Population, debt: Problems so big, they defy solutions

Ron Smith says overpopulation and global debt are not problems to be solved but conditions we have to live with

July 14, 2011|By Ron Smith

The world's elite have a problem so big it can't even be hinted at in public discussion: There are now too many people to manage. Seven billion and counting, billions more than are needed for human societies to flourish — and thus, most dispensable in this age where technology enables ever more work to be done by ever fewer workers.

Global population is projected to increase by 50 percent by 2050, and despite the ongoing pretense that natural resources are infinite, the fact is they are not, and the smart people know this.

Actually, to describe this as a problem doesn't do justice to the scope of the situation. Indeed, it is a situation, or a condition, because calling something a problem implies there is a solution to it. If there is no solution, there is no problem.

Over the last few years, the reputation of preacher/mathematician Thomas Malthus has been somewhat restored after decades of disdain for the man who first made the case that overpopulation would inevitably lead to widespread starvation, wars, epidemics of disease — a massive die-off of humans.

Malthus famously said, in a 1789 essay, "Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometric ratio. Subsidence increases only in an arithmetical ratio." In other words, the number of people inevitably outstrips the food supply.

Western technological innovation, spurred by the discovery of oil, enabled such a gain in crop yields and such extraordinary developments in transport that the human population has been able to expand as it has during the era of cheap energy the better part of the last two centuries.

Hence, Malthus became a figure of scorn, a false prophet of doom. He laid out ways of controlling population in his essay, but it is the sentence above quoted that stands out.

Some people, like Scandinavian futurist Jorgen Ostrom Moller, writing in the American Interest in 2008, suggest Malthus may have been right, just two centuries early in his predictions.

Mr. Moller believes "shortages in agriculture, energy and raw materials will prove manageable," but water supply and environmental degradation may make many habitats uninhabitable.

Being a good leftist, Jorgen Moller suggests that the right combination of taxes and some kind of one-world government could manage this threat. Maybe this is some of what is talked about at Davos and other gatherings of the best and the brightest.

The exploding debt crisis in the developed world is another instance of a situation far too big to be called a mere problem. It is a condition in which we live and with which our leaders desperately try to cope. And if you don't think they're desperate, you're not paying attention.

This week, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke hinted strongly that another dose of dollar dilution, to be called QE 3, may be on the horizon if the economy continues to struggle over the next few months.

This, despite the fact that the first two quantitative expansions of the money supply did nothing at all to make all this nastiness go away. Wasn't it Einstein who suggested if one does something that doesn't work, one should keep doing it until it does?

Oh, no. His message was quite the opposite, wasn't it?

On we trundle, observing that the new San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge is being built in China, in 12 giant sections being shipped to the bay and assembled by American workers.

We hope it works out better than that tainted pet food and the toxic children's toys that were "Made in China" and sent here.

I just mentioned that more work is being done with fewer workers. This is one big reason that increased joblessness is now thought by many economists to be structural, not cyclical.

The New York Times reports that companies are investing in equipment, not in workers, because workers are getting more expensive, while equipment is getting cheaper.

"Firms are responding to incentives," says economist Dean Maki, "and capital has gotten much cheaper relative to labor."

So what's to happen to all the surplus people as this situation worsens? I don't have the answer to that, and I'd bet a whole lot that our leaders are similarly clueless.

Ron Smith's column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His email is rsmith@wbal.com.

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