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Perspectives on the Future, Part 1 - Population

Posted by Steve Graham on 3/30/21 3:02 PM

In any age, the seeds of the future are planted in the past. Technological and economic forces drive changes across the globe, whether we notice it, or not. The once-sidelined electric engine is making a splash in transportation circles. Humans dominate the planet and it has become a big concern whether they will survive their own technological changes. The weather is getting noticeably warmer, in part driven by human activity in their transportation grid. The rise of globalization has uncovered other facts, some of them unpleasant. Humans have always faced diseases that threaten life. To some degree, isolation was a savior. Tropical and other diseases have existed since humans started on their historic journey. Humans adapted or developed resistance to local strains. Some diseases such as the Black Death did affect large areas of the globe and was spread by sea-borne commerce. The development of transportation grids has made us more vulnerable to diseases, that once were isolated. COVID-19 is an example of a disease that may have only affected a small group of people until globalization and the disease used the interlocked transportation grids to spread itself across the globe.

Some ideas that sit on the shelf will come into greater usage in the future. Electric engines are as old, relatively speaking, as the internal combustion engine. Sometimes inventions sit a long time but may have an application in the future. Thomas Edison used a nickel-iron storage battery based on the work of the Swedish inventor Ernst Waldemar Jungner and used it in a electric car in the early 1900’s. Edison claimed the nickel-iron battery was incredibly resilient and could be charged twice as fast as a lead-acid battery. It was bigger and produced hydrogen which was considered dangerous. By the time he developed a more refined prototype, electric cars were on their way out. Now people notice the hydrogen is a plus and the batteries are stable and nickel-iron is plentiful, compared to lithium. They may not drive cars but they could store electricity from solar and wind generators. The past can come back and help you.

The first glimpse of the future will be in terms of human population. The number of people has a huge influence on economic growth, the use of resources, and will be a prime determinant of what kind of environment we will live in.

Let me take a moment to say the history of estimating human population growth has pretty much always been wildly wrong. I hope that we have learned something from the past, as we look forward. But know that external factors that the experts who study this are not factoring into their analysis are sure to arise.

What we know

The world population is estimated to have reached 7,800,000,000 as of March 2020. It took 2 million years of human prehistory to reach 1 billion and 200 years more to reach 7 billion. The world population is still increasing, but there is significant uncertainty about its long-term trajectory due to changing rates of fertility and mortality.

What we think we know

According to current projections by the United Nations, the global population will reach 8 billion by 2024 and 9 billion by 2042. Underlying assumptions for fertility suggest a tapering of the fertility level. Long-range assumptions to 2150 range from a population decline to 3.2 billion in a “low scenario” to a “high scenario” of 24.8 billion. One extreme scenario predicted a massive increase to 256 billion by 2150, assuming the global fertility rate remained at the 1995 level of 3.04 children per woman. However, by 2020, the global fertility rate had declined to 2.52. Fertility rates are falling as economies get more developed, an important factor in ascertaining the human economic condition in coming decades. The size of the labor force, plus productivity growth determines potential GDP, a useful benchmark in determining future economic growth.

The U.N Department of Economics and Social Affairs projects that global population will reach 9-10 billion by 2050 and gives an 80% probability of a 10-to-12 billion population by the end of the 21st century.

Uneven distribution

Six out of seven of the Earth’s continents are permanently inhabited on a large scale. The world’s most populous continent is Asia. The world’s two most populated countries, China and India, together constitute about 36% of the world’s population, with 4.64 billion people. Africa is the second most populated continent, with around 1.34 billion people, or 17% of the world’s population. Europe’s 747 million people make up 10% of the world’s population, while Latin America and the Caribbean regions are home to 653 million (8%). The U.S. and Canada have a population of 368 million or about 5% of the world’s population.

Aging populations

Researchers at Pew point out that the global fertility rate is expected to be 1.9 births per women by 2100, down from 2.5 today. That is below the replacement fertility rate (2.1 births per women) by 2070. The fertility rate is the number of births per woman needed to maintain a population’s size. The world’s median age is expected to increase to 42 in 2100, up from the current 31 and up from 24 in 1950. Starting in 2073, there will be more people ages 65 and older than under 15, the first time this will be the case. China’s population was 554 million in 1950, climbed to 1.439 billion in 2020 and is projected to be 1.065 billion by 2100. India’s population was 376 million in 1950, increased to 1.380 billion in 2020 and is expected to be 1.450 billion by 2100. Half the babies born worldwide are expected to be born in Africa, up from three-in ten today. The population of the U.S was 159 million in 1950, climbed to 331 million today and is projected to equal 434 million by 2100.

The result is smaller workforces to support older populations. As economics points out, that is a problem unless we get dramatically more productive.

New political and economic order

Other studies suggest a more dramatic decline in population in some countries. According to a study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington and funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 23 countries will see population declines of over 50%, including Japan (from 128 million in 2017 to 60 million in 2100.) Spain will fall from 46 to 23 million, Thailand will drop from 71 million to 35 million. Italy will see population declined from 61 million to 31 million. Deutsche Bank projects the world population will peak at 8.7 billion people in 2055 and then decline to 8 billion by 2100. Such projections suggest countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Nigeria will become key players in the global workforce. The U.S. population will largely grow by immigration. Forecasts of such huge population changes will also prompt shifts in economic power and influence. The old world political and economic order is likely to change.

Change is coming

Having a stable, or declining population will mean some changes. Perhaps in terms of environmental sustainability, it could be useful. Oil is a useful tool, but if all electric generation was self-sustaining and environmentally cleaner, will that necessarily be a bad thing? Autonomous vehicles may change the idea of even owning personal transportation. The impact of the COVID virus made many of us work at home versus driving to an office. More electronic changes are coming. The standard model tells us that population declines mean less GDP. However, the creation of the internet revolution argues against that concept. Humans can create a lot of wealth from ideas. When I was young, my teachers pointed to a future where robots did all the mundane work and humans were free to create ideas. GDP can grow, even as a population stabilizes. The future may be brighter than we think.





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