“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that ain’t so.”
That wonderful quote from the 19th-century American sage Josh Billings perfectly captures what I call “Category 3 Problems.”
These are perceived, but false problems. Problems that are either based on false data, outdated trends, cognitive biases, or a scarcity mindset. Most importantly (and perniciously), they prevent us from recognizing all the progress we’ve made and blind us to the opportunities in front of us for innovation and creating a world of abundance.
Over the next two blogs, we’ll look at a few examples of these perceived but false problems. Today, we’ll begin with one of the most insidious falsehoods that has permeated society for the past 50 years: the fear of overpopulation.
In the late 1960s, Paul Ehrlich released a book, The Population Bomb, that incited a worldwide fear of overpopulation.
He said that too many people, packed into too-tight spaces, would take too much from the Earth. Unless humanity cut down its numbers, all of us would face “mass starvation” on “a dying planet.”
Ehrlich’s vision was built on top of a theory proposed by Thomas Malthus, an 18th-century English economist and demographer who believed that if left unchecked, population growth would outpace food production, leading to widespread famine, disease, and other disasters.
Ehrlich viewed overpopulation as a global catastrophe that threatened the entire planet.
As he put it, “A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells; the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people … We can no longer afford merely to treat the symptoms of the cancer of population growth; the cancer itself must be cut out."
He predicted that uncontrolled population growth would lead to famine and starvation and that by the 1970s, “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.”
For Ehrlich, the negative consequences of overpopulation didn’t end there. Exponentially growing populations would deplete the Earth’s resources (including food), lead to social unrest and war as communities and nations fought one another over those shrinking resources, environmental degradation, and ultimately economic collapse—fueled by increased costs of living, poverty, and inequality.
To this day, Ehrlich’s doom and gloom predictions haunts society, even though none of them have come true. When I’m on stage speaking about longevity and people share their concerns, one of the first questions asked is, “Won’t increasing human lifespan aggravate the looming overpopulation challenge?”
Even the Marvel movies Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019) were based on this false premise, wherein the villain Thanos sought to solve the problem of limited resources by eliminating half of all life in the universe.
Let’s consider the actual evidence on human population growth...
First, let’s define something called the total fertility rate (TFR), the metric that demographers use to measure the number of offspring per parent. The population replacement rate, which is the average number of children per family for each generation to exactly replace itself, is roughly 2.1.
It was different 70 years ago. As you can see in the below chart, the global average fertility rate was 5.05. Several countries, such as Rwanda, Kenya, and the Philippines, had a fertility rate higher than 7 children per woman. China had a fertility rate just over 6, while India was just below 6. Only one country in the world had a fertility rate below 2: Luxembourg. The United States had a TFR of 3.03 in 1950, which increased to a maximum of 3.6 in 1957.
But a lot has changed since then. Today is very different: as of 2021, the global average fertility rate has more than halved to 2.32, with a multitude of nations below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per family, causing them to shrink in size.
Today, humanity has a new problem, “an underpopulation problem”—wherein future predictions suggest that global population will peak and rapidly fall, resulting in too few humans to maintain our socioeconomic engine.
So, what is the reason for this unprecedented decline?
In short, there are three major reasons: the empowerment of women, declining child mortality, and the rising cost of raising children. Today, roughly 80% of the world’s population lives in countries with a fertility rate below 3. Only 10% live in countries where women, on average, have more than 5 children. For example, while China and India previously had total fertility rates above 5, those countries’ total fertility rates have declined significantly to around 2 children per woman today. Africa, on average, remains high but has more recently begun to rapidly decline. Several countries now have a fertility rate that is significantly below the replacement levels. These include much of Europe, significant portions of Asia, and the United States, which now has a TFR of 1.66.
Back in April 2021, when I interviewed Elon Musk on my Moonshots podcast, I asked him about his concerns regarding the topic of population. He shook his head and said, “Earth is going to face a massive population collapse over the next 20 to 30 years... this would be civilization’s way of dying with a whimper.”
And in July 2022, Musk tweeted that “A collapsing birth rate is the biggest danger civilization faces by far,” adding in another tweet a month later that, “Population collapse due to low birth rates is a much bigger risk to civilization than global warming.”
Declining Global Population Represents a Massive Opportunity
With declining populations around the world, how do we maintain society without the required labor?
For example, shrinking populations—and in particular shrinking, aging populations—mean fewer workers. And fewer workers mean less productivity and economic output.
The solution, as with so many of the global challenges we face, is technology. Specifically, AI and robotics. As we’ll see in upcoming blogs, humanoid robots—powered by AI and enabled by the convergence of robotics, sensors, and other exponential technologies—will look and operate like human beings with legs, arms, fingers, and an opposable thumb.
According to a study by the global banking and investment firm Goldman Sachs, the humanoid robot market could generate over $150 billion in annual revenue within the next 15 years and “fill from 48% to 126% of the labor gap, and as much as 53% of the elderly caregiver gap.”
Then consider the increases in productivity that we’ll see from increasing human-machine collaboration and upskilling.
This is the kind of a future I want to see:
Rather than people taking jobs because “It’s the only job available and I need to feed my family,” what if individuals could take the jobs that most excite them? Jobs they do not for the money, but instead for personal fulfillment.
Imagine a future where each of us can partner with AI and robotics to augment our knowledge, our skills, our senses, and abilities.
Why This Matters
Fear of overpopulation is the classic perceived but false Category 3 Problem.
And while global population decline represents a clear challenge, it also offers us a historic opportunity to build technologies that help us lead healthier, more fulfilling, and more productive lives.
This is a future of abundance and a future of exponential technologies. A future in which we can make our grandest dreams come true.
In our next blog, we’ll look at another Category 3 Problem: the growing rich-poor divide.
November 29th: The Largest Health XPRIZE Will be Announced
Since 1994, XPRIZE has used large-scale global incentive competitions to crowdsource solutions to the world’s biggest challenges.
Now, they’re bringing together the brightest minds to make a worldwide impact.
At $101M, this will be the largest XPRIZE ever created, to solve potentially, one of the biggest problems of mankind.
Don’t miss out on the global virtual launch event on Nov 29th.
I discuss how AI and other exponential technologies will transform industries and create a world of abundance on my podcast. Here’s a discussion I recently enjoyed:
A Statement From Peter:
My goal with this newsletter is to inspire leaders to play BIG. If that’s you, thank you for being here. If you know someone who can use this, please share it. Together, we can uplift humanity.