Innovation has managed to save us many times in the past. Can it continue to save us in the future?
At the fag end of the 18th century a political thinker by the name of Thomas Robert Malthus write a book called An Essay on the Principles of Population. In the book, he observed that the increase in food production led to an improvement in the well-being of a population but that improvement was short-lived and the population always grew to restore the per-capita production level.
The 1700s and 1800s were not a time of plenty. Food was hard to come by and starvation was not entirely abnormal.
As the 20th century progressed and the human population started doubling in shorter and shorter intervals.
The human population went from 1 billion to 2 billion over 127 years. The next billion were added in 33 years and the next billion in just 14 years. In 1974 the human population reached 4 billion. There was a growing chorus of people who used the theory proposed by Thomas Malthus and argued that we would eventually be unable to feed the human population. This came to be known as the Malthusian Trap.
The Malthusians as they came to be known, were repeatedly proven wrong. They had not accounted for “innovation”. Innovation has bailed humankind out of certain starvation more than once. It has robbed the Malthusian of all of their credibility.
The story of Sisyphus from Greek mythology is helpful in this context.
Hades punished him for cheating death twice by forcing him to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity. Through the classical influence on modern culture, tasks that are both laborious and futile are therefore described as Sisyphean
Granted that innovation has allowed mankind to dig itself out of the hole each time. We have been able to come up with technology that has prevented the collapse of humankind. But…
The exponential growth of our population has meant that these innovations have had to arrive at a faster and faster pace.
Going back to Malthus, each time that there is an increase in food production we increase the population by that much more to keep people in just as bad a condition. We need to innovate faster the next time around to keep the situation from getting out of hand. It is like the story of Sisyphus but one where he needs to roll the stone up the hill faster and faster.
Note that the graphs use logarithmic scales. Each step down is 10 times less time.
The need for that pace of innovation has changed the world in unbelievable ways over the last 100 years. The 20th century saw more innovation than the previous 10 centuries put together. But what is often left out is that such a pace of innovation was necessary just to keep mankind alive.
Hence, to sustain the current pace of population growth more innovation will be needed and the pace at which it must arrive would have to be faster. Can you imagine an Internet-level paradigm shift arriving every 10 years or every 5 years? What kind of resource utilisation would be needed to sustain that pace of innovation?
When will our time run out?
Innovation notwithstanding, the Malthusians were not entirely wrong.
Finally, here is an incredible talk by Carl Sagan that I think is totally worth listening to.