There’s a lot of people running around this planet. We passed seven billion and are climbing towards eight billion. That’s a lot of babies – and think about how many people worked (and played) so hard to make that happen. It isn’t mentioned as much in the media as I think it should be, but that trend is influencing more than ‘just’ the planet. The number of people alive affects personal finances. Supply and demand demand something changes.
My father passed away about four years ago (Donald L. Trimbath, Sr.) He never understood the need for worrying about the climate, limiting our use of resources, or even why one country should worry about what another country is doing. For most of his life, there was little need to worry about how we lived on the planet. Other countries and other people were involved, but that was primarily World War II, a short time that he spent as a Merchant Marine seeing the world and hoping not to get sunk. His world was like that for fifty years, why shouldn’t it be that way for the next fifty?
Scroll back through history and see his perspective. Prior to 1970, prior to the first Earth Day, most people, especially Americans, didn’t worry about using unrenewable resources. He drove trucks for, then managed, petroleum deliveries for more than one company. There was plenty to go around. Prices were low, like $0.37 per gallon, basically one-tenth today’s price. Countries weren’t obviously intertwined, partly because the news didn’t emphasize the complexities, partly because the speed of business was only starting to speed up thanks to jets and telecommunications. Flying was a luxury, and long-distance calls cost a lot. Shop local was the norm.
When he was born, there were fewer than two billion people. There was room (and yet we fought over land.) There was more than enough for everyone – or at least it looked that way.
About the same time as the first Earth Day we also reached the first Earth Overshoot Day.
“Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.“
The fact that people were inspired to celebrate Earth Day and track Earth Overshoot is proof that some people were raising the issue before we even landed on the Moon. The major environmental success on a personal level in America was the anti-littering campaign.
Those people born after 1970 were born into a world where we’re using more than the planet can sustain. That’s been happening for about fifty years. The message is taking a long time to spread, and it has far too far to go. There were just about four billion people in 1970.
We’re approaching eight billion.
Double the supply, and don’t be surprised if prices go down. With population, however, ever bit of supply also creates a bit of demand for the necessities, as well as some luxuries for the fortunate.
One issue captures two aspects of the implications: affordable housing.
Those four billion new people need new housing. The need (demand) has grown while the supply tries to catch up. But, building housing is a risky business. The supply doesn’t always meet demand. It’s too risky because some builder will be the one that builds too many. Too few houses means prices rise. Prices also rise because builders make more money on larger houses, but in modern society, larger houses don’t necessarily house larger populations. Two people living a 6,000 square foot house? Sure. It happens, and frequently such a house is only temporarily occupied.
Those four billion new people need some way to support their lifestyle. They won’t all get jobs, but almost all will work officially or unofficially. In a sustainable environment, maybe the increased population would demand and absorb a larger workforce, but the increased population is happening as we introduce increased automation. Labor-saving is a relief, but on a corporate scale it means greater profits but less spent on labor. While increased mechanization has usually increased the number of jobs, there’s reason to believe that this time is different. “Humans Need Not Apply” is a video that articulates the impact well.
The value of a worker, of a life may be diminishing; at the same time that profits are concentrating. Wealth and income inequality are expanding. Inflation adjusts the numbers, but instead of the current population of billionaires of over 2,000, there were about 200 back then.
Affordable housing may seem like something that can be solved with more housing (sufficient supply can drop the price), but the ‘affordable’ part reflects the other aspect of the reality. People aren’t making enough to buy the houses, though some are making so much that they can buy several regardless of whether they are going to use them.
We are no longer in my Dad’s world.
Population will continue to grow. It’s projected to eventually stabilize at about eleven billion in about 2100, a time frequently used in the news when describing sea level rise and such.
In that time:
- population will increase, possibly lowering the perceived value of each worker
- automation will continue, possibly reducing the demand for workers
- climate change, soil depletion, and several other unsustainable trends will continue, possibly reducing the usable and available for food and housing, thereby increasing the demand and value of the remaining land
- while the only way we have to find more room is on or in the ocean, in space, or on other planets, moons, and asteroids.
At the same time, wealth and income inequality are concentrating those assets in fewer pockets leaving less money to flow through the economy that’s trying to sustain a massive and growing population. Half the wealth of the world is held by fewer than forty people. The other 7,731,901,949 get to divide the rest, and then try to meet basic needs like housing – and food, and education, and health care, and something for fun.
The trend to more people, fewer resources, more disparity, and more powerful technology is something I consider when I look at my personal finances. My Dad understandably lived his life based on his experiences from the majority of his life, even as the fundamentals changed. I’m regularly challenging my assumptions because the change has accelerated. Positive things are happening, like renewable energy and greater social awareness, but those have little direct effect on my life.
I’m no longer as surprised to see how hard it is to get a good job. Many applicants but few are chosen, and those that are chosen are more likely to get a wage that doesn’t fund their necessities. Benefits are treated as luxuries, even as they supply necessities. A few will be lucky enough to get the jobs that pay extraordinarily well. There are enough of them to make the news, but I get the impression that they aren’t the majority.
I’m less surprised that some people see other people as expendable, as if the loss of a life is easily accommodated because there’s such a great supply.
Look back to 1776. The new United States of America had a population of about 2,500,000; basically less than 1% the current population. The “Founding Fathers” are portrayed as icons and visionaries. They were. It was also easier for them to stand out, find common ground (which was easier than today, but far from easy even then), and enact action. Now, standing out when there’s more than one-hundred times as many people is numerically more difficult, though telecommunications helps. Common ground is less common because there’s much greater diversity and awareness of it. Action is interrupted by hundreds of millions of cooks in a very messy kitchen – and we aren’t all cooking to the same menu.
Within the time it takes to add another billion people the climate will have continued to change, there will be fewer resources (unless we mine asteroids – hopefully simultaneously reducing a planetary threat), and technology will continue to advance. I consider these influences as I plan my future, knowing that what worked for my father eventually didn’t work for him, won’t work for me, and that my own assumptions should be challenged regularly and my plans adjusted accordingly. Hang on. I suspect this ride is about to speed up and get very bumpy. Pardon me as I adjust my seat belt.