Overpopulation Is No Laughing Matter

Executive Director’s Corner

Dear All:

In The People Who Hate People, Jerusalem Demsas of the Atlantic writes:

“Although major organizations have abandoned population management as an explicit policy goal, the underlying fear that too many people are running up on the limits of too few resources and Well shouldn’t someone do something about that? has never fully been rooted out of American political thought. It is alive and well among NIMBYs. Of all the objections people raise to new housing and infrastructure, perhaps the most risible is that their community is already too crowded. Some even suggest that municipalities should limit housing supply explicitly to combat population growth.”

Demsas argues the concerns over carrying capacity and resource overshoot were not only misplaced but wrong, time and time again. As example, she cites claims made by Paul Ehrlich in his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, that never came to pass.

I would counter that Ehrlich wasn’t wrong, but rather his timing was off. He didn’t take into consideration the extent to which humans can tease out ever harder-to-get-at nonrenewable natural resources (NNRs) from our earth and oceans.

Case in point is fossil fuel. The U.S. reached “peak” oil extraction between 1965 and 1970. Afterward, we became increasingly dependent on the Middle East. According to money and finance reporter Will Kenton, “in the traditional vision of peak oil, the production decline accelerates as the cost of extracting new reserves grows.”

In 2008, the U.S. relied on foreign countries for 57% of its oil. However, during the Trump administration, we became for all intents and purposes a net exporter. It was a new dawn for “Saudi America!”

But it wasn’t that we’d discovered new reserves, rather we started using hydraulic fracking technologies to extract oil from what were once considered played out fields.  Fracking has certainly bought us time, but it’s not a long-term solution. Fracked oil wells deplete far faster than conventional ones, declining by  50% in their first year and 30% in their second.

Moreover, fracking is an expensive proposition relative to conventional oil drilling. To make economic sense, a barrel of oil must fetch a price north of $80. It’s been said oil priced south of $70 a barrel kills oil companies and oil priced north of $70 a barrel kills economies.

If you’re thinking there’s plenty of fuel to continue powering our freeway systems and Disneyland far into the future, you’re in for a rude awakening. The better alternative is to begin to right scale consumption to meet future availability of NNRs, not future demand.

The complex supply chains and copious fossil fuel inputs (think fertilizer) that have evolved to feed the world’s 7.8 billion humans are already under enormous pressure and I’m not even talking about the shocks we’re facing from the result of our response to Covid-19, the drought in the Southwest and the Russia/Ukraine war.

For instance, 51% of fish consumed are freshwater fish and freshwater fish populations are collapsing.  According to World Wildlife Fund, “Nearly 1/3 of all freshwater fish are threatened with extinction. In 2020 alone, 16 freshwater fish species were declared extinct. Since 1970, mega-fish—those that weigh over 66lbs—have declined in number by 94% and migratory freshwater fish saw a 76 % decline.”

So, is the long-term solution to stop eating fish?

The green revolution that boosted crop yields has largely been dependent on breakthroughs in crop technology and more importantly, fossil fuel derived fertilizers. We’re currently seeing the fertilizer prices quadruple in the face of production hiccups caused by the Russia/Ukraine War and China’s decision to embargo the export of fertilizers and fertilizer inputs.

When fertilizer inputs go down, so do yields. One solution might be to bring more acres under cultivation. But according to Adam Wernick of The World, “in the last 20 years, more than 11 million acres of U.S. farmland have been converted, fragmented or paved over by development projects.”

Unlike sub-Saharan Africa, the U.S. can effectively change the trajectory of population growth by simply enforcing immigration law and restricting future immigration to a number that buys us time, ensures we don’t run out of NNRs, and enables us to maintain the quality of life to which we’re accustomed. Currently, 80% of our population growth stems directly from immigrants and the children of immigrants.

Before you call me out for hating on immigrants, know that I am the son of an immigrant and when my mother came here in 1952, it was a good time for both immigrants and native born. We built the middle class, and we did this because immigration policy was well regulated and restrictive. Today it is anything but that.

A casual look at cities, regions and states that boast high levels of immigrants, legal and illegal, demonstrates that unbridled immigration doesn’t work for anyone except corrupt politicians and captains of industry who want a readily exploitable supply of labor that allows them to maximize profit and reduce liabilities.

My case in point is Los Angeles County, California. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the illegal immigrant population of Los Angeles County is estimated at 951,000 of which about half come from Mexico. The state of California is home to some 11,000,000 immigrants of which about 22% are in the country illegally.

Another concerning data point coming from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), “among working-age Californians (age 25–64), foreign-born residents accounted for 70% of those without a high school diploma.” Therefore California’s economy may be outperforming all other states, but its level of income inequality exceeds that of all but five states. In Los Angeles County, families at the top of the income distribution have almost 12 times the income of families at the bottom.

The prospect for lowering income disparity isn’t looking good if one considers 64% of entry-level jobs in Los Angeles County don’t require anything more than a high school degree. So, if 64% of jobs require just a high school degree and nothing more (no trade school or additional certifications), what does that say about the jobs being created in Los Angeles County? And what does it bode for Los Angeles County’s employment future?

In my humble opinion, it doesn’t bode well for Los Angeles County, California, or the nation for that matter. A skilled worker, whether they earned a college degree or have a trade, will earn more money, and enjoy greater job security than those who only possess a high school diploma.

The median price for a home in Los Angeles County has gone from $212,855 in 1991, to $800,960 in 2022. Obviously, the rise in home price is not the result of rising incomes. Rather, I believe it is a response to demand, the kind of demand that comes from a population that has grown from 8,863,052 in 1990 to 10,014,009 in 2020.

According to LA2050, since 2010, income inequality in Los Angeles has risen. Currently, the Gini coefficient for Los Angeles is .50. The Gini coefficient ranges from 0, indicating perfect income equality, to 1, total income inequality.

But there’s a bright spot in all this. California’s population is beginning to decline. Sadly, it’s because the productive classes are pulling up stakes and moving to different states. In much the same way that most people who immigrate to the U.S. today are fleeing their overcrowded and poverty-stricken home countries, Californians are fleeing their overcrowded state.

According to a PPIC report titled, Who’s Leaving California-and Who’s Moving In, “since 2015, among interstate movers who cite housing as the primary reason, California has experienced net losses of 413,000 adults (according to the Current Population Survey). Net losses among those who cite jobs as the primary reason totaled 333,000 and among those who cite family 239,000.  The PPIC Statewide Survey finds that 37% of Californians have seriously considered leaving the state because of housing costs.”

Being too crowded is not the laughing matter Ms. Demsas thinks it is. While we may not be witnessing the kind of collapse Ehrlich predicted in 1968, we are experiencing what I consider to be catabolic failure. We haven’t gone over the cliff just yet, but we are experiencing the kind of degradation that gets worse year over year. In this way, the bad days become the good old days in what is now the downward spiral that’s life in these United States.

Ms. Demsas mentions Ehrlich’s predictions for England. I would argue, just because the UK didn’t become a small group of impoverished lands by the year 2000 doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen. It’s just a matter of timing.

Recently, I was reviewing a February 2008 presentation authored by Kenneth Cohen, Head of Commercial Mortgage-Backed Securities (CMBS) for Lehman Brothers. In it, he boasted that Lehman was one of the top lead underwriters of CMBS, that CMBS were the fatted calf of the financial community, and that companies like Lehman couldn’t get enough of them. Then, in what appeared to be an instant to some, Lehman declared bankruptcy in September of that year. The cause was their exposure to CMBS and credit default swap trades.

Truth be told, CMBS had their critics. The CEO of Comerica Bank refused to trade in them saying he wouldn’t trade an instrument he didn’t fully understand. And others like me saw that the real estate market was signaling trouble in 2006 and hedged accordingly.

The overpopulation problem is no different. Ehrlich understood the end game and sounded the alarm. Ms. Demsas might pine for a “climate-conscious built environment” but, like other delusional thinkers, she’s going to run up against the laws of physics. And nifty catchphrases always lose to physics.

The tagline of the site ZeroHedge states, “On a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”  For other “population alarmists” who may be losing faith, I would add that if we do not address the impact of population on sustainability, on a long enough timeline the survival of our modern industrial society will drop to zero!

In solidarity.

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