You know when you finish reading a novel that has expeditiously elevated to its climax, you’re sometimes forced on completion to spend an additional amount of time piecing together what you’ve just read? Well, I found myself doing exactly that having recently turned over the final pages of Dan Brown’s latest epic, Inferno. Written in Brown’s typically eloquent prose, Inferno is the riveting tale of the Harvard symbologist, Robert Langdon, who is recruited by the World Health Organisation to track down the location and prevent the release of an alleged plague, invented by the scientific genius Bertrand Zobrist, whose chilling ideology is to protect the world from uncontrolled overpopulation through controlled extermination of the human race. Amidst twists and turns and cunningly clever deception, Brown poses the reader a deeply disturbing but hypothetical question; “Would you kill half the population today in order to save our species from extinction?” Inferno’s conclusion is surprising, both by Brown’s standards and fictional norms. The main antagonist of the novel, Bertrand Zobrist, achieves his objectives and unleashes a highly contagious airborne vector virus which renders one third of the global population sterile. In essence,the bad guy wins. A gloomy and dramatic conclusion of this sort reflects Brown’s own concerns about the potentially damaging consequences of population growth left unchecked, a concern that is now mainstream.
Fears of overpopulation are growing
Overpopulation fears are not new, Robert Malthus in his 1798 work: “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, speculated that “the power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man”. Whilst Malthus’ own fears of imminent collapse were short-lived; there has been a continuous and growing movement of scholars who share similar Malthusian beliefs. An increase in the global population from 2.5bn in 1950 to 7bn in 2011 is seen as the harbinger of economic, social and political problems. Economic theory, too, attests that an increase in the population growth rate reduces income per capita using a simple neoclassical growth model. One needn’t open economics textbooks though; turn over the first few pages in any major newspaper and expect to be bombarded with statistics that posit crises in food, water, energy and more. The solution, they say? Massive behavioural change, sustainable growth and education and contraception to curb population growth. Stewart Wallis of the New Economic Foundation has gone as far as calling for a ‘Great Transition’ to a new economic order… One would be forgiven for thinking that an impending doomsday is on the cards.
As far back as the Malthusian movement goes, a counter-movement has co-existed. They argue that the earth is more than equipped to deal with upward population pressures. They cite the fact that the world improved its living standards and lifted millions from poverty at the same time as the population explosion took hold, and this was down to technological improvements, in agriculture, resource management and energy efficiency to name a few. Improvements in technology, they say, will allow continued economic expansion even with further population growth. Besides, the latest United Nations projections state that the earth’s population will stabilize by 2062 at around 10 billion, after which point global population will fall anyway…One would be forgiven for thinking that the fuss being made today about overpopulation is irrelevant and that in reality, there is little to fear.
Amidst countless stats, predictions and supposed real life evidence, it is easy to get lost within these two opposing views. What this article seeks to achieve, is to disentangle the two, showing that both views rely on critical assumptions.
To do this, I introduce a concept I call “Population Accommodating Technology” (PAT). PAT enables populations to survive, and encompasses technologies of all sophistication which range from something as simple as a water well to the latest, most efficient, agricultural and energy obtaining techniques. Because population growth and the demand for scarce resources are strongly correlated, we can use the interaction between PAT growth and population growth as a proxy to predict the likely outcome of a larger population. In the first view outlined, that of the “overpopulation is a reality” movement, the assumption made is that population growth will be greater than PAT growth. Whereas the second view, that of the “overpopulation is a myth” movement, assumes the opposite.
To decide which assumption, and therefore which movement, is more realistic, it is important to consider the time frames in which we view both assumptions. We know that it is highly likely that the population growth rate will continue to fall – UN estimates suggest that global population is currently growing at 1.14% annually, down from a peak of 2.19% in 1963. This downwards trend is set to continue, it will become less than 1% by 2020 and less than 0.5% by 2050.
Previous and predicted population growth rates
Of course the total size of the population will still increase to its forecast 10bn despite falling (but non-negative) population growth rates, and scarce resources will therefore be in higher demand, which in turn means PAT growth will need to be sufficiently strong to oppose these headwinds. Fortunately, there is no conclusive evidence to believe that PAT growth is exhaustive, after all PAT growth stems from innovation which Joseph Schumpeter classified as a function of entrepreneurial behaviour. Providing human capital continues to follow historical incremental trends (it’s not unrealistic to assume that as time progresses we will build our species’ knowledge base yet further), and the profit motive is still omnipresent, then, in theory, entrepreneurship should never be lacking. The knowledge of today becomes the PAT of tomorrow. There are already signs of tomorrow’s technologies that have the potential to negate resource shortages. Take the freshwater crisis for example, researchers at MIT have found a new single-atom thick graphene sheet which can significantly reduce the cost of desalinisation, meaning that 70% of the earth’s surface is now potentially accessible for drinking purposes. This is not the only desalination technique that is becoming viable mind you, America recently began construction of itslargest desalination plant in San Diego, powered by highly pressurized water. Similar ground-breaking technologies can be found in agricultural techniques and (renewable) energy extraction. Yet simply because these technologies are not in mainstream use at the moment is not indicative of their failure as PATs. This is to be expected, when the initial breakthrough is made there is always a time lag before the technology becomes both feasible in terms of energy efficiency and costing for mainstream use. Yet once in use, these technologies bring with them Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”; unforced, automatic and clean change of our economic systems – and mankind’s best hope to confront the population growth challenge.
An answer to the freshwater crisis? Desalination
Where PAT’s shortcoming lies is in the fact that it is dispersed unequally throughout the world; those areas which have the lowest population growth rates have the most PAT (e.g. the developed world). Those areas with the highest population growth rates have the lowest PAT (e.g. parts of the developing world particularly Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia). It’s clear that PAT is therefore at its weakest on the most important battlefields against population growth, and with PAT diffusion being a gradual process at best, there is the possibility of short term damage. And this is where I think Dambisa Moyo has got it bang on in her latest book “Winner Take All”. Moyo argues that the world’s, especially China’s, unprecedented drive for resources has and will continue to push up commodity prices, at the same time increasing political tensions to extents that make resource conflict increasingly likely in the immediate term.
What can the world do? First, the mentality that we adopt towards population growth should not be one of despair. Population growth is to slow down and ultimately will become negative according to UN predictions (if you want to hear more about this come back in a few days time), at the same time our population accommodating technologies will become greener, faster, more reliable and cheaper. Secondly, the debate should shift from how to alter individuals behaviour (something which has proved notoriously difficult) to how to promote the invention of PAT and its distribution around the world. Only PAT has the power to tackle the challenges we face head on; asking developing nations that solely want economic growth to recycle more and cut back on energy consumption is a non-starter. Finally, in the coming years while PAT diffuses and improves, international organisations must stand strong against those who choose to satisfy their resource demands through conflict. Population expansion doesn’t have to be a problem. The combination of PAT growth and good global governance is the necessary counterbalance.
Originally on the ForwardForum blog