UN World Population Prospects 2022 predicts that on November 15, global population will cross 8 billion, and during 2023, India’s population will overtake China’s. This has induced hang-wringing by environmentalists and some members of the ruling establishment who back population control. Billions think the world faces depleting resources and an environmental apocalypse.
Now, for the good news. The world faces increasing abundance not scarcity. Abundance is rising much faster than population. Hence, Superabundance is the title of Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley’s new book. World population is up from 1 billion in 1800 to 8 billion, life expectancy has increased by 45 years, per capita consumption has skyrocketed 14 times, yet all commodities are more abundant (cheaper in real terms).
As GDP rises, the commodity component of GDP keeps falling. A smartphone replaces landlines, cameras, newspapers, TVs, encyclopedias and hundreds of other items, a classic example of ‘more from less’. This book devastates the alarmists that dominate modern discourse.
The book’s hero is economist Julian Simon, who realised that human ingenuity is the greatest resource, not land, food, or minerals. Short-term scarcities will constantly occur, induce more investment and research into alternatives, and hence increase supply, replacing scarcity by abundance. This is how doomsayers like Malthus are constantly disproved.
Environmentalist Paul Ehrlich’s 1970 book The Population Bomb said the battle against hunger was lost and hundreds of millions would starve. Happily, the green revolution arrived. Today it feeds thrice the 1970 population at lower real prices.
Simon and Ehrlich had a famous wager on whether scarcity would make five metals costlier between 1980 and 1990. Ehrlich lost badly. Unsurprisingly, he claimed he would be proved right eventually, which has never happened. Astrologers and doomsters remain unrepentant and in demand despite constant fiascos.
Tupy and Pooley have innovated the concept of time-price. They say it is impossible to measure availability of all resources since we simply do not know all that the earth contains. Instead, they measure the hours of work that will earn a person enough to buy one unit of an item. For instance, the time-price for an Indian to buy enough rice for one day has fallen from 7 hours in 1960 to under one hour today. So, abundance — the technical term is ‘personal resource abundance multiplier’ — has risen seven-fold.
Between 1980 and 2020, world population grew 75% but time-prices of 50 key commodities fell 75%. For every percentage increase in population, global resource abundance increased 8%.That confirms Simon’s thesis that people are not a burden on but creators of resources. The more people the world has, the more the number of creative brains, group experiments, and specialisations (which reduces costs remarkably).
Tupy and Pooley analyse data from 1850 onward to paint a comprehensive picture of abundance over time. Their book has lengthy technical sections — it is an expert tome, though very readable. They find abundance is rising by 4% per year, much faster than population.
Global and US living standards rose 14-fold and 24-fold respectively in the last two centuries. Abundance for 26 basic commodities for US blue-collar workers rose 5,762% between 1850 and 2018. Comparing the time-price of one hour of light in 1800 (using candles) with one hour today using LED lights they found abundance has increased 12 million percent! A 19th century Ehrlich would have predicted that rising population would make lighting prohibitively costly for all but the rich.
High consumption has environmental side-effects. Humans can make terrible errors. What the world needs is not fewer humans but more careful analysis. The biggest hurdles can be governments, corporations, and even environmentalists who cloak inconvenient facts. Many countries block innovation and experimentation. We need political and economic freedom, transparency, and fact-based analysis.
Climate change is a huge challenge. But just seven years after the Paris climate summit, solar and wind energy have become cheaper than coal-based power. Electric vehicles may soon get cheaper than petrol-using ones (lifetime fuel and repair costs are far lower for e-cars). Tata’s new e-car costs just $10,000, cheaper than any car in the US.
History shows that rising incomes create not only problems but the brainpower to solve the same problems. Acid rain has been checked, many smoggy cities have become smog-free, once-vanished fish have returned after the cleansing of rivers, forests are expanding where they once shrank. The problems are worse in poorer countries and solved fastest in rich ones.
Whatever our environmental problems, population control is not the solution. A smaller population can be as stupid or misled as a large one. Population control is a moral and economic tyranny. The more our numbers, the more we can innovate. Let us celebrate the arrival of the eight billionth human being. Let us celebrate India becoming the most populous nation.
This article was originally published by The Times of India on October 9, 2022.