What happens when you get two of the richest people on the planet together? Apparently, they talk about all sorts of things that will affect humanity in the future, including demography! In fact, when they had an hour-long chat at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai last month, one of the few things that Jack Ma (founder of Alibaba) and Elon Musk (Tesla founder) agreed on was the future demographic problems that will affect the world.
Ma was concerned about China’s lack of babies since, as he argued, “I think the best resources of the human beings, or the best resources on the earth are not the coal, not the oil, not the electricity, it’s the human brains.” Ma is hitting a point here that we have argued before on this blog, that there is a real lacuna in our views if we treat humans (and babies) only as resource consumers. This ignores the fact that the problems of the future will be solved by human beings (and their brains).
The necessary technological shifts that are needed for energy production and storage to deal with climate change will come from inventors and entrepreneurs. In a similar way, the green revolution in the late 20th century was driven by human beings' technological abilities; this revolution has meant that humanity is now the most-well fed it has ever been, despite the global population still rising. Not only are new babies potential scientists and engineering geniuses, but they are also consumers who drive demand for new products and make new inventions economically viable.
However, as Ma notes, China is not having enough babies. He cites 18 million new births a year in China as being “not enough,” but the picture is worse than that: there were only 15 million born in China in 2018. China’s near-neighbours are also suffering a shortage of births: there were 1,230 more deaths than births a day in Japan in 2018, while South Korea saw only 326,900 new citizens born last year, the lowest number since 1960.
Musk, whose views we have discussed before on this blog, picked up on Ma’s comments and said this:
“Most people think we have too many people on the planet. But actually this is an outdated view … I think the biggest problem the world will face in 20 years is population collapse. Collapse, I want to emphasise this. The biggest issue in 20 years will be population collapse – not explosion, collapse.”
Ma agreed, and said: “I think next 20 years we will see, this thing will bring big problems to China…Now you call it a collapse, I agree with that.”
The thing is though, there will be no population collapse in the next 20 years (barring some global disaster akin to the 14th century’s Black Death). The population will probably keep growing for a few decades more. But if Musk and Ma are talking about a collapse of population growth in the next 20 years, then perhaps we might see that. Global fertility rates are creeping nearer to the replacement rate of 2.1, but even when it hits that figure, the population will still grow, albeit slowly, for a few more years.
So I can’t see global growth rate collapse to nothing or go backwards, but I can see it trending down towards zero. In short, Ma and Musk are almost certainly wrong as to their projections, but they are at least pointing people towards thinking about future population in a new way. A way not dominated by the population bomb hysteria of the 1960s.
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet's blog on population issues.