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Econ 101 – The End of the World

When a college course title includes a number like “101”, you can assume it addresses the subject’s basics.  When you think about it, the end of the world is a pretty basic concept and rather simple to understand.  You can visualize the physical reality any way you wish, an exploding orb in space or maybe a dry, barren, lifeless planet embraced by an endless sand storm.  But if the world as you know it ends tomorrow, the final act really doesn’t matter much because you’re not going to be there to see it. 

I discuss the end of the world beneath the banner of economics because that is the path we’re traveling to get there.  Consider this.  The world’s population is currently more than 6.8 billion people.  Divide that by the theoretically habitable land area on the planet and you’ve got roughly 240 people per square mile.  That’s about two and two-thirds acres per man, woman and child on the planet.

Now before you go out and buy the little pony for the kids, remember this land also has to support you.  It must produce all the food you eat, provide mining space for all the metals and minerals you’re going to want and need.  You’ll have to allocate some of that plot to the manufacturing facilities needed to produce your “stuff”.  Throw in some concrete so you can enjoy your own private little traffic jam and don’t forget to set aside some of that space for the other essentials of American living like miniature golf, paint-ball games, NASCAR, Starbucks, dog parks and adult bookstores.  Suddenly, your little piece of paradise isn’t so big after all. 

Let’s assume (something economists love to do) the population grows at its current rate for say the next eight or so generations.  That is to say you’re the 5th great-grandparent of some future resident.  In the grand scheme of things, that is not very far away.  At that time, the world population will have exceeded 100 billion people.  That is substantially more people than are packed into the men’s room at half-time of the Super Bowl. 

If we assume we haven’t lost any of the currently habitable land (fat chance with global warming raising sea levels), we then have nearly 4,000 people per square mile.  Paradise is now paradise lost. Every man, woman and child on the planet has a little over ten square feet each.  You get to plop everything you need to survive on a plot of land slightly bigger than a square three feet on a side. 

The consummate capitalist believes that with each increment of innovation we can solve more problems than we create.  If someone solved this little brain-teaser, I’d take my hat off to him if only I could find a place to put it.

Optimism is a wonderful thing and clearly has its place in our lives.  But anyone that believes the planet can sustain that level of population has gone beyond optimism; that person is simply nuts, insane.  It can’t happen.  It isn’t going to happen.  It is impossible. 

The alternatives?  No further population growth.  Oh, sure.  Tell that to a nineteen year old genetically programmed to go forth and multiply.  It didn’t work with your parents.  It won’t work with your kids. 

Another alternative?  Learn to live in a more sustainable manner.  That’s right – no more Hummers or SUVs.  Drastically reduce energy consumption.  Ride the bus.  Recycle.  Clamp down on polluters to save the environment.  Hug a tree-hugger.  If this approach doesn’t solve the problems, at least it offers the hope of extending the doomsday deadline.  However, as I look out my window, I see a land-yacht called a Lincoln Navigator waiting to pull out in traffic.  I see pickup trucks driving by that have never been used as work vehicles, only as status symbols in selected social circles.  I see conspicuous consumption everywhere I look.  I see a near total lack of political leadership on the subject.  Will we learn how to live wisely before it’s too late?  Experience and observation don’t offer a lot of hope. 

Another, but more frightening alternative?  Sudden and precipitous changes in the world’s population. Mass death. Two hundred years ago, Thomas Malthus theorized that this is not just an alternative, it is the ONLY alternative.

“The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.”

We can’t continue to ignore the inevitable if we want to mitigate human suffering.  We have no choices in the mid-term.  Mathematically, economically, there are no other alternatives.  We can be smart or we can continue to dance as our great ship of fate lists further and further to starboard. 

One frightening difference between today’s world and the world of Malthus – the societal collapses of his time weren’t necessarily global in nature.  They tended to impact isolated populations in isolated countries on isolated continents.  Look at Easter Island. 

In today’s world, populations are no longer isolated.  The calamity we face is one of global proportions.  The warm-up acts include Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Blackwater, Bird-flu, cancer, DDT and other rising stars.  But with globalization and our technologically flat world, we’re playing with unavoidable disaster that will impact all of civilization the world over. 

If you still chose to pretend global warming isn’t real, enjoy the ride.  You’re about to drive over the cliff.  With any luck, some of your fellow citizens with a little more insight and common sense may put forth a Herculean effort and stem the tide at least for a while.  But you’d better be ready to cough up the keys to your Hummer buddy.  The laws of economics aren’t going to leave you a choice.  In the meantime, mankind has a choice.  Enjoy these last days at the rodeo or get your heads out of the dark space and wake up fast. 

The truth is we’re still at a point where with fast, intelligent action, we may be able to at least have some control on how we ride this out and how long it will take.  But if we don’t act now, we chose the ultimate alternative – the end of the world. 

The Captain has advised us we may experience some turbulence ahead.  Please fasten your seatbelts and put your heads between your knees.  It’s going to be a rough landing.

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