DEPLETING RESOURCES, LEAPING POPULATION
by Byron W. King
A story in USA Today reports that “The U.S. population will soar to 438 million by 2050.” Most of the population growth will be driven by immigration and live births to immigrants. How depressing. And it ought to make you mad, so that you want to “do something” about it... like build a wall or something.
Really, why is it that the so-called “immigration debate” in the United States is often tied up with terms of race and seldom tied into the discussion of depleting resources and declining infrastructure? If the immigration debate was framed in the latter terms of resource depletion and infrastructure, people would focus on the point that the nation is “full.” The irrefutable fact is that the U.S. resource base is fast-depleting and the infrastructure system is overloaded. There is no more room at this inn. It's time to hang out the equivalent of the “No Vacancy” sign for very some practical reasons.
The United States is already a net food-importer, yet the nation will now – according to the Pew Research study – grow its population from 300 million to 438 million within the next 43 years? In what soil will the food grow? How much food will be imported, and from where, and how will the nation pay for it? With the national credit card, that is now broken?
And while we are discussing eating, let's wash it down. Water is in critical shortage in many regions of the United States, so what will all of these “new” people drink? For that matter, what will the existing population drink? At the other end of the alimentary canal, the U.S. infrastructure of sewers and pollution control systems has long been inadequate. Water and sewer system construction has traditionally lagged population growth even in the best of times. It is both expensive and politically difficult to gain approvals even for replacement sewage systems, let alone new build construction. Really, who wants a sewage treatment plant in their back yard? C'mon...raise your hand.
Let's think about energy. The United States is already the world's largest oil-using nation (21 million barrels per day) and the largest oil importer (13 million barrels), so again... how much more oil will these new immigrants consume? While we are at it, the electricity system is strained to its limits in several regions. Each year, the system requires more and more juggling and wheeling of power just to remain up and running. (For example, within the U.S. power companies move electricity from Montana to California; from North Dakota to Illinois; from Tennessee to South Florida.) From where, and from what power plants (few are being built), will the nation obtain its electricity?
As things stand, the world is at the cusp of long-term oil depletion and output decline (and the high grade coal reserves have been dug and burned as well). Thus the existing U.S. population base will have its work cut out just to maintain some semblance of an energy-based lifestyle for the current numbers. That is, the United States should expect the volumes of oil available on world markets to shrink. There will be less and less oil available to import, and at higher and higher prices. Ditto with coal. And as for “alternative” energy sources? Hey, these are great present investments. But they are lousy overall solutions to the future energy problems of 300 million people, let alone 438 million. Something is going to have to give.
Let's think of some other resource constraints in the United States as well.
Have you tried to find a parking space? The major cities are full-up, surrounded by sprawling suburbs and built-out exurbs. Roads are packed and traffic congestion is chronic. Yet few new roads are being built anywhere – for lack of space, let alone the NIMBY-ism that permeates the culture. The nation is having trouble maintaining its existing road and bridge infrastructure. Yet won't “another” 138 million people need a few more paved roads, bridges, tunnels and exit ramps within the next 40 years or so? Who will build those structures, and how will the nation pay for them?
Where would these roads go in any case? You can already get to most places that you want to go, using a highway or road – in some state or repair or another. But when you arrive at your destination you typically find that much of the formerly rural landscape has been transformed into development and track housing, all of which uses energy and water in wasteful ways that will be untenable in years going forward due to scarcity and high costs. While we are at it, for some strange reason, most of the U.S. population wants to live within 200 miles of a coastline. So let’s add the majority of those 138 million new bodies to the existing coastal bands. Tell me when you feel crowded.
How else can people move about? Not on trains. The U.S. rail system is essentially maxed out with trains hauling freight shipments, hence there is no room in or near any urban area to acquire new railway rights of way. So rail and light rail – which very few Americans currently use in any case – will not grow in any big sense in future years.
Other U.S. public infrastructure – such as the hospital and public health system, court system, public schools and higher education system – are similarly maxed out. The United States can barely serve the population base of 300 million with the existing sets of buildings and personnel. In many jurisdictions, the fact is that the public IS NOT being served in any adequate sense. And in many locales, people are being treated, served and/or allegedly “educated” in trailers, for lack of space in the “real” buildings. Many of the “real” public buildings in the United States are aged and long-past replacement. (In Pittsburgh, for example, no new public high school has been constructed since 1923.)
This does not even address the profound national issues of “borders, language and culture” that will be affected by new waves of mass immigration. 438 million? That number is just too many to allow any sort of society to function on half a continent, mostly near the coastlines. But one could also focus on the “depletion” of the traditional American concepts of national boundaries, or the decline of the nation's common English language and some semblance of an “American” culture based on a shared history. No, if you focus on that kind of thing, people will think that you are talking about immigration in terms of race.
So better just to focus on the fact that an increased U.S. population – from whatever source – will lead to massive shortages of food, water and energy. And the public infrastructure will simply break down. Vast swaths of the country will become unrecognizable slums filled with broken-down housing, bad transportation, and hungry and thirsty people living on the squalid edge of human survival.
Now, let's talk about building that wall...
for The Daily Reckoning