More People, Better Earth — Part 2

{Read part 1 of this series.}

There is a pervasive persistent popular misconception. It goes this way: that the world is like cows grazing on a pasture. If there are a lot more cows than the pasture can sustain, then at some point given enough time, the cows will deplete the available grass and the pasture will be exhausted and that will be the end of the story.

This is obviously logically true. But that’s because cows don’t increase the capacity of the pasture; they only deplete it. Cows don’t have the ability because they don’t have brains that develop technology to increase the carrying capacity of the pasture. But humans are not cows. Humans have the ability to increase the capacity of the land they have by inventing resources they need.

Recall that resources don’t exit in nature. All resources are human-made. Sure nature provides the raw materials but they only becomes resources after humans invent appropriate technology that transforms stuff into resources.

*****

Around 1996 I came across Joel Cohen’s 1994 book “How many People can the Earth support.” Cohen does not answer the question in the title of the book with any specific number. The answer is “indeterminate.” Now after a quarter of a century, I know the answer. The number of people the earth can support depends on two things. First, the state of technology, and second on what one considers to be the level of material wellbeing appropriate for humans.

The answer depends on what one considers to be the level of material prosperity adequate for humans. The earth can, given the state of the available technology, support a very large number of people at subsistence levels but a much smaller number at some level of comfort.

Today the earth supports around 7.7 billion people, around 5 billion of whom live at a level of comfort that would not have been possible around five thousand years ago. Around five thousand years ago, the earth could not have supported more than a small fraction of the present population of the earth at the present level of material comfort. The technology humans developed made it possible for the earth to sustain so many.

It’s a positive feedback loop: the reason the earth can sustain so many more people today than before is because there are so many more people today than before.

This positive feedback loop is powered by technology. Humans discover (or invent) technology. Unlike cows on a pasture which don’t invent technology that expands the capacity of the pasture, humans continually expand the earth’s carrying capacity. There are no practical limits to how many people the earth can support.

But wait. There’s a caveat. To invent or discover technology (which we have defined as recipes or know how or knowledge) humans have to have freedom. Freedom to experiment, freedom to try out things. To overcome the handicap of not being omniscient, humans have to experiment to figure out what works.

The greater the number of humans and the greater the freedom they have to try various things, the faster the growth of technology, and that leads to an expansion of the carrying capacity of the earth.

    {Read part 3 of this series here.}

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

4 thoughts on “More People, Better Earth — Part 2”

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