My New Year’s resolution this year was to do as much as possible of the following things: write blog posts, learn code and watch TED talks (if you haven’t heard of TED check it out immediately!). Recently however, I watched the first TED talk that I didn’t like: “The Earth is full”, by Paul Gilding. To save you from watching, the summary of Paul’s talk is “there are too many of us, we are all gonna die!” What annoyed me enough to write a blog post was the lack of evidence used to support his premise, in what is normally an arena for smart, reasoned arguments based on fact. He instead employs vague threats and Daily Mail-style fear mongering. This is an actual quote from his talk: “I could give you countless studies and evidence to prove this, but I won’t because, if you want to see it, that evidence is all around you. I want to talk to you about fear.” … I hear enough about fear on the nightly news Paul; I’m here for the numbers.
The central argument, that the Earth is getting too full with people to support further growth, is a logical and intuitive one – a finite planet can’t support an infinite amount of people. By Paul’s back-of-a-napkin estimation we need about 1.5 Earths to support us at our current population – never mind the 9 billion people we forecast by 2050 (where it actually levels off, because richer, more educated people have less babies on average). Call me an optimist, but I disagree.
We are always more receptive to bad news, and because of this, doomsday predictions can be found throughout history – as far back as 200AD in Roman times Tertullian (a prolific early Christian author) said “We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us… already nature does not sustain us.” With the benefit of hindsight we can see that his claim was ridiculous – the human race has exploded in population since his time, whilst also increasing in prosperity. In Economics we label this doomsday pessimism ‘Malthusian’ after a 19th century Economist called Thomas Malthus, who predicted that because food production increases linearly (1 bushel, 2 bushels, 3 bushels), and population increases exponentially (2 people, 4 people, 8 people) we will inevitably hit a population ceiling, leading to widespread famine and war.
You will agree this is fairly logical and makes sense intuitively; eventually we will reach a productive limit to what we can grow – however what Malthus got wrong was how long we had to hit that limit. He however did not (and arguably could not) predict something called the ‘green revolution’. Centred mostly in India, it involved the modernisation of farming techniques combined with synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, causing food production efficiency to drastically shoot up. The green revolution made it suddenly possible to grow vastly more food from the same land and is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation. This improvement has continued, as we are nowhere near done improving agriculture - calories produced per day per person globally went up 23% between 1960 and 2000, despite the world population doubling during that period.
Whether it is improved farming techniques, the steam engine or the Internet, improvements in technology are the driving force behind the prosperity people like Tertullian and Malthus could never imagine. It took less than 100 years between the first flight by the Wright Brothers and the first landing on the moon. A Masai warrior on a mobile phone in the middle of Kenya has a better phone connection than President Reagan had 25 years ago. If Mr Masai is on a smartphone using Google, he has access to more knowledge and information than President Clinton had 15 years ago. Since the first computer we have been benefiting from Moore’s law, that predicts price vs performance for computers doubles over 12-24 months – that’s why the mobile phone he is carrying is literally a million times cheaper and a thousand times faster than a supercomputer of the 70’s. Better still, things that he would normally have to pay for are becoming available for free – Google Maps, Wikipedia and Skype give him access to more information and connectivity than at any point in history. Spotify, Youtube and free game apps give him more hours of free entertainment than he could know what to do with. More importantly, online how-to and educational videos are making it possible for Mr Masai, or any sufficiently motivated person to master a subject without even signing up for a library card; never mind attending university.
Despite all the talk of recession, in the west today the majority of people under the ‘poverty line’ still have electricity, water, toilets, refrigerators, television, mobile phones, KFC, air conditioning and cars. A century ago the kings of this planet could have never dreamed of this luxury. If all you did was read the news for the last 100 years you would no doubt be pessimistic, but consider the following: worldwide child mortality has fallen 10x, per capita income has increased 3x and the human lifespan has doubled. The cost of food is down 10x, cost of electricity is down 20x, transportation prices are down 100x and the cost of communication is down 1000x! The price of solar power dropped 50% last year and is now cheaper than diesel in rural India. Remarkably, Global literacy has gone from 25% to 80% in the last 130 years. Steve Pinker has shown that, despite what the news says, we are actually living during the most peaceful time in human history. What’s more, the rate of innovation is actually getting increasingly faster - as new technologies fuel faster growth in other innovative areas, these improvements are feeding off each other, pushing us forwards at an exponential rate.
This is all without the unpredictable effect of 3D printing, robotics, A.I. (Watson winning at Jeopardy), nano-materials or other unforeseen innovations will have on our prosperity. These technologies, combined with the democratisation of knowledge on the Internet are already leading people to do great things we didn’t think possible. An organisation called DIY drones, recently designed (working for free in their spare time) an unmanned aerial vehicle with 90% of the functionality of the U.S. military’s 35,000 dollar Raven, for under 300 dollars. Are the Steve Jobs or Bill Gates of our generation tinkering around in his garage with a 3D printer today, on course to change the world? At present we have just over 2 billion people connected to the internet – over the next ten years over 3 billion people are predicted to join us – who can possibly predict what they have to say, what they will want to consume and what innovations they will drive? All I know is that we are sure to think of a way to accommodate them.