More On: Population
The United States' population growth has reached an all-time low. Here's Why It's Harmful to Humanity
Every new person comes into the world with an empty stomach, two hands, and, most importantly, a brain that can think intelligently and create new knowledge.
The United Nations says that on Nov. 15, 2022, the world's population passed 8 billion for the first time. Some people are against this milestone because they see it as a threat to "sustainable development" and the quality of life around the world.
Some "neo-Malthusians" are using the event to warn about the dangers of overpopulation to the world's food supply and the upcoming famine that will happen because of it. Should we pay attention to any of this hand-wringing?
Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, recently tweeted, "By far, the biggest threat to civilization is a falling birth rate." He went on, "Far too many people think the Earth is overpopulated, even though the way birth rates are going makes it clear that the population is going to crash."
Musk has been giving these kinds of warnings for years, and some people have made fun of him in response.
Musk often doesn't say much more than the obvious: "Without people, there is no future." Or, as he wrote in a tweet earlier this year, "Japan will stop existing if nothing changes to make the birth rate higher than the death rate." It would be a big loss for everyone if this happened." He's right about that.
To keep the population at a replacement level, each woman needs to have an average of 2.1 children over the course of her life. Even though the world's population is still growing, fertility rates are falling in many of the world's most developed countries.
For example, the birth rate in Japan is 1.4. In South Korea, it is 0.9, in Spain it is 1.2, and in Italy it is 1.3. In the meantime, demographer Wolfgang Lutz and his colleagues at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis think that the world's population will reach its highest point of 9.8 billion people around the year 2080 and then drop to 9.5 billion by the year 2100.
Does the growth of the human population matter beyond Musk's existential worries? Yes, because population growth and economic growth go hand in hand.
Before 1750, the Bank of England found that the average growth of the world's GDP per person was 0.01%, which means that it doubled every 6,000 years. Since 1750, the average growth rate has been 1.5%, which means that it doubles every 50 years. My co-author and I argue in "Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet" that the rise in GDP per person went hand in hand with the rise in population, which stayed around 0.5 billion between the time of Christ and the 1600s, rose to 1 billion in 1800, and will explode to 8 billion in 2022.
Innovation is the key to understanding the relationship between population growth and economic growth rates.
In his 2016 book "A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy," Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University made a distinction between "Smithian" growth, which is based on trade and the division of labor, and "Schumpeterian" growth, which is based on "creative destruction" and new ideas. Think about the difference between a miner who uses a pickaxe and a miner who uses an electric drill. People have always come up with new ideas (just think of the eyeglasses that were developed in Northern Italy in the 13th century). But a time of continuous innovation, like the last 200 years, is really new compared to the last thousand years.
In our book, we looked at the prices of hundreds of goods, services, and commodities over a period of 200 years. This study found that as the population grew, there was a lot more of everything, from food and fuel to minerals and metals. This was especially true when we looked at "time prices," which show how long people have to work to buy something. In fact, our analysis of 18 randomly chosen datasets that go back to 1850 shows that the prices of goods and services drop by more than 1% for every 1% increase in population. We also found that the number of animals increased faster than the number of people. This is what we call "superabundance."
There may come a time when AI starts coming up with new ideas on its own. In the meantime, we have to use our own minds. In his 2020 book, "How Innovation Works: And Why It Thrives in Freedom," British author Matt Ridley said, "Innovation is the most important fact about the modern world, but also one of the least understood." We can say that a population of 1 billion will have less good ideas than a population of 10 billion, which would slow economic growth.
But having a lot of people is not enough to keep a superabundance going. Just think about how poor China and India were before they became more free. To come up with new ideas, people need to be able to think, speak, write, work together, and disagree. They need to be able to save, make investments, trade, and make money.
So, the threat to humanity is more than just our falling birth rates. Superabundance also depends on human freedom and equal dignity, which began in Western Europe during the Enlightenment and then spread to other places.
We should all worry about the future of our species in the same way that Elon Musk does because freedom and dignity are on the decline and the values of the Enlightenment are under attack.