July 28 is Earth Overshoot Day. As of that day, for the rest of 2022, human economic activity will be using the planet’s resources beyond its capacity to renew them. Humans now consume things like wood, water, and soil at nearly twice the rate the planet can support.
We’re also fast approaching climate overshoot, beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, by 2030. The Climate Overshoot Commission will meet several times this year to discuss ways to keep that from happening. Meanwhile the World Meteorological Organization calculates a 50 percent chance of touching the 1.5 degree threshold by 2026. Recent intensified storms, fires, floods, and droughts are all symptoms of the fever.
The dominoes are falling. Resource consumption drives climate change, and the biggest driver of consumption is population growth. Strategies for perpetual economic growth demand ever increasing consumption, requiring more and more people, pushing us into overshoot.
National economic growth policies rely on a pyramid scheme—stoking GDP growth with population growth. Population growth brings more people into the economy, and a larger economy creates an illusion of wealth and prosperity, when the reality is there are only a few big winners. Like the classic Ponzi scheme, the originator and those at the head of the line benefit; late entrants get left holding the bag.
In the 1960s, the idea of obvious unsustainability of population growth leading to world famine and a crash in the 1970s and 1980s was known as “The Population Bomb.” But advances in family planning, birth control, and women’s empowerment cut in half worldwide the average number of children per woman. A lower population resulted, so the predicted famine and crash didn’t materialize.
But we’ve continued exceeding the planet’s capacity to meet demand for food, water, and natural resources, and to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions. This heaped huge costs on future generations, which are now coming due.
The Ponzi scheme is still running global economics for maximum consumption and perpetual growth. Nature is ignored, while future generations of human beings are discounted to drive GDP growth. Today’s children, latecomers to the Ponzi scheme, were born into a world with abysmal levels of literacy and education, crashing ecologies, massive inequity, and failing democracies.
The scheme is built on a lie: that the decision to have children is a private matter. The truth is, having children creates public consequences. Growth today on a finite planet means less to go around tomorrow. The smallest slices of pie get cut at the most crowded tables.
Realizing this, some are choosing to not to have children. They’re concerned about worsening conditions children will face. But as a group of Nobel laureates also recognizes, population growth is the biggest threat to the planet, and that should factor into reproductive decisions.
Safety and equity for future generations requires a smaller, more sustainable population. Achieving this requires funding family planning, incentivizing parental readiness, spacing births, encouraging smaller families, empowering women and girls. Such approaches yield greater returns than any other investment except trade liberalization.
Population growth is now forecast to top out at 10.4 billion people by around 2080 before leveling off. It may start declining around 2100. Even if we consciously choose to have fewer children and reach that inflection point sooner, there will still be billions more children born in this century who will face daunting resource scarcity and inequity. But there are practical steps we can take now toward making their lives more equitable. We could expand Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.)’s baby bonds proposals to level the playing field for all kids.
A few of us are proposing that those who benefited most from the Ponzi scheme to pay some of it forward. Future children represent the majority of humans who will ever live on the planet, so their interests outweigh ours. That’s a compelling argument for clawing back some wealth to create fairer, more cooperative, prosocial conditions for children in the future.
For the billions who will join us on the planet in this century, pursuing equity means putting a lien on today’s great concentrations of wealth, to defray the costs the wealthy are imposing on future generations. This act of liberation at the beginning of each human life advances intergenerational, environmental, and reproductive layers of justice. It’s a path to a viable—rather than a ghastly—future. We should choose to take it.
Carter Dillard is the policy director of the Fair Start Movement and author of Justice as a Fair Start in Life: Understanding the Right to Have Children.
Carl Safina is president of the Safina Center and endowed professor for nature and humanity at Stony Brook University.
The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.