Thanos was wrong about population but so is Musk, suggests famous economist

  •   6 min reads
Thanos was wrong about population but so is Musk, suggests famous economist

Elon Musk reckons a collapse in the population poses the biggest threat to civilisation, but he is wrong, suggests leading economist.

Elon Musk and Thanos from the Marvel franchise sit on opposite sides of the population debate. Thanos fretted about overpopulation and came up with an idea of a kind of universal cull. On the other hand, Musk thinks an imminent collapse in the population is potentially the single biggest threat to civilisation. We know Thanos was wrong, but so is Musk says Lord Turner, former chair at the UK’s Financial Services Authority (FSA).

When he was chair at the FSA, Lord Turner said that much of what banks do is “socially useless”. Later, he became famous for proposing the monetisation of quantitative easing, by which central banks fund government spending by buying non-maturing government bonds at a zero interest rate.  Now he has waded into the population debate, which has taken a distinct existential tone of late.

Thanos, Malthus and the UN have one thing in common
Media stories claimed that China’s population fell in 2020, although the data has not been formally released yet. It will be the first annual drop in China’s population since the late 1950s.

Population challenge

A rising population used to pose a major threat to humanity. The economist Malthus said that any increase in production across an economy is matched by an increase in the population such that on an individual basis, people are no better off.  His idea partly inspired Darwin when he wrote the Origin of Species.

Ironically, Malthus made his famous prediction just as things were about to change. The First Industrial Revolution was in full flow when the Malthus essay, 'An Essay on the Principle of Population' was published, but as was pointed out here recently; the economic impact didn’t fully materialise for several decades. See:

AI will spark a productivity boom soon, says professor
New research from a professor of economic history suggests that AI will support a boom in economic productivity soon, but we may have to wait a little longer.

Eventually, however, the fruits of the industrial revolution trickled down into higher wages; we were better off,  apparently contradicting the famous Malthus' theory.

But that nagging suspicion that the Malthusian idea is right in the long run won’t go away. Maybe all that economic growth per person we have seen over the last two centuries is unsustainable, and the human population, weighed down by the pressure of feeding 7.7 billion mouths, will prove too much. Thanos, who made your typical Bond villain seem quite 'nice', had his own remedy. And every now again, you see articles suggesting Thanos was right, albeit his solution was a bit harsh. (We won’t describe his solution, we will keep that secret in case of the unlikely circumstances you have not seen the movies but are intrigued to know what we are talking about.)

Population explosion

During the last century or so, the global population exploded and it is continuing to increase.  

One of the reasons for the population explosion was that we used to have large families as a response to high child mortality. It was a kind of numbers game, the larger the family, the more likely some of our children would grow to adulthood.   However, as medical technology and diet advanced, and child mortality rates fell, our old habits took time to change, so the population surged.

Now things are different. The new reality is that the population explosion is likely to eventually turn into an implosion.

Our World in Data

The population implosion

The population is likely to implode as women are having fewer babies. The reasons are many, but the main ones are likely to be as follows:

  • Advances in contraception
  • In agricultural communities, large families were seen as a way to provide a kind of pension; the move away from that type of economic model reduced the economic imperative for large families
  • Emancipation of women

The emancipation of women is surely the big factor at play. Of course, for women, having a large family and a career are not necessarily contradictory, but there is no doubt that, on average, career women have smaller families.

The falling fertility rate is spreading — Africa still sees a rapidly growing population, but that will surely change. Technology helps support this change, especially as the internet and MOOCs make education more accessible. And the recent announcement of a vaccine against Malaria is potentially a game changer for Africa. (Not that Malthusian economics would necessarily see it like that)

Oxford University’s research and knowledge contributes £7.9 billion to the UK economy
Oxford University contributed £15.7 billion to the UK economy in 2018/19 with research and knowledge accounting for more than half this figure

The race

Let's say the population carried on growing indefinitely. At some point, the Earth would be unable to supply all the needs of this massive population, creating enormous problems.

But, as was pointed out above, falling fertility means that at some point the population will start to fall.  

The big question then, is will the population peak and then fall fall before we reach the point when the planet has insufficient resources to provide for all of humanity?

It is as if humanity is seeing a kind of race for survival. In lane one is falling fertility. In lane two are the forces driving up the population.  Will falling fertility overtake the forces driving up the population in time?

Looking at advancing tech and falling fertility, our view is that the race will be won by the competitor in lane one — falling fertility.

Musk and the existential threat

Then Elon Musk comes along and says that falling fertility is a problem — that a falling population could represent humanity’s biggest danger.

It was the Tweet below that got it all going.

Musk tweeted: “Population collapse is potentially the greatest risk to the future of civilisation."

The response

A new report, Smaller Families and Ageing Populations, drafted by environmental consultancy Higginson Strategy has a quite different take.

Lord Turner wrote the report’s foreword.

He commented: “The biggest reason to welcome this demographic shift is that it results from the free choice of empowered people, and in particular women."

"But ceasing endless population growth will also reduce humanity’s future pressure on the natural environment, ease the challenge of adequate housing provision, and make it easier to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions while supporting prosperity growth in developing countries."

"Human welfare is best served in societies where women are empowered, smaller families are the norm, and populations are stable or gently declining.”

Robin Maynard, Director, Population Matters, added:

“Those panicking about ageing societies and lower birth rates should look at the evidence and the available, positive solutions which offer greater wellbeing for a greater proportion of people globally. For example, formerly poor countries like Costa Rica now enjoy some of the highest wellbeing in the world, having prioritised family planning and women’s empowerment as their springboard to sustainable development."

“Elon Musk’s apocalyptic pronouncements on this issue are ill-informed, harmful, and his motives questionable. Women’s bodies are not an economic tool to provide a growing supply of cheap labour and new consumers to the very wealthy."

“An economy which ignores the environmental limits of our planet can’t deliver long-term wellbeing. Contrary to the alarmist headlines, lower birth rates are key to greater opportunity and progress. The fact of more people living longer, healthier lives is a triumph, not a tragedy.”

So there you have it, Thanos, Malthus and Musk are all wrong, apparently!  

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