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Henderson Island, an uninhabited South Pacific atoll, is so isolated as to be practically untouched, ever, by human presence. Yet according to scientists who studied it in 2015, this island is the final resting place for 38 million pieces of mostly plastic trash, with 3,500 pieces washing up daily. The garbage comes from China, South America, Europe, USA --from the world. Ocean plastic entangles marine mammals and fish, is ingested by birds, never degrades and floats for decades. Humans dispose of 8 million tons of plastic in the oceans every year. That's 200,000 large interstate truck loads per year -- and only a tiny fraction of humankind's total trash load on the planet.

Arkansas' groundwater consumption is now unsustainable, according to the 2016 Arkansas Groundwater Protection Report. Important underground aquifers in eastern Arkansas are being drained down at twice their sustainable rate. According to 2010 data, Arkansas was second in the nation in total groundwater usage, behind California and ahead of Texas--an amazing fact in view of Arkansas' relatively small population. Agricultural experts are concerned about the wells running out, but it's difficult to predict when this will happen.

Arkansas' 16,000 miles of highway are deteriorating from use and mostly congested with traffic, especially in Northwest Arkansas. Our state lacks the $150 million per year needed just to maintain what we have. Yet experts predict our four-county region will experience a 52 percent population increase by 2040.

These examples are only a few straws in the wind of a trend that is at once the world's most dangerous yet least discussed: overpopulation. Global problems such as trash, resource use and climate change are roughly proportional to global population, but even tragedies such as warfare and violent religions are exacerbated by population pressures. For example, the genocidal massacre of nearly 1 million Rwandans in 1994 stemmed largely from a population that rose from 1.9 million to 7.5 million during 1948 to 1992, a ruinous 3.2 percent annual increase that turned Rwanda into Africa's most densely populated nation. As topsoil eroded and food production dropped, people became desperate and looked for scapegoats.

America is arguably the world's most overpopulated nation in the sense that our per-capita burden on the planet is largest. We represent only 5 percent of Earth's population yet we use 25 percent of its energy, consume 30 percent of its raw materials, and create 25 percent of global warming. Acclaimed biologist Edward O. Wilson calculates that, if everybody consumed as much as Americans, we would need four more Earths. Our population growth rate of nearly 1 percent per year is high among developed nations and unsustainable even though two-thirds of it arises from immigration. This growth is unhealthy for the world because of each American's heavy impact, and it's unhealthy for America where national population growth drives many social problems.

After global population increased by more than 400 percent during the 20th century, reaching an unsustainable 7.3 billion today, growth is finally turning the corner; it's projected to rise by "only" 50 percent to 11 billion by 2100 -- nearly 4 billion more people than we have today. Four billion is 3 times the population of China. How will we grow the food, produce the energy, create the infrastructure, etc., for three more Chinas?

We can significantly limit overpopulation. The number of children born per couple makes a big difference. For one small comparison, you can reduce your lifetime carbon dioxide emissions by 150 tons by deciding to drive a car that gets 30 instead of 20 miles per gallon, but you can reduce the emissions of your children by 9,000 tons by deciding to have two children instead of three. Your biggest environmental decision is the number of children you will have.

Some readers might believe, on general pro-life grounds, that it's always desirable to maximize the number of births. To them, I would argue that today's overpopulation is likely to produce a disastrous long-run future that will reduce the number of humans born over the long term.

It would save enormous suffering if, for example, if we could bend the population curve down to "only" 10 billion by 2100 instead of 11 billion. The world needs to use its brains instead of its feelings in matters regarding population. The planet is bursting at the seams. Additional sex education would help, widespread promotion of birth control would help, a cultural norm of "stopping at two" (excepting adopted children) would help, and advocating the advantages of stopping at zero or one would help.

Commentary on 06/06/2017

Print Headline: Our overpopulated planet

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