Sometime today, the UN estimates that world population will hit 7 billion people. Some people are worried about how those 7 billion mouths will be fed. Here’s Paul Ehrlich in 1968’s The Population Bomb, when world population was not yet 4 billion:
The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash program embarked upon now.
Not so much, thankfully. Ehrlich and other people who live in bed-wetting fear of their fellow man forget that people are more than stomachs; they are also brains. And brains have an increasing return to scale. The more of them there are, and the more they can interact and exchange with one another, the faster they can outpace the rumbling stomachs.
That’s why real world per capita GDP is 16 times higher than it was before the Industrial Revolution — even without correcting for the increased quality of goods. Including that omission would bring the increase to something like 100-fold, according to the economist Deirdre McCloskey. And this is per capita; remember, world population has increased about 7-fold since 1800.
The data are simply astonishing. Seven times as many of us are each at least 16 times and as much as 100 times better off than our great-great-great-great grandparents. This is the single most important event in human since the Agricultural Revolution. It is so important that McCloskey calls it the Great Fact.
And the data show no signs of the Great Fact reversing itself, or even slowing down. if anything, China and India’s recent partial embrace of liberalism has quickened the brain’s still-incomplete conquest over the stomach.