Nov 3, 2022 • 24M

🚀 Faster, Please! — The Podcast #13

🌎 A conversation with Cato Institute scholar Marian Tupy on the infinite value of human creativity and the overpopulation/overconsumption myth

 
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Welcome to Faster, Please! — The Podcast. Several times a month, host Jim Pethokoukis will feature a lively conversation with a fascinating and provocative guest about how to make the world a better place by accelerating scientific discovery, technological innovation, and economic growth.
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➡ Reminder: I will be writing much less frequently and much shorter in November — and November only. So for this month, I have paused payment from paid subscribers.

Also, I’m making all new content free without a paywall. In December, however, everything will be back to normal: typically three meaty essays and two enlightening Q&As a week, along with a pro-progress podcast like this one several times a month (including transcript). And, of course, a weekly recap over the weekends.

Melior Mundus


“Generations of people throughout the world have been taught to believe that there is an inverse relationship between population growth and the availability of resources, which is to say that as the population grows, resources become more scarce.” That’s how Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley open their new book, Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet. It’s also the central premise of much of today’s Down Wing, zero-sum thinking. And it happens to be wrong. Tupy and Pooley:

It is free people, not machines or deities, who generate new ideas, and it is free people who test those new ideas against other people’s ideas in the marketplace. The process of knowledge and value creation is at the heart of humanity’s moral and material progress. It is what enables our civilization to bend towards goodness and superabundance.

What is superabundance? The authors again: “[A]bundance occurs when the nominal hourly income increases faster than the nominal price of a resource,” meaning resources become cheaper (more abundant!) in real terms. Superabundance occurs “when the abundance of resources grows at a faster rate than population increases.” And that’s exactly what we see in the world today.

Cato Institute senior fellow and HumanProgress.org editor Marian Tupy joins me in this episode of Faster, Please! — The Podcast to discuss superabundance, Hollywood’s Malthusianism, and more.

In This Episode

  • Will we ever run out of Earth? (1:33)

  • Can our planet sustain billions of people living like Americans? (5:13)

  • The burden of proof is on the doomsayers (12:12)

  • The more people, the better (18:04)

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Will we ever run out of Earth?

James Pethokoukis: There's only so much Earth, so eventually, aren't we going to run out of Earth and its bounty?

Marian Tupy: It's certainly true that the Earth has a finite number of atoms, but the amount of value that we can get from those atoms is basically infinite. Look at something as simple as sand that has been on Earth for billions of years. At some point thousands of years ago, people realize that they could turn sand into glass jars and later into windows. And now we are using sand in order to create fiber optic cables, which are carrying information around the world at very high speeds and a lot of volume in order to power our civilization's communication networks. So from something as simple as a grain of sand, you can get ever more value.

If you are somebody who thinks economic growth is a good thing, who wants the global economy to keep growing—and, gee, it'd be great if it grew even faster—at some point it's going to hit a limit. Aren't we already seeing that with lithium shortages? I hear that lithium shortages are going to slow the green transition. So aren't people who are pro-growth, pro-progress, or pro-abundance—even pro-superabundance—isn't that just kind of a temporary state and eventually, I don't know, 50 years, 100, that's not a tenable position over the really long, long run?

No, because knowledge continues to expand. As long as we have more people on Earth, and hopefully one day in cooperation with AI or advanced computing, we'll be able to create evermore knowledge. And it is that knowledge which allows us to get around problems of scarcity. Lithium is a perfect example. Lithium-ion batteries are a massive advance in terms of storage of electricity. But who is to say whether batteries in the future will be powered by lithium? Maybe we'll come up with a different compound, which will allow us to store energy at a much cheaper price. In fact, people are already working on basically creating batteries out of, not lithium-ion, but sodium-ion, which apparently is going to last even longer and will be massively cheaper. So it's not only a question of efficiency gains—instead of using three ounces of tin or aluminum for a can of Coke, you are now using only half an ounce—and it's not just about technological breakthroughs like, for example, GMO foods so that you can increase the yield of plants for an acre of land; it's also about substitution. This is very important. It's about substitution. You are using something in order to get to a certain goal, but you may realize 10 years, 100 years from now that you don't actually need it, that you need something completely different. And humanity has been through this very often. Two-hundred years ago, the great discovery was of course coal and steam. And people immediately started wondering, what is going to happen by the year 1900 or 1950 when we are all going to run out of coal? And then oil and gas came on board and displaced coal to a great extent. So substitution will play its role, and lithium is not going to be a problem.

Can our planet sustain billions of people living like Americans?

There was certainly a time where people were—and some people still are—worried very much about overpopulation. This really became a thing in the early 1970s, where we worried that we had too many people. We were worried about natural resource constraints. We were going to be running out of oil and just about everything else. How much is your thesis is based on the idea that global population will continue to grow to maybe 10 or 11 billion and then it stops? Would you still have this thesis if we were going to have a population of 30 billion people, all of whom would like to live like Americans do today, if not better? Is the idea of a constrained population key to this forecast?

You started by pointing to the 1970s, and whilst it is true that many academics have departed from the basic Malthusian premise that more people will lead to an exhaustion of resources, what we found writing this book was very disturbing, which is that Malthusian ideas are much more widespread than we originally thought amongst the common public, amongst the ordinary people. In fact, as far as we can tell, a disproportionate number of mass shooters in America and also around the world, especially in developed countries, have been people driven by Malthusian ideas. This goes back to Anders Breivik in Norway, then the guy called Tarrant in New Zealand, all the way to the mass shooters in the United States, the guy who killed 22 people in El Paso in Walmart a couple of years ago—all of these people have been driven by the notion that there are far too many people in the world using far too many resources. The Malthusian notions are still very much present. You can also get them from multi-national organizations like the United Nations. You have these websites like the Overshoot Day and things like that still. So people still buy into it, and that's deeply worrying because obviously we think that population growth is…

Overshoot, meaning that we're overshooting the capacity of our resources and that for everyone to live like Americans, we would need 10 Earths—and obviously we don't have 10 Earths.

The current calculations say that we are already using 1.7 planets in order to maintain our standards of living, which is ridiculous because we still only have one planet. How can we already be using 1.7 planets? It doesn't make any sense.

Wouldn’t they say this isn't sustainable? People who are very worried about running out of everything, when they talk about growth, it's never just growth, it’s “sustainable growth.” What they mean is sustainable environmentally.

And when it comes to that, then of course we have to ask, how would this unsustainability present itself in the real world? People are living longer. People are living richer lives. The very fact that longevity had been expanding until COVID suggests that we are also living healthier lives. We are better fed. And not just that: As countries become richer, they have much more money to spend on environmental protection. The extraordinary lengths that Western societies go through in order to protect their oceans and their land and their biomass and biodiversity—nothing like this has been done by humans before. Where is this apocalypse going to come from? Another way of looking at it is the question of existential threat. Well, existential threat to whom? Existential threat to humanity? But how are we going to measure it? The only way we can measure it is by looking at how many people a year are dying due to extreme weather. And that particular statistic has been reduced by 99.8 percent over the last 100 years. So even though the language of the extreme environmentalist movement is getting more and more apocalyptic, the number of people who are dying due to extreme weather is continuing to collapse.

Let me ask that question in a simpler way: Do we have the ability, do we have the resources, for everyone on this planet to have at least the standard of living as Americans and Western Europeans do today? Can we do that? That's the response I often get on social media: They’ll say that we cannot afford to have eight billion people living the way 300 million Americans do. Is that possible?

If the basic premise of the book is correct, then yes, not just for eight billion, but potentially substantially more for the following reason: Ideas are not constrained by the laws of physics. Yes, the planets, atoms are constrained by the laws of physics, but not the ideas produced by the human brain. So long as you have more people living in freedom, communicating together, exchanging ideas—in the words of Matt Ridley, “ideas having sex”—then you can always come up with a solution to shortages, which would be, in that case, temporary, driving up prices, therefore incentivizing people to look for solutions. The essence of the book is, there are no physical limits to abundance; and therefore, it should be possible for the world to have the living standards of Americans.

Is this a faith-based premise, based on a fairly short period in human existence? That you're assuming that we can still do it, that humanity is ingenious enough that we can continue to be more efficient and come up with new ways of doing things infinitely?

Is it faith-based? Thomas Sowell has that great quote that the caveman had exactly the same amount of resources that we have in the world today. And the difference between their standard of living and our standard of living is the knowledge that we bring to bear onto the resources that we have. In fact, you might argue that the only reason why any resources are valuable is because of the ability of human beings to interact with them and produce value out of them. If you think about the immense difference between our standards of living and those of people in the Stone Age—again, the resources haven't gone anywhere, they're still with us; except for a few tons of metal that we have shot into space, everything else is still here: the same amount of copper, the same amount of iron—there is no reason to think that people 200 years from now who are much richer than us couldn't utilize those resources in a similarly beneficial fashion.

The burden of proof is on the doomsayers

Let me ask you this: Who should the burden of proof be on? People who are worried about the sustainability of growth, who think there's no way this Earth can tolerate eight or 10 billion people living like Western Europeans: Should the burden of proof be on them, or should the burden of proof be on you to say that, yes, we've done it in the past and we can continue to do it in the future?

I think the burden should be on them in the following sense: This is not the first time that this particular concept has been proposed. The famous wager between Simon and Ehrlich was essentially…

Explain that wager just very briefly for people. What is that wager?

Paul Ehrlich is the famous biologist from Stanford University. He wrote the 1968 Population Bomb book, which became an international bestseller. He was on Johnny Carson's show like 20 times, scared and scarred generations of Americans into believing that the world was going to end because of lack of natural resources. In fact, it was based on his work that you've got Soylent Green, the famous 1973 movie with Charlton Heston. And that movie basically culminates in 2022—it's this year that the movie is supposed to happen. And of course, we never got anything like that. On the East Coast, Julian Simon at the University of Maryland basically challenged him to a bet. He said, “Look, Ehrlich, you pick any commodities you want and a time period of more than a year. We are going to put $1000 on it, and if the prices go up whilst the population expands, I'm going to pay you. If the prices go down, then you pay me.” And in fact, Ehrlich lost that bet and had to write Simon a check for $576. These believers in the apocalypse have been at this for so long that I feel that it's time for them to start convincing us that the apocalypse is coming, rather than us trying to remind them of all the previous predictions of apocalypse which didn't come true. I'm willing to go and do a bet like that.

The other thing that you ask is, is this possible? Is it feasible for us to continue like that? I believe that it is feasible so long as we have at least part of the world that is still free economically and politically. I don't think that we can expect cutting-edge research from China, which is increasingly restrained politically and economically where people are not free to speak, interact with ideas. But so long as we are free in Western countries, be it the United States or some other country if freedom of speech comes to an end here, then we can still produce research, we can still produce progress. But of course, my belief, part of the book, is that the more people who are free, the better. It's not just about population, it's population times freedom. Freedom is incredibly important. China has been the most populous country for a very long time, but they were dirt poor until they started liberalizing. So the freedom component is very important.

Why is this belief so persistent? I still hear people who still think that we are headed toward a population of 30 billion, who think that's a big issue, who are very surprised to learn that there are countries where if the population isn't already shrinking, it's very close. Do we naturally want to believe these kinds of stories? Was Julian Simon ever on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson?

No, of course not. He never got any professional award in his entire life. And you are right to say that there was always an opposition to these Malthusian thoughts. Shortly after Malthus died, there was a big debate in Britain over who was right. Then they revisited the whole concept of shortage of natural resources in the late 19th century. So it goes through ups and downs.

But there's something in that story. Have we identified what that is?

There’s something in that story, and the big question is what it is. I think that this particular problem could have many fathers, so to speak. One of them is that people have been traditionally not numerate. And we have a problem with the notion of exponential growth and compounding. Paul Romer put his finger on it, and that is that ideas do not add up; they multiply. And so he's got that famous example of the periodic table. Once you start interacting with compounds consisting of 10 elements on the periodic table, which has 100 elements in it, you're talking about more possible combinations, more possible calculations, more possible recipes for future progress, than there are number of seconds since the beginning of the Big Bang, 14.5 billion years ago. There's just so much knowledge which can still be discovered. We have only scratched the surface of knowledge. I think that's part of the reason why people are so pessimistic: They do not understand the potential for creation of new knowledge. The other reason, probably, is that the world really is finite. That is absolutely true. It's also irrelevant, because it's what you do with those resources that matters. As I’ve mentioned with the example of sand and fibers, you can use resources in evermore valuable ways.

The more people, the better

I know this isn't key to your thesis, but we do live in a universe. So if you say, “Maybe you're right today, but in 1000 years you'll be wrong.” Well, a lot can happen in 1000 years. If I'm betting on 1000 years, I would also guess that if we somehow hit some constraint here on Earth, we have a whole universe of stuff that we could draw upon.

Well, absolutely. Can you imagine, if wealth continues to expand at the current rate, what sort of species we would encounter in 1000 years and their technological abilities?

A lot of asteroids out there!

What worries me is actually that there won't be enough people to explore all those possible avenues for creation of new knowledge. You mentioned population growth: Population is below replacement level in 170 countries out of 190. We are going to peak in 2060 and then start declining. Instead of worrying about 30 billion people, we are going to have to worry about a population that is going to be basically as big in 2100 as it is today. And that really constrains the knowledge horizon and how fast we get there. And that brings with it all sorts of other problems. When people say—and I was actually speaking to somebody yesterday about this—that perhaps we have enough wealth, I cannot help but think, imagine all the possible problems that we could encounter in the future, all the other existential threats: be it asteroids, or a new pathogen, or something like that. I want our society to be super rich so that if we need to shut down the economy for another year, we can afford to do so rather than do it with that. Or if we do encounter an asteroid that's hurling towards Earth, we have a super powerful laser powered by mega fusion power stations that can blast it out of the sky. We never know what the future is going to hold, but I would much rather have a wealthier society deal with it than a poorer and more technologically primitive society dealing with it.

Despite the fact that these predictions that were made a half century ago have not panned out, that these bets have been lost, if there’s any example of the continued power of this idea, it’s really the movie Avengers and the Infinity War series. The key villain, Thanos—and this is a multi-billion-dollar franchise—and his entire plot is to kill half of all life everywhere in the universe because we're running out of space. Apparently plenty of people signed off on the idea and said, “Yes, the audience will accept that.” And the audience did accept that.

In the book we talk about that movie, and I think that one in five Americans saw it. But it was just one of the movies made based on Malthusian principles. There was Kingsman and there was also Inferno, and they were all based on Malthusian ideas.

I believe that one of the James Bond films was based on the peak oil theory, too. I would doubt that there was anyone at a Hollywood studio who said “This is an absurd idea.”

I don't know whether you would call it genetic or cultural, but this notion of limits must be deeply embedded in our psyche. And the key to breaking with that thinking has to be the embrace of knowledge, understanding that knowledge can solve all of our problems. Just about everything that you see around you in the world today that you bemoan is due to lack of knowledge. People are dying of cancer because of lack of knowledge. Babies are dying in Africa from malaria because of lack of knowledge, although that's being fixed already by vaccines. The more knowledge, the better. Currently it's only the human mind that is capable of producing new knowledge, so we still need people. Maybe at some point in the future we are going to have a super smart AI that is going to produce its own new knowledge. But right now that's not a realistic option. I think that there is something to be said for population growth. Now, what we are certainly not suggesting is that people should be forced to have more babies. The book’s goal…

Are there people who suggested that's what you're saying?

I hope not. That’s certainly not something. The goal of the book is much less ambitious. The goal of the book is to say to all those parents around the world who are worried about bringing a new child into the world because it'll be a drag on resources, because it'll be a cancer on the planet: You don't have to worry about that. Your child has the potential of contributing to the scope and stock of human knowledge. We are basically just tackling one aspect of this anti-nativist, anti-natalist, and anti-humanist worldview, which is the issue with resources. If we can convince people that it's still okay to have children, the question famously posed by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, then we will have done something good.

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