More People, Better Earth — Part 4

{Read part 3 here.}

In his extended comment, Ghost of Hamlet wrote:

…  More innovation leads to better quality of life. … But is this relationship truly infinitely scalable? Can we have 50B people on earth and have an exceptionally advanced society ?

Is anything infinitely scalable? No but some things can be indefinitely scalable for practical purposes. With 10th century CE technology, the world could not have supported even 10 million people at the average level of consumption that 7.8 billion people currently enjoy. And with 21st century technology, it is reasonable to expect that the average standard of living (which is another way of saying consumption) will continually increase — barring the insanity of some global nuclear conflict.[1]

Can the earth support 50 billion people living in luxury? Yes, it can provided we have the technology. Will we have the technology? Undoubtedly. Will we have 50 billion people on earth? Very unlikely. Why? Because it is likely that that human population on earth will peak around 10 billion or so in a few decades.

*****

But notice I wrote “human population on earth.” I make that qualification because I am confident that humans will inhabit other locations, not just the earth. When that happens, human population could be who knows what. We have no way of knowing what will be in 100 years. That future is as much beyond our imagination as our present would have been unimaginable to stone-age hunter gatherers.

Humans are really recent arrivals on the scene. Though anatomically modern humans (that means you and me) have been around for 250,000 years. They evolved in Africa and just sat around for a very long time doing nothing much other than feeding and breeding.

Then they moved out of Africa around 100,000 years ago. They moved at a glacial pace. In fact, the glacial ages made it possible for some of them to move across continents. Sea levels would drop and allow humans to move from the Eurasian continent to the Americas and to Australia. Consider this: it took humans around 10,000 years to move from China to Australia. Could they have imagined that in the future, people would move from China to Australia in half a day? What’s the difference in the speed? Only about 6 million times faster.

It took three days for Americans to travel to the moon (the last of whom visited around 50 years ago.) Given our current technology, one way to Mars would take on average six months. To get to the nearest star to the sun, with our current technology, Proxima Centauri which is just four light years away, would take around 80,000 years.

(Talking of Mars, starting today, devices from three countries are scheduled to arrive on Mars in the couple of weeks — one each from the UAE, China and the US. I am most excited about Perseverance, which was launched on 30th July 2020, which is scheduled to touch down on Feb 18th at 3 PM EST.)

In about 50 years or so, I believe that humans would have achieved speeds that would cut down travel time to Mars to around three days, and in about 100 years, the travel time to Proxima Centauri to three months (adjusted for relativistic time dilation effects, etc.)

That is why I think all the hysteria about climate change — about how the oceans would rise 24 centimeters (lord have mercy on us!) and the global average temperatures will increase by (oh the horror!) 2 degrees Celsius —  is a huge pile of horse manure.

*****

“Past performance is no guarantee of future results” is the usual disclaimer that investment firms make. But I don’t have to do that. Past performance guarantees future results. The present is better than the past in every respect, and so will the future be better in every respect than the present.

So what justifies the optimistic belief that the future will be unimaginably better than the past? Reason. Just plain old-fashioned reason.

Simple examination of the facts, an understanding of why things have improved over time, then the realization that those processes will continue and accelerate into the indefinite future, and so the confidence in the expansion of human capacity to alter its environment.

NOTES:

[1] It appears that we create resources faster than we consume them. That was Julian Simon’s fundamental claim.

The Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., has recently published an update to the Simon story. It looked at population, prices, and income from 1960 to 2016. Over these 56 years, world population increased by 145 per cent, from 3 billion to almost 7.5 billion. Yet, inflation adjusted gross domestic product (GDP) per person increased by 183 per cent, from $3,689 to $10,391. So, income grew 38 per cent faster than population – just as Simon had predicted.

What about natural resources? After all, as people grow richer, they consume more stuff. The study looked at prices of 42 natural resources from 1960 to 2016, as tracked by the World Bank. Adjusted for inflation, 19 declined in price, while 23 increased in price. Out of those 23 commodities, only three (crude oil, gold, and silver) appreciated more than GDP per person. Put differently, GDP per person grew faster than 92 per cent of the commodities measured.

The overall inflation adjusted price index of the 42 commodities increased by 33 per cent over the 56 year period. However, after adjusting for the appreciation in GDP per person, commodity prices fell by 53 per cent. Humanity is creating faster than it is consuming. That is an astonishing verification of Simon’s prophecy. [Source: More People, More Ideas, More Innovations, More Value Created. 2018]

 

 

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

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

  1. It would seem that as the world gets more dynamic in terms of technical innovation, more and more fields would get outdated, and thus the speed of relearning for employment would need to get faster.
    On a totally different tangent, I was hoping to understand something like Bitcoin’s type of currency. It would seem that it has no real underlying value, except for what people ascribe to it (which is common for any store of value). This innovation in currency endorsed by modern techies (and many other people), and the underlying mindset supporting this decentralised currency, heckles many governments. Now I’m not arguing for or against it, but I want to understand if something like Bitcoin really does support higher freedom (from centralised powers managing currencies).

    1. Meet:

      In a static world, nothing would change other than the replacement of the generations. That was true in the past, say a couple of thousand years ago. Since the scientific and industrial revolutions, it’s been a dynamic world. Horse carriages gave way to automobiles. But the horse carriage workers didn’t all start making cars; they died and new workers made cars. So the idea is new people learn how to do new things, and therefore there is no “relearning” involved, broadly speaking.

      I am afraid that I won’t be able to address your Bitcoin question right now. It will take too long to give a meaningful answer. Perhaps at some later date. The short general answer is that I support competitive private currencies, and I don’t like the way that governments rob people of their property through inflating fiat currency.

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