Something we don’t hear often enough amidst this era’s turbulent convergence of cultures and challenging disruptions of technology is this: Humanity is destined within a tantalizingly few decades to achieve a level of prosperity that can scarcely be imagined today. The ongoing conflicts of nations, continued destruction of the environment, heartbreaking poverty, ruthless injustice – these all constitute a dark fog of tribulations that can appear inpenetrable. But this fog that can seem so thick and toxic is actually disappearing with breathtaking speed.
It is often easy to overlook the many positive forces of history, forces that can be identified with Euclidean precision, immutable forces that will deliver to humanity abundance in all forms, wealth to conquer poverty, cleanse the planet, and satiate the longings of peoples and nations. As the world urbanizes, voluntarily and en-masse, rural lands and wildernesses are relieved, and open space becomes abundant. As technological innovation advances at exponential rates, energy and water will also become abundant. The most important natural resource in the world is human creativity, and it is inexhaustible and will find a way to alleviate any scarcity.
The data to back up these audaciously optimistic claims is not terribly complex. It is based on two trends which taken together pretty much prove the point. The first is that the human population on Earth has nearly reached its maximum. Projections from the U.N. Office of Economic & Social Affairs indicate it is unlikely that the total human population will ever exceed 10.0 billion, and since there are already nearly 7.0 billion people in the world, most of the growth in human population has already occurred.
The second trend is the total economic output of the planet, measured in constant dollars, continues to increase. There is a fascinating 1998 study by J. Bradford DeLong, an economics professor at UC Berkeley, entitled “Estimating World GDP, One Million B.C. – Present.” that uses constant 1990 international dollars to estimate the per capita income of humans beginning over a thousand years ago and projecting through the year 2000. With this data, updated with more recent data through 2005 from the World Bank, and converting everything into 2005 international dollars, the table below provides estimates of per capita income as well as global GDP in fifty year increments from 1750 through the year 2000 and beyond. Assuming a modest annual rate of 3.0% for future global economic growth, on this table one can examine what happens when GDP continues to grow, but human population stablizes. The results are striking.
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ESTIMATED GLOBAL POPULATION, GDP, AND
PER CAPITA INCOME FROM 1750 THROUGH 2150
|When increasing global productivity no longer competes with
population growth, per capita income improves dramatically.
As the table indicates, global GDP grew at an annual rate of 1.0% or less until the industrial revolution, then picked up to around 2.0% per year until about 1950. During the period from 1950 to 2000, however, the rate of growth increased dramatically, to an annual rate of over 4.0%, as the momentum of the industrial revolution was catalysed by the information technology revolution, and rolled out from the Western Nations to begin to embrace all the world’s peoples.
Examining global population indicates similar trends, increasing growth rates as global wealth increases, with the the last half of the 20th century showing an unprecedented annual rate of population growth of 1.7% (ref. U.S. Census Bureau’s “Historical Estimates of World Population,” and Wikipedia’s “World Population.” Looking ahead, however, for the first time in history, the impact of wealth is so great that it is empowering individuals to shrink the size of their families instead of expanding them. The next fifty years through 2050 will see the average annual rate of global population growth reduced to 0.8%, less than half the rate of the preceding years, and after that, to virtually zero. The factors that cause humans to opt for smaller families – female literacy, access to contraception, and reduced infant mortality – are all the result of wealth, and as per capita wealth increases, everyone in the world becomes their beneficiary.
What is most encouraging is just how dramatic the increases to per capita income are going to be in the decades preceding 2050, and even more so in the 2nd half of the 21st century. As the table indicates, and these are constant units of currency, even at a realistic 3.0% rate of real annual growth in global economic output, which now easily and dramatically exceeds rates of population growth, by 2050 per capita income will be over $25K, which equates to an average household income of over $100K. By 2100 per capita income will be over $100K; an average household income of over $400K using 2005 dollars.
In many respects, just how so much wealth will benefit humanity is impossible to visualize. Just as cave dwellers couldn’t possibly imagine spending whatever might have passed for currency back then on a television, it is quite likely there are things we will do with our wealth in 100 years that we can’t imagine today. Things we can imagine are many, however, and fascinating: personal androids that will care for us when we’re old, life extension therapies that will delay getting old to begin with, treatment and prevention of currently incurable diseases, remediation programs to restore ecosystems, and exploration programs to colonize the solar system. With the kind of innovation and wealth creation that defines being human, ten billion people will not nearly exceed the carrying capacity of planet earth, and 100 years is not a very long time. It is helpful to remember this inspiring path we are on, and the bright destiny that awaits humanity, as we strive to make our way today through the fog.