They’ll be moving here in the coming decades unless they go back to the Midwest and Northeast (so our mantra must be: “Seattle, it’s cold and rainy all the time”).

The most constructive response is to have societies where women have control over their bodies, including having access to birth control and abortion. Yet we have reached this population crisis at the same moment as religious fundamentalism has revived and, in many places, muscled out or exterminated moderate opposition. Women are considered little more than baby-making chattel in many nations, the ones that most need lower populations. This, as much as advances in medicine and agriculture, is to blame for population overshoot.

President Trump revived the Reagan-era ban on foreign aid for organizations that offer counseling on family planning that includes abortion. A powerful faction in the Republican Party also opposes most forms of birth control. Trump and the GOP show a curious lack of care for the fetus once it is born and needs, say, health care. Interestingly, abortion rates have declined sharply in advanced nations. In the United States, it is at the lowest level since the procedure was legalized by the Supreme Court in 1973.

Conservatives such as William F. Buckley used to argue that every new life was an asset, not a cost. And people of good will can certainly disagree over abortion. But when the new lives are born into radicalized traditional societies, where is their opportunity? And whatever the argument over abortion, the United States and advanced nations should be doing more to make birth control available in the developing world and advance the rights of women (offending our powerful Saudi “allies”). Nations with a modicum of freedom for women prosper…and birth rates go down. Those same nations turn economics from a zero-sum game into wide prosperity and breakthroughs.

Henderson Island is another marker for the slow crisis enveloping our larger common island in the black outland of space, and we have no lifeboats.


Today’s Econ Haiku:

Wall Street just woke up

Bullish greed is put on hold

While Don gores himself