We are moving from a world in which resources are scarce towards a world of abundance. Many things that were once scarce are already abundant in developed countries and will soon be abundant everywhere, if trends continue.
There’s a strong counter-narrative telling us the opposite – that the world’s resources are almost used up, that population levels are unsustainable and that we must cut back now or face disaster. But Malthus said the same two hundred years ago, and so have countless others. Each has been proved wrong.
In 1798, Malthus published his paper, An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he predicted that population growth would soon outstrip food supply, leading to widespread famine and disease.
Although Malthus’s theory was technically correct, in practice he couldn’t have been more wrong. In the century following the publication of Malthus’s paper, the population in Britain increased by a factor of 4, and food supply increased to meet demand, thanks to new agricultural practices and increased foreign trade. Food sources became much more secure and diverse than before. Malthus’s analysis had completely ignored the possibility of advancing technology.
People seem to have a natural tendency to extrapolate problems and downplay the possibility of solutions. In the 200 years since Malthus, countless other thinkers have made the same kind of prediction. Yet the one lesson we should learn from the past is that humans are creative and adaptable.
In 1968, Paul Ehrlich published his famous book, The Population Bomb, which again predicted that human population growth would very soon lead to mass starvation because of finite resources. The disaster Ehrlich predicted did not happen.
You only have to switch on the TV today to hear more voices repeating precisely the same claims as Malthus and Ehrlich. What all of these people ignore is the fact that technological developments are making resources more abundant than ever, and that there are sound explanations for why this happens and will continue to happen.
Even land is becoming more abundant. How so? Cities create land through the invention of multi-floored buildings, and more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. In Manhattan, total floor space is 42,476 acres (1.85 billion feet) on an island of just 2,686 acres. That’s a floor area ratio (FAR) of 16, i.e. 16 acres of floor space per acre of land. Typical low-density urban areas have a FAR below 1.0, and the average for England is much less than 1. Interestingly, in 2012, China passed a law requiring all new buildings to have a FAR greater than 1.0. So despite the fact that people in England are constantly complaining about over-crowding, the usable land density in China is ten times greater, and in Manhattan it is thousands of times greater.
So to create more land, we just need to build taller buildings. The limit on land isn’t the actual amount of land on the surface of the Earth, but what we choose to do with it. And before you start protesting about the environmental effects, it’s widely known that high-density city living has a much lower environmental impact than low-density rural or suburban development, because of more efficient use of resources and transport.
But if we build more, won’t we destroy the natural world? Vertical farms are a new way to feed growing populations. And in Milan, a 2.5 acre forest has been created on two residential apartment buildings – a vertical forest.
The city of the future is green, and more efficient use of urban space means more space for wilderness and forest.
Did you know that the total forested area in Europe and North America is increasing year on year?
- Life expectancy has more than doubled in the past century.
- Extreme poverty in the developing world is down by 40% since 1990.
- Infant mortality in the developing world has halved since 1960.
- Access to clean water in sub-Saharan Africa is up 20% since 1990.
Of course you can look around the world and see endless problems. Those problems are well known and are not new. What’s not so easy to see is the problems that have gone away or diminished. They require us to look a little harder and not just jump to conclusions.
We’re living in the best time ever, and the truth is that it’s only going to continue to get better.