The world population is scheduled to reach 7 billion people at the end of October, but what will a world with 8 billion people look like? We spoke with David Lam, an economics professor at the University of Michigan and the Population Studies Center, on the role that innovation stands to play in population growth, and what a billion more people could mean for innovation.
“It does have some implications for innovation,” said Lam during a phone interview on Wednesday. According to Lam, innovation is the leading reason the world has been able to cope with population growth to date. “It isn’t just that we were lucky,” Lam said. “As we go from 7 billion to 8 billion, there’s going to be a lot of innovation created by the pressures that are out there. We are going to need a lot more.”
In the 1960s, the reigning fear was that India and China would be subject to mass starvation as a result of population growth. The opposite turned out to be the case. Breakthroughs, such as those made by agronomist and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug in agriculture, have made growth possible in regions that were once thought to be on the fast track to a population crisis. Borlaug is often referred to as “the father of the Green Revolution,” and received India’s second highest civilian honor, the Padma Vibhushan, for his innovations in food production. Borlaug died in 2009.
Regions of the world that were once incredibly poor are doing far better than expected, thanks to breakthroughs in energy and consumer technology. India and China have bloomed into vibrant, emerging economies. “They are doing great considering that not long ago we were worried about mass starvation in those countries,” said Lam. “Today we are more concerned that consumption is rising so fast in those countries. That’s quite a change, and surely a very positive change.”
In fact, according to Lam, “the big story” is that, with the most recent population increases, poverty has declined worldwide even as consumption has increased. Meanwhile, countries such as Brazil continue to push for more rapid development and greater wealth. Conditions, however, are far from ideal. “We’re worried about a new kind of disparity,” said Lam, with the Africa as the leading concern. While the amount of food on the continent is three times what it was in the 1960s, Africa is also home to very high population growth. While news of starvation has made headlines, according to Lam, the famines are not directly related to population growth.
“We need continued, fast, brilliant, technological advances” to keep up with continued growth, said Lam. “Innovation happens because incentives are there,” he continuedd, referring to the need for government and non-profit involvement. “It’s an investment. It doesn’t happen by accident.”
Regardless of the need for innovation to ensure the world can cope with an additional billion people, there’s a potential reward for those able to discover the next great breakthroughs in energy conservation, food production and sustainability.
“Frankly,” said Lam, “there’s a lot of money to be made from innovation.”
After all, by 2080, the world is expected to pass the 10 billion mark.
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