How many people are too many? In today’s Finshots, we take you through the problems of having 8 billion people on the planet.

The Story

In 1980, economist Julian L. Simon and biologist Paul Ehrlich got into an argument…

Ehrlich believed that the human population was a ticking time bomb. We would overrun the world in no time and deplete all its resources. The prices of commodities would shoot up as a result. It was an extension of an argument made by an economist, Thomas Malthus, in 1798. That the world population was doubling every 25 years and that we wouldn’t be able to produce enough food — the Malthusian Prophecy.

But Simon disagreed, quite vehemently. He believed that human ingenuity was the ultimate resource. We would find ways to use technology and squeeze out even more commodities.

And he believed prices would fall!

So they placed a bet for $1,000. And picked five metals to track prices― copper, chromium, nickel, tin and tungsten. They’d settle the bet 10 years later in 1990.

The decade passed. And guess who won?

It was Simon! The combined prices of the five commodities had dropped by 57%. As it turned out, human ingenuity was indeed at work.

And this folks is the legendary Simon–Ehrlich wager — a bet on the earth’s population and what we could sustain.

But that was 1980 and we had about 4 billion people back then. Since then, the population has doubled and we now have 8 billion people roaming the planet. And this got us thinking…How many people could the earth actually sustain? And will we need Thanos to come in and snap his fingers?

We don’t know. Hopefully, it doesn’t happen.

But a rapidly growing population will pose many challenges. Chief among them are food security and climate change.

Let us explain. See, we produce enough food to feed 10 billion people today. And yet, even with this kind of excess, there’s still a food crisis looming large. The United Nations projects that food production must go up 70% by 2050, compared to 2009, to meet increasing food demand. And no, it’s not because we aren’t producing enough. It’s got more to do with food wastage. Nearly 30% of all the food we produce is never eaten. It never makes it to people’s plates. And you could blame this on poor food management and storage practices.

This also translates to acute food insecurity — the total number of people who simply don’t get enough calories. These numbers have increased from 135 million in 2019 to 345 million by June 2022. Also, we haven’t yet talked about all that wasted food. It finds its way into landfills, of course. And as landfills clog up, you get methane emissions — a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

In fact, food production alone creates 30% of global carbon emissions. And is responsible for 80% of deforestation. If we continue going down this path and clear more land for agricultural purposes, the planet will continue to warm at increasingly alarming levels.

So what do we do?

Well, the argument here is that planet has a certain carrying capacity. And if you breach this target, you put massive pressure on the ecology. As one researcher points out — “Any limits to drawdown on biocapacity are understood as boundaries beyond which human happiness is no longer maximized, or unnecessary human suffering is caused.”

So what’s the ideal population you ask?

Well, according to the same researcher, a range of optimal global populations vary between 0.5 and 5 billion. So we are overshooting this figure by quite a bit.

But what about Elon Musk?

He keeps telling us that we have an underpopulation problem. How do you reconcile with that?

Well, the thing is — some countries are witnessing lower birth rates. And there is a very real risk that their populations may degrow in the next few years. But most researchers believe that that is a problem for the future. For instance, UN projections estimate population figures to reach 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050 and 10.4 billion in 2100.

So the global population is expected to grow. And humans should probably contend with the problem of excess before we think of repopulating the planet.

Until then...

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PS: Let’s go back to Simon and Ehlrich for a minute. Because there’s one thing we didn’t say earlier. That maybe Simon won the bet because he had some luck on his side in the 1980s. For instance, look at what happened to tin. In 1985, the International Tin Council declared that the Council couldn’t keep up its financial commitments. It was a cartel set up to get fair prices for tin post World War II. But things didn’t work out and the official council went bust. Naturally, it dragged down tin prices with it. And helped Simon’s case. In the 1990s, there was a higher probability that Ehlrich would’ve won the wager. Just because commodity prices rose due to many external factors.

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