Humanity's Prosperous Destiny

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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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.

11 Responses to “Humanity's Prosperous Destiny”
  1. Dave Gardner says:

    Gee, if only the planet actually had the resources to sustain even 7 billion people at today’s GDP!

    Dave Gardner
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

  2. Todd Daniel says:

    What are you guys smoking? By 2050 there will be mass water shortages, fished out oceans, thousands of extinct species, and our sick planet will be very hot and crowded. Whoever is responsible for this misinformation campaign should go home and look their children in the eyes — because they are the ones who will be suffering.

  3. Marge Jackson says:

    The author is correct, and I would add: The only danger to our children are environmentalists who block innovations such as higher yielding crops, desalination plants, nuclear power, and development of fossil fuel. Environmentalists not only block all innovation and infrastructure development – or delay and greatly increase the expense throught their extortionate lawsuits, but their beliefs can actively harm the environment. Has anyone thought about how stupid and harmful it was to create a subsidized global market for biodiesel, which has led to massive tropical deforesation to grow oil palms? Environmentalists have become destructive, negative fanatics, bent on believing the earth is being destroyed, but they are the ones doing the destruction. Thank you for a great article presenting a far more realistic, rational, and optimistic perspective.

  4. Cyril R. says:

    This suggests extreme energy effciency, conservation, advanced technology/methods of resource production and consumption, and dematerialization (services based economies) will be required to keep the impact of our physical resource use at reasonable levels.

    Because if you have today’s resource use per dollar with future levels of dollars x population… well we can all agree that is not sustainable.

  5. Cyril R. says:

    And of course, it is an open question whether we can make any scenarios about such distant futures with any degree of credibility of accuracy.

  6. Roger Brown says:

    The second trend is the total economic output of the planet, measured in constant dollars, continues to increase.

    The past predicts the future. Everyone knows that. If a trend has existed for a couple of centuries it will continue forever. That’s why the Romans still rule the Mediterranean. That’s why Greece is still the intellectual capital of the world. That’s why Great Britain still rules the largest maritime empire in the world. Oh, wait a second.

    I would speak at greater length about exponential economic growth and finite resources, but I know that you believe that the technology fairy will allow us to dematerialize our economy and get richer forever (or at least until after you and I are dead which is all that really matters, isn’t it?). Long experience has proved to me the futility of trying to argue people out of their religious beliefs. I have a strong science and engineering background myself, but I do not share your faith that 10 billion people can live at OECD standards of living and higher without mussing the hair of the biosphere.

  7. Roger: Malthusianism is a religion, actually, practiced by fanatical zealots who want to stifle investment in infrastructure – and moreover, as is often the case with fanatical zealots, they are puppets of powerful vested interests who profit from the status quo. Malthusianism is a virulent and dangerous religion that says the war is lost before it has even been fought. It dismisses the power of human innovation as the most powerful and inexhaustible resource of all, and condemns humanity to stagnation and darkness. Malthusianism must be challenged, and I for one salute the author for doing so.

  8. Roger Brown says:

    Malthusianism is a religion, actually, practiced by fanatical zealots who want to stifle investment in infrastructure

    Can you give me an example of someone who, when the roof of their house starts to leak, or when the tank of the tank their water heater rusts out, refuses to repair them? If not then your claim that fanatics exist who refuse to invest in infrastructure is complete and utter nonsense.

    The issue is not whether or not we should invest in infrastructure. The issue is whether we should assume that our infrastructure should continue to produce exponentially larger amounts of economic output into the indefinite future. Where do you get the idea that our only options are to get richer forever or return to the dark ages? You might claim with equal logic that a human being’s only options are to get taller and heaver forever or to return to being a baby.

    Even, Ed, by the way admits that stabilization of the human population is a good thing, thereby subscribing to one of the doctrines of ‘fanatical’ Malthusianism.

  9. Ayrdale says:

    …the late great Julian Simon’s books (The Ultimate Resource 1,2) made the anti-malthusian point well.
    Thank you author for pointing out the reality.
    I agree, the Green church is an anti-human monster.

  10. Ed Ring says:

    Roger: I would agree with you that we can’t extrapolate current modes of economic growth and resource use into the future. We probably would also agree that conventional growth models depend on a pyramidal structure of age demographics, where the proponderance of individuals in the population are young, supporting a minority of retired people – and as human population stabilizes, this pyramid will invert, with more older people than young people. But I see this as an opportunity to reinvent economic growth models. Of course per capita income will not have the characteristics it has today.

    To say there will be an explosion of wealth per capita doesn’t mean every individual will have a big house, a big yard, a big car, a boat, a plane – i.e., a huge and unsustainable footprint. Wealth will be spent on health care, on robotics, on space industrialization, on environmental remediation. I believe most people will voluntarily opt to live in high density urban areas, and even if we don’t enact terribly restrictive policies to protect open space, the people who choose to live in rural areas will be sufficiently few to actually render more available land for habitat than we have now. I believe high-rise agriculture and other innovations will also take pressure off land.

    Where we clearly disagree is in how energy and water will be produced to facilitate ongoing economic growth. I believe we will have abundant energy in the future – we are probably less than 100 years away from having fusion power, and there is plenty of fossil fuel and alternative fuels available to provide ample energy to humanity between now and then. I also believe that reuse, recycling, rainwater harvesting, and desalination will provide abundant water – enough so we can refill our depleted aquifers, for example.

    The evidence in my opinion points to a very, very bright future for humanity. That’s the way I see it.

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