By Nathan Curland
One might look at the title of this book – Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet – and wonder: “What are these people talking about? Superabundance? Infinitely Bountiful Planet? What about overpopulation? World poverty? Climate change? Don’t we have a finite planet? Aren’t we facing increasing resource scarcity?”
It was exactly this question that Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley wanted to study: Does rapid human population growth lead to scarcity? In fact, how much scarcity do we really have? How do we measure it, and is it the right measure?
While the book has a libertarian tinge, it is not overtly political. It has stamps of approval from the prominent humanists Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer (among many others) and an uplifting humanistic tone to it with references to the Enlightenment and human flourishing.
After an interesting preview and discussion of their basic thesis in Part One, Tupy and Pooley in Part Two present their analysis of hundreds of commodities, goods, and services from different time periods to the present (the present being defined as 2018).
But what is the correct measure for making the comparisons? Prices of goods and services themselves are inadequate due to inflation and currency differences around the world. Even trying to adjust for these differences results in errors due to inherent biases in how these rates are determined.
The authors chose a rational alternative, something they call “time prices,” which represent the length of time a person would need to work to buy something. They created a series of tables covering four periods (1980-2018, 1960-2018, 1900-2018, 1850-2018) based on known wages (blue-collar, unskilled, or white-collar workers) and prices of various commodities and services from countries across the world for the beginning and end of each time period.
In all cases, regardless of the time period or country, workers can buy nearly any good or service today with fewer work hours than at the start of the period. That is to say, the resource abundance increased faster than the rising population – a relationship the authors call “superabundance.”
How is this surprising result possible? That is the topic of the second half of the book. Tupy and Pooley take us through the history of humankind from hunter gatherers to the Industrial Revolution. It was the latter, combined with the freedoms of the European Enlightenment, that resulted in the Age of Innovation and the Great Enrichment.
Their thesis is that human invention and innovation are responsible for this superabundance. The greatest resource, they argue, is not the physical resources of earth, but the human ability to generate new ideas and the freedom to try them out, i.e., a free market in ideas as well as in goods and services.
Furthermore, the more people you have in this environment, the more ideas will be created about how best to use physical resources — how to find them, recombine them to make new products, and develop new processes to make manufacturing more efficient. A (relatively) free market will ultimately weed out the bad ideas and result in the most productive and desirable ideas succeeding and, via competition, being most cost effective. Furthermore, due to human ingenuity, this process will go on indefinitely (hence the “Infinitely Bountiful Planet” in the subtitle).
If this sounds a bit utopian, it probably is. Certainly there is no denying a correlation between population growth and innovation, but is correlation causation? There is no ethical way in the real world to do an experiment on whether increased innovation is caused by population growth combined with free markets and will result in endlessly increasing innovation and human flourishing.
However, the authors give compelling arguments and examples in our recent history of how population growth was curtailed at the expense of innovation (e.g. China and India before they instituted economic reforms). But there certainly could have been other factors that played into the correlation (say, the repressive actions of despotic regimes independent of population control). In addition, there is no guarantee that human ingenuity will overcome the serious broad existential problems humanity faces today quickly enough to avoid catastrophe.
In the final chapter Tupy andPooley do discuss obstacles to this utopian future: namely socialistic or autocratic societies that squelch human freedoms and hence prevent innovation; and extreme environmentalism that preaches lower population growth, less use of natural resources, and a return to nature. However, in the end, the authors believe we can overcome these roadblocks and they remain optimistic that human innovation will carry us through the problems even if there is some backsliding along the way.
So what conclusion can the reader come to?
If you are an optimist, you will love this narrative. The front of the book carries statements of praise from nearly 20 well known authors, scientists, and philosophers, in addition to Pinker and Sherman including Nobel prize winners Angus Deaton and Paul Romer. All are optimistic about humanity’s future.
If you are a pessimist, you will question whether all the ingredients the authors say is required for a successful future can really be brought together quickly enough given the rise of autocracy, nationalism, and the strife caused by increasing population migrations. Nevertheless, reading this book will make you think and perhaps give you some hope!
Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet, by Marian L. Tupy & Gale L. Pooley (Cato Institute, Washington D.C. 2022)