Scientists and economists have long feared that rapid population and economic growth could lead to our downfall. But Lee Qian, Investment Manager in Baillie Gifford’s Positive Change Strategy, tells us why we shouldn’t fear it. Instead, we should harness innovation and economic growth to create a more prosperous, sustainable and inclusive world.
I hope the readers won’t mind if I share my personal story.
I was born in China, in the city of Nanjing, in 1991. Back then, my parents earned around RMB 1,000 per month. We lived in a flat without central heating and where my parents’ bedroom was also our living room. One of the chores that my dad and I used to do was collecting all our old newspapers, cardboards and bottles and taking them to the recycling centre. We would get some money for those and my dad often used it to buy me an ice cream or some candies. To be clear, we were already among the lucky ones. We lived in the city and my parents had stable jobs. The simple fact was that China was a poor country. At that time, two-thirds of the Chinese population lived in poverty and per capita GDP was only $1,500.
We all know what happened since then. State planning gave way to a market-driven economy and China experienced phenomenal economic growth. This led to broad-based improvements in living standards. People got better jobs and had more choices for food and clothing. Access to healthcare improved and more families were able to send their children to schools. Fast-forward to today, China’s poverty rate has fallen to single digits. China is home to some of the most innovative companies in the world, such as Alibaba and Tencent. Today, even people in poorer communities will have better living conditions than my parents did 30 years ago. Such is the power of economic growth.
What happened in China is not unique. Over the long term, economic growth has resulted in huge improvements in the quality of life for people around the world. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, global poverty rate has fallen from 90 per cent to 10 per cent. Life expectancy at birth has more than doubled, from 29 years to 72 years, largely due to better nutrition, improved hygiene and new technologies and scientific discoveries. Finally, with greater prosperity, more people have received an education. Between 1800 and 2016, the global literacy rate improved from 12 per cent to 86 per cent.
Share of the World Population Living in Absolute Poverty 1820 - 2015
All data is adjusted for inflation over time and price differences between countries (PPP adjustment)
The benefits of economic growth extend beyond the material realm. Economic growth plays a crucial role for enabling social progress. When the economy is stagnating, one person’s gain is another’s loss, but when the economy is flourishing, many people can look forward to a brighter future at the same time. This creates an environment where people are more willing to support greater social mobility, help people who are less fortunate or marginalised, and be tolerant to those from different backgrounds. As Benjamin Friedman put it, “Economic growth – meaning a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens – more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy.” If we want to create a prosperous, sustainable and inclusive future, then economic growth is not the problem, but part of the solution.
The legend goes that the inventor of chess in India took his game to the emperor. The emperor was impressed and asked the inventor to name his prize. After thinking for some time, the inventor “humbly” asked for some rice to feed his family, one grain on the first square, two grains on the second, four on the third, until all 64 squares are filled. The emperor happily agreed, thinking this would be a small prize. However, as his adviser started to fill the chess board, he realised that he was tricked. By the 32rd square, he would have needed 4 billion grains of rice, roughly 120 tonnes. By the 64th square, he would have needed rice that weighed more than Mount Everest. We don’t know what happened to the inventor…
This story illustrates the power of exponential growth. When compounded over time, seemingly small quantities can become astronomically large. Using this observation, many prominent thinkers have argued that humanity’s growth – in population and economic terms – is not sustainable. A leading figure of this movement was the 18th-century English economist and cleric Thomas Robert Malthus. Whereas his father, Daniel Malthus, believed that humankind could create a Utopia, the younger Malthus was much more downbeat. He believed that the exponential growth of the human population would far exceed the increase in food production, resulting in famine, epidemics and conflicts. He wrote in his famous book An Essay on the Principle of Population, “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” Almost two centuries later, Paul Ehrlich, a biology professor at Stanford University, would put it in more alarming terms, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
Despite those dire predictions, the human population has continued to increase. What’s more, more and more people have escaped poverty and undernourishment has declined on relative terms. When Malthus wrote his book, 12 million British inhabitants ate on average 2,400 kcal per day. Today, 67 million British inhabitants are supplied with 3,400 kcal of food per day. Globally, the food available for eating averages out at 2,790 kcal per person per day, more than sufficient for the average person. So, why have those predictions not come to pass?
Malthus’s followers like to use the analogy of a Petri dish. In an experiment that’s repeated by millions of school children across the world, a few micro-organisms are added to a Petri dish containing a growth medium. Come back in a few days, the organisms would have multiplied and colonised a large part of the Petri dish, but give it enough time, they would have eaten all the nutrients and died. Humans, Malthus’s followers would argue, are just like those micro-organisms. Without control, we would consume all the available resources and catastrophe would follow.
In this context, what’s happening to the human civilisation is quite remarkable, possibly unprecedented. The growth of human population is slowing down. The rate of growth peaked in 1963 at 2.2 per cent per annum. It has since halved and is expected to decline to nearly zero by the end of the century. What’s more, the driving force of this deceleration is not some kind of enforced population control, as advocated by Malthusian thinkers, but rather, due to the voluntary decisions of individuals. It seems that economic growth has a big role in this. Cross-sectional and longitudinal studies have found strong correlation between economic growth and declining population growth. This makes intuitive sense. Economic growth fosters greater opportunity and improved access to education. This leads to the empowerment of women and their ability to pursue a career outside of just raising kids and household work. This helps to reduce birth rate and population growth. Once again, economic growth is important to a sustainable future.
Children per woman by GDP per capita 2017
Children per woman is measured as the total fertility rate. This is the number of children that would be born to the average woman if she were to live to the end of her child-bearing years and give birth to children at the currently prevailing age-specific fertility rates. GDP per capita is measured in international dollars. Each bubble represents a country. The size of the bubble represents population size and the colour of the bubble indicates the continent to which the country belongs.
Possibly the two greatest weaknesses in Malthus and his followers’ argument are mistaking the Earth as a closed system and underestimating the role of innovation and new technologies. Returning to the Petri dish analogy, when the experiment starts, a lid is placed on top of the Petri dish and no new nutrients can be added. Once the micro-organisms have consumed all the food, their demise is inevitable. But unlike the Petri dish, the Earth is an open system. The sun continuously bathes our planet with a steady stream of solar energy. This energy helps to sustain life and the human civilisation. In fact, this stream of energy is so abundant it’s 5,000 times greater than our current global energy consumption. Our task is to harness this abundant energy source so to minimise the need to extract energy from the Earth. This is a big challenge but also an exciting opportunity. In the long term, we should also consider the prospect of humans becoming a multi-planetary species, as suggested by Elon Musk. This might sound like science fiction, but so our current world would probably seem to people alive in Malthus’ time.
On innovation, Malthus and his followers assume that technology would, at best, improve at a linear pace. In reality, technology is likely advancing at a faster pace. Brian Arthur proposed that technology advances through “combinatorial evolution” where new inventions are created from existing technologies and knowledge. In other words, technology proliferates and the boundary of possibility constantly expands. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, new technologies including electrical power generation and the Haber-Bosch process have improved access to food and energy; medical breakthroughs from the discovery of penicillin to modern genomics are helping us to overcome diseases; new forms of transportation are enabling more of us to travel and see the world; and digital technology is facilitating access to information and vital services, such as banking and healthcare. As the economist Paul Romer declared, “Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas. We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered.”
We believe that innovation is key to a sustainable future. The most valuable activity the investment community can do is supporting this wonderfully creative and entrepreneurial process. When it comes to a sustainable future, we need to solve the obvious environmental challenges our planet is facing, but we also need to ensure that addressing those doesn’t undo the tremendous progress human civilisation has achieved to date. At a minimum, people in all parts of the world should have decent standards of living – safe housing, clean water and sanitation, affordable nutrition, and accessible education and healthcare. But even in richer countries, more needs to be done. For example, the heroic and much-needed campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford highlights the upsetting frequency of child hunger in the UK. We believe that innovation will play an important role in addressing those challenges. Here, we highlight a few areas that we are particularly excited about.
Fortunately, many innovations can help make agriculture more sustainable while meeting the growing food demand. Baillie Gifford’s sponsorship of the James Hutton Institute is helping us to learn more about new technologies and sustainable farming practices. A good example is precision agriculture. By combining technologies including sensors, satellite communication and software, companies such as John Deere are helping farmers to increase yield while using less fertilisers and pesticides. Plant-based protein is another interesting opportunity. Animal husbandry is incredibly inefficient. The US livestock industry converts 1,187 Pcal (the ratio of protein energy to total dietary energy) of feed into just 83 Pcal of human edible proteins annually. Beyond Meat is aiming to make plant-based food mainstream by appealing to traditional meat eaters with products that mimic the taste and texture of animal meat. Its products are sold by Walmart, Tesco, Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks and others. Longer term, indoor vertical farming could be a promising technology. By growing crops in a controlled environment closer to cities, it should reduce the need for water and pesticides and cut down on food waste due to transportation.
Since the Industrial Revolution, we have made tremendous progress at lifting people out of poverty and improving living standards. However, across developed and developing countries, there are still large number of people who have benefited very little from economic growth. Globally, there are more than 700 million people living in extreme poverty, defined as having an income of less than $1.90 a day, and a further 2.7 billion people have an income of between $1.90 and $5.50 a day. A prosperous and sustainable world needs to be inclusive, a place where the vast majority of the people feel the benefit of economic growth.
Development is multi-dimensional and we must acknowledge that businesses are only part of the solution. Government policies in areas such as education, health and job creation are vitally important. Nevertheless, businesses and innovations do have a role. In particular, we are excited by the opportunity of leveraging on digital and mobile technologies to deliver essential services in a more accessible manner. Safaricom serves as an excellent example. Its mobile money service M-Pesa is used by over 24 million customers on a monthly basis, helping them to save money, pay for goods and services and send money to family and friends. A 2016 study by researchers from MIT and Georgetown University estimated M-Pesa helped to lift 194,000 householders out of poverty. Now, Safaricom is looking to provide other mobile services, including education contents for students and services and support for smallholder farmers.
© REUTERS/Jackson Njehia
The views expressed in this article are those of Lee Qian and should not be considered as advice or a recommendation to buy, sell or hold a particular investment. They reflect personal opinion and should not be taken as statements of fact nor should any reliance be placed on them when making investment decisions.
This communication was produced and approved in December 2020 and has not been updated subsequently. It represents views held at the time of writing and may not reflect current thinking.
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Lee joined Baillie Gifford in 2012 and is an investment manager and decision maker in the Positive Change Team. He is a CFA Charterholder and graduated BA (Hons) in Economics and Management from the University of Oxford in 2012. Lee grew up in China during a period of incredible economic and social progress, when hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of poverty and the standard of living improved for the majority of the population. Witnessing that has influenced Lee deeply and he has been interested in development since.