That worry plagued Thomas Malthus (1766 – 1834). BTW, he never called himself “Thomas”. Instead, he used his middle name Robert. No idea why. Here is good old Tom … errrr … I mean Bob
What was the big deal? Malthus observed that an increase in food production led to a corresponding increase in population. And at some point, the population size is not sustainable. Mankind is stuck in what has become known as the “Malthusian Trap”. While Malthus was no doubt a nice fellow, he is remembered for this rather grumpy and pessimistic view of our fate as a species.
As Al Wenger points out, Malthus was indeed at least half right. Prosperity did bring a population explosion. We have moved from the 1 billion figure —which Malthus thought was an upper limit — to 7 billion. Yikes! Here is a global population chart that might get your attention
It’s a hockey stick! That looks pretty scary. And it would be disastrous except for some factors that Malthus had not considered.
Malthus had no clue about how technological progress might affect prosperity. He did not foresee improvements in ag tech that would enable humanity to use less land and labor to feed itself better despite having to feed many more people. Stuff like this
More recently, we expect drone tech and AI to help us much more. That vision is called “Precision Agriculture”
According to a McKinsey & Company report in 2016 on how big data will revolutionize the global food chain, about one-third of all food is lost during production each year globally in developing and emerging countries, while at the same time, 795 million people go hungry.
Nor did Malthus foresee technological change that would directly and positively affect our level of prosperity by making workers more productive. Stuff like vastly improved ability to find and use energy. That leads us to folks like Julia Child in the kitchen using lots of gadgets that were somewhat new in the 1950’s
. The mere fact that people had the time to watch Julia on TV — another new fangled invention — shows how life had gotten easier.
But … perhaps Malthus was not so wrong after all! What if population growth continues and eventually outstrips our capacity to further improve agricultural productivity and technologically based prosperity growth?
These are matters of speculation rather than fact as neither has happened yet, except in isolated and temporary situations. But the possibility has to be acknowledged. And acknowledging it helps us understand the critical importance of sustaining innovation rates. Given our current trends in population growth, we have to stay ahead of the curve.
In the above link to a section of his book “World After Capital”, Al traces these arguments, and he raises one more. In fact, we do not know if population will continue to trend upward. There is evidence that population growth slows at certain points in time as prosperity reduces the incentives to have multiple offspring. That may mean that humanity will reach sort of a “peak population” at some point.
So there is room for optimism. And knowing why we can be optimistic should help us focus on what is important — supporting further innovation that adds value by enhancing productivity.
One last point. Malthus saw the costs involved in feeding ever larger numbers of people. He did not consider that each person has amazing cognitive capacity. He did not ask this question — on the average, how much of our cognitive capacity do we actually use for adding value to society? Is that number fixed or does it fall as population goes up, or can we level up? The more we can get out of people, the more amazing our future might be.
That might sound a bit fantastic. But it is something that already happened. After universal education became the norm in the 19th century, we saw a dramatic uptick of young people moving into knowledge based professions. This trend accelerated in the 20th century. That added number of knowledge workers has — I think — contributed to the acceleration in the rate of innovation that we got used to in the 20th century. And as Sir Ken Robinson points out, this happened without significant education reform of the type that would promote more knowledge creation.
Food for thought!