Superabundance: How Humans Hacked Nature

Why the overpopulation crisis never occurred

September 2022

Script

Click to reveal bonus content (fun facts and additional insights) within script.

 

We are on the brink of catastrophe.

The planet only has so many natural resources. And as the world’s population grows, the consequences are predictable: We’ll run out of food, run out of land, push the environment to the breaking point.

And the inevitable outcome will be devastation: increasing poverty, environmental decay, and, according to the warnings of one prominent economist … widespread death.i
That’s the bad news.

Or at least it would be, if it wasn’t for the good news…

…which is that the prediction of that economist … was actually made over 200 years ago…

…when the Earth had about 7 billion fewer people.ii

Didn’t hold up so well. So, why are so many people making the same kinds of predictions today?

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

“People, the end is near!”…

…is something that humans seem to have thought at virtually every point in their history.

In ancient Greece, Aristotle warned that some communities would need to let babies die so that they wouldn’t develop populations too large to be supported by the land.iii

In England in the late 1700s, an economist named Thomas Malthus wrote a deeply influential book arguing that the population would grow faster than the food supply, leading to widespread famine, disease, and death. And arguing that, as a result, we had to control population levels.iv

And sure, it’s easy to imagine that earlier generations just succumbed to these fears because they didn’t know as much as us, but the same kinds of ideas have continued to be popular right up to the present day.

In 1968, a Stanford biologist named Paul Ehrlich had a best-seller with a book called The Population Bomb, which predicted that overpopulation was going to lead hundreds of millions of people to starve to death in the ‘70s.v

(He was wrong about that, by the way; the famine, not the ‘70s being tragic.)

And you may have even noticed similar ideas in your local movie theater in just the past few years.

[Clip of Thanos predicting overpopulation will make the world run out of resources]

Good rule of thumb: When you find yourself agreeing with the giant purple guy, it’s probably time for a gut check.

Unless it’s Grimace. That’s … probably fine.

Now, here’s the thing: This way of looking at the world isn’t crazy, even if, in the modern world, it’s usually wrong. It’s true that species can outgrow their resources and suffer mass death as a result. But here’s the catch: There’s one species that’s figured out a workaround.

What has two opposable thumbs and hacked the natural order of the universe? That’s right, baby, it’s humans!

And the explanation is pretty simple. As Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley explain in their 2022 book Superabundance, the reason that humans can often get around the limits of natural resources is because, through a combination of scientific advances, economic incentives, and technological innovation, we’re consistently able to produce more with less.

So, what does this mean in the real world? Let’s go back to Paul Ehrlich and The Population Bomb. Remember Ehrlich’s prediction: hundreds of millions of people starving to death in the 1970s.

The reality? About 3.5 million deaths from famine over the decade. Which is still terrible, of course, but here’s the most important part: Not only was it way lower than predicted, it was also a nearly 80 percent reduction from the previous decade … at the same time that the world’s population was exploding.vi

A big part of the reason why: because of innovative farming techniques that allowed us to get more food from less land. In the 50 years between 1964 and 2014, the average amount of land needed to provide the same amount of food … fell by 2/3.vii And, as you might expect, hunger rates in the developing world fell too.viii

And once you notice this pattern of getting more from less, you’ll start to see it everywhere.

When aluminum cans were first introduced in 1959, they weighed 85 grams. By 2011, they weighed only 13 grams.ix

Your smartphone may be one of the most efficient technologies ever invented, replacing everything from alarm clocks to photo albums to cameras. One study estimated that the rise of smartphones has led to us using 100 times less energy and 300 times less material than we used to for the same tasks.x

You’d think that a natural resource like oil might be immune to this trend. For decades, in fact, we heard warnings that the world’s oil supplies were running out. But, in reality, they actually grew by 33 percent between 2000 and 2020 — because the technological breakthroughs behind fracking allow us to access oil that was previously unretrievable.xi

Now, maybe you’re worried that this is just a run of dumb luck. But most indications are that these trends are only going to get more pronounced. Because wealthier societies tend to generate fewer children, it’s estimated that the world’s population will peak by 2080, and perhaps even sooner.xii The amount of the world’s land used for agriculture already peaked back in the year 2000.xiii Famine peaked all the way back in the 1870s.xiv

Our footprint is already shrinking — not because we’ve settled for a lower standard of living, but because a higher one actually does less damage.

All of which means we have reason to be optimistic. As long as we preserve the factors that allow us to innovate — our investments in science, economies that reward creativity, a focus on improving the world through technology — it’s likely that our societies will continue to get healthier and more prosperous without running up against the limits of nature.

Which is a big win for humanity.

And a huge loss for the big purple guy.

[Shot of Grimace wearing Infinity Gauntlet]

Whoa. Ok, I take it back. Do not trust any of them!

Sources

  1. An Essay on the Principle of Population — Thomas Malthus, pg. 44
  2. Historical Estimates of World Population — United States Census Bureau
  3. Politics — Aristotle, pg. 178
  4. An Essay on the Principle of Population — Thomas Malthus
  5. “The Book That Incited a Worldwide Fear of Overpopulation” (Charles C. Mann) — Smithsonian Magazine
  6. “Famine Mortality Over the Long Run” (Joe Hasell) — Our World in Data
     
    “World Population Growth” (Max Roser, Hannah Ritchie, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina) — Our World in Data
  7. Arable Land Needed To Produce a Fixed Quantity of Crops — Our World in Data
  8. Prevalence of Undernourishment in Developing Countries — Our World in Data
  9. More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources — And What Happens Next — Andrew McAfee, pg. 10
  10. “A Low Energy Demand Scenario for Meeting the 1.5 °C Target and Sustainable Development Goals Without Negative Emission Technologies” (Arnulf Grubler, Charlie Wilson, Nuno Bento, et al) — Nature Energy
  11. Oil: Total Proved Reserves — BP Statistical Review of World Energy 
  12. “How Far Will Global Population Rise? Researchers Can’t Agree” (David Adam) — Nature
  13. “The World Has Passed Peak Agricultural Land” — Our World in Data
  14. “Famine Mortality Over the Long Run” (Joe Hasell) — Our World in Data

Shownotes

Sound | The Fire Gate” (Alex Grohl) // Premium Beat: Awkward Dilemma” (Jack Pierce), “Adventures in the Jungle” (Illustrious Creations), “Tour” (Diverse Music) // Musicbed: “Before the Storm” (Will Patterson) // Pro Sound Cloud Library

Footage | Cato Institute: Marian Tupy & Gale Pooley // AbeBooks: Paul Erhlich // Bloomberg // NBC News // CNN // Fortune // Deviant Art: Stark3879 // NASA: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU // Nature // New York Times // World Economic Forum // Our World in Data: Joe Hasell and Max Roser, Gapminder, HYDE, UN Populations Division, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO and ESS Indicators, Taylor Rising, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation, Goldewijk // United Nations Environment Programme // New York Historical Society Museum & Library: Thomas Cole // National Portrait Gallery: Joseph Siffred Duplessis // National Roman Museum of Palazzo Altemps: Lysippos // National Library of France: Robert Greene // The Illustrated London News: James Mahoney // The Internet Archive: Politics (Aristotle), The Population Bomb (Dr. Paul Ehrlich) // Museum of the Vatican: Raphael // The Metropolitan Museum of Art: George Richmond // Wellcome Collection: John Linnell // Twitter: Road and Transport Authority of Dubai // Walt Disney Studios: Marvel // Paramount Pictures // McDonalds Fandom Wiki: Jeff Marks // MockupGraphics // Getty: Pascal Deloche, Warner Bros. Studios, Wetcake, Peter Dazeley, Duncan1890, Koya79, Print Collector / Contributor // Pexels: Jim Fawns, Mark Stebnicki, Pixabay, Alexander Bobrov // Unsplash: Dmitry B, NASA, Meriç Dağlı, Hermes Rivera, John Cameron, Mick Haupt, Manson Yim, Gryffyn M, Alex Houmadi, Michael Held, Misbahul Auli, Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona, Malachi Books, Taylor Brandon, Matt Palmer, Joseph Clan, Erwan Hesry, Dikaseva, Patrick Perkins, Miltiadis Fragkidis, Néstor Morales, Fernando Santos, Wolf Schram, Heye Jensen, William F. Santos, Amith Nair, Tim Mossholder, Sebastian Hermann, JuniperPhoton, Daniel Lozano Valdés, Kobby Mendez, StreetMarketStore, Mockup Graphics, Érik González Guerrero, Ivo Lukacovic, Pina Messina, Matt Seymour, Valentin Salja, Teng Yuhong, Lutz Wernitz, Delfina Iacob, Hoach Le Dinh, Linh Pham, PHÚC LONG, Sydney Rae, Laura Ockel, Ryan, Manuel, Niek Doup, Towfiqu Barbhuiya, Anne Nygård, Andrew Stutesman, Boston Public Library, Jeremy Bezanger, Matt Moloney, Jimmy Woo Man Tsing, Avinash Kumar, Wesely Tingey, Documerica, Greg Jewett, Miguel Bruna, Jonathan Kemper, Kseniia Rastvorova, ZQ Lee, Donald Giannatti, Gary Butterfield, Franco Antonio Giovanella, Mitchel Luo // Adobe Stock: Mark 1987, Yuriy_Alt Art, Erica Guilane-Nachez // Pixabay: Superbea, Akitada31, DariuszSankowski, OpenClipArt-Vectors, KinggoDarts // YouTube: Cine Free Stock Videos 4Kv // Ilka Hartmann // Rowman & Littlefield // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION. 

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