The world’s population is reaching 8 billion and we must continue to grow. This is why

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According to the United Nations, the world’s population just passed 8 billion on November 15, 2022. This milestone is, of course, condemned in some quarters as a threat to “sustainable development” and global living standards.

Some neo-Malthusians are taking the opportunity to sound the alarm about the dangers of overpopulation to the global food supply and warn of imminent famine. Should we take this hand-wringing seriously?

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently tweeted, “A collapsing birth rate is by far the greatest danger facing civilization.” He continued, “Far too many people are under the illusion that the Earth is overpopulated, even though birth rate trends are so clearly moving towards a population collapse.”

Newborns in a hospital nursery.
(ER Productions Limited via Getty Images)

Musk has been issuing such warnings for years, with some commentators ridiculing him in return.

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Musk often doesn’t elaborate, except to say the obvious: no people, no future. Or as he tweeted earlier this year: “Unless something changes that causes the birth rate to exceed the death rate, Japan will eventually cease to exist. This would be a great loss to the world.” He makes a good point.

An average fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman per lifetime is needed to maintain the population at replacement level. And while it is true that the world’s population is still growing, fertility rates in many of the world’s most developed countries are indeed collapsing.

For example, the Japanese fertility rate is 1.4. It is 0.9 in South Korea, 1.2 in Spain and 1.3 in Italy. The world’s population, meanwhile, is likely to peak at 9.8 billion people around 2080 and fall to 9.5 billion by 2100 in the medium-fertility scenario calculated by demographer Wolfgang Lutz and his colleagues at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis .

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently tweeted:

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently tweeted, “A collapsing birth rate is by far the greatest danger facing civilization.”
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Is population growth more important than Musk’s existential concerns? Yes, because population growth and economic growth are closely linked.

Before 1750, the Bank of England found that global growth in GDP per person averaged 0.01%, doubling every 6,000 years. Since 1750 it has averaged 1.5%, doubling every 50 years. It’s no accident, my co-author and I argue in “Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet,” that growth in GDP per person went hand-in-hand with population growth. which languished about 0.5 billion between the time of Christ and the 1600s, rose to 1 billion in 1800 and exploded to 8 billion in 2022.

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The key to understanding the link between population growth and economic growth lies in the crucial role that innovation plays.

In his 2016 book, “A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy,” Northwestern University economic historian Joel Mokyr distinguished between (Adam) “Smithian” growth that is based on the division of labor and trade, and (Joseph) “Schumpeterian growth”. growth that is based on “creative destruction” and new ideas. To appreciate the difference, think of the output of a miner wielding a pickaxe and a miner using an electric drill. Sure, humans have always innovated (just think of the glasses developed in northern Italy in the 13th century).But a period of sustainable innovationseparating the last 200 years from the previous millennia is really new.

A farmer walks past one of his cornfields in Okawville, Illinois, Oct. 16, 2013.

A farmer walks past one of his cornfields in Okawville, Illinois, Oct. 16, 2013.
(AP)

In our book, we examined the prices of hundreds of commodities, goods and services over two centuries. This analysis showed that everything from food and fuel to minerals and metals became much more abundant as the population grew. That was especially true when we looked at “time prices,” which represent the time people have to work to buy something. In fact, our analysis of 18 randomly chosen data sets dating back to 1850 suggests that every 1% increase in population reduces the time price of goods and services by more than 1%. In addition, we found that abundance increased faster than population—a relationship we call “abundance.”

The day may come when artificial intelligence begins to produce new ideas. In the meantime, we have to rely on the human brain. As British author Matt Ridley wrote in his 2020 book, “How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom,” “Innovation is the most important fact about the modern world, but one of the least well understood.” What we can say is that a population of 1 billion will certainly produce fewer useful ideas than a population of 10 billion, and that would slow down economic growth.

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But large populations are not enough to sustain an abundance – just think of the pre-liberal poverty in China and India. To innovate, people must be able to think, speak, publish, associate and disagree. They must be able to save, invest, trade and make a profit.

The threat to humanity therefore goes beyond our declining fertility rates. Abundance also depends on human freedom and equal dignity, which began in Western Europe during the Enlightenment and then spread elsewhere.

Insofar as freedom and dignity are at risk and Enlightenment values ​​are under attack, we should all share Elon Musk’s concern for the future of our species.

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