Bill Gates is a brilliant man. His combination of tech and business savvy not only made him one of the world's richest people (currently, with a net worth of about $90 billion, #2 behind Jeff Bezos's $112 billion) but also gave him the opportunity to be one of the world's biggest philanthropists, chairing, with wife Melinda, the world's largest private charitable foundation.
But brilliance in technology and brilliance in business don't necessarily guarantee brilliance in other fields. I suspect Gates might not be quite so great at, say, molecular biology or cooking or football. It shouldn't be remarkable, then, to find him saying some things that turn out mistaken.
Gates recently discussed what he called his "biggest fears about what's coming next for this world." They included:
- antibiotic resistance,
- cuts to government funding to improve health in the world's poorest countries, and
- the next unknown disease, referred to by the World Health Organization simply as "Disease X."
Then he mentioned one more threat that he calls the "elephant in the room." We'll get to that, but first a few comments about these three.
Antibiotic resistance is a genuine problem, but it's not unsolvable. Different antibiotics counter different bacteria, and because bacteria mutate relatively rapidly, they can develop resistance to them. But that doesn't mean we can't continue engineering new antibiotics to counter the new strains. It's a challenge, not the crack of doom.
The fear of cuts to government funding to improve health in the world's poorest countries seems historically a bit myopic.
Government health programs in the United States before the 1960s were few, small, and largely limited to providing safe drinking water (albeit still mostly unsafe by today's standards up to the 1970s), sewage sanitation, and a tiny bit of infectious disease control. Life expectancy at birth worldwide and in the United States before the late 18th century (the start of the Industrial Revolution) was around 27 or 28 years. By 1850 it had risen to 38 years for white males and 40.5 for white females; by 1900 to 48 and 44 years (even after accounting for all the male deaths in World Wars I and II); and by 1950 to 66 and 72 years.
In other words, well before the start of major government health programs, Americans' life expectancy had risen by about 35 to 57 percent. In the nearly 70 years since then, during which government health programs have multiplied, it has risen to 76 and 81 years—another 15 and 12 percent for males and females, respectively. Similar patterns have happened around the world, in most places with improvements beginning much later but occurring more rapidly as those societies implement off-the-shelf technologies that took decades to develop.
It seems likely, then, that other factors are more important determinants of health—of which life expectancy is the bottom-line indicator. Economic freedom could boost health more in today's poorest countries than government programs. Health is a costly good, and wealthier people can afford more costly goods than poorer people. Bloated government—and health programs are among the biggest forms of bloat—slows economic development.
And then there is the fear of "Disease X."
Well, sure—but since we don't know what that will be, we must simply wait for its appearance and then see what we can do to counter it—either eradicating it (as we did smallpox and, mostly, polio) or greatly restricting its spread (as we've done many other diseases, like Ebola), or finding cures or ways to prolong vigorous life despite it (as we've done for AIDS). With our understanding of genetics and molecular biology, like our technology, advancing exponentially, is it likely that we'll be less able to cope with "Disease X" than with previous new diseases?
So Gates's three top fears are legitimate but not reasons for doom and gloom. So what about the "elephant in the room"?
It's population growth, which dominates the second annual Goalkeepers' Data Report from the Gates Foundation.
"The thing that is mind-blowing," Gates says, "is if the demographers who have been very accurate on these things are right about Africa, then you are going from 1bn today to 2bn at middle of century, to 4bn at the end of the century."
Actually, demographers' predictions of population growth have generally erred badly on the high side, largely because they've failed to account adequately for two things: (1) how rising GDP per capita drives falling fertility rates for a variety of reasons including declining pre-adult mortality rates and rising costs of raising a child to independence, and (2) the incentive government officials in many developing countries have to exaggerate population (and minimize income per capita) to qualify for greater amounts of foreign aid (some of which they pocket).
But let's assume that the high-end prediction—4 billion in 2100—is correct. Would that be disastrous? It would raise Africa's population density from the present roughly 104 people per square mile to 297. That compares with the United Kingdom's present 704, Germany's 596, and France's 316. Do you consider any of those "overpopulated"?
Why consider Africa "overpopulated" (not that there's any objective, demographically based definition of that term) in 2100 with density less than half of today's in the U.K. and Germany, about 6 percent lower than today's in France? Might it have something to do with the color of Africans' skin? Does racism drive fears of African population growth more than anything having to do with numbers?
Gates predicts potential consequences of "the population explosion in Africa's poorest countries and its future impact—either fueling poverty, political instability, conflict and refugees, or sparking a new boom in world growth as happened in India and China."
Give him credit—he did acknowledge that Africa's "population explosion" could spark a boom, but he clearly thinks it's more likely to have dire negative consequences.
Yet, globally, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, depending on the estimates of other UN agencies, projects that less-developed countries' (and most African countries are in that category) GDP per capita will rise from 1990's roughly $1,000 (and 2017's roughly $1,925) to anywhere from $10,000 (assuming drastic reductions in economic growth due to stringent efforts to combat global warming) to $62,000 (assuming no reductions in economic growth from combatting global warming) in 2100.
Does it make sense to see Africans as worse off at the end of this century because of population growth when their incomes will likely be anywhere from 13 to 32 times what they were last year? I'll put my money on the likelihood that Africa's expanding population will spark "a new boom in world growth as happened in India and China."
What lies at the root of Gates's confusion over African population growth is that he forgets something—something of which he is a prime example.
While he speaks of a "population explosion," and explosions are destructive, he exemplifies the fact that human beings can be amazingly productive. Not everybody's going to be as productive as he's been, but most people produce more than they consume in their lifetimes—which is why per capita income and net worth alike tend to rise over time, especially in comparatively free, industrialized societies.
What makes people most productive? The application of capital (money, tools, buildings, etc.) and division of labor (individuals specializing in particular tasks and so raising their productivity) to raw materials. The more capital and the greater the division of labor, the greater overall productivity can be.
As the late Julian Simon explained in The Economics of Population Growth (1977) andThe Ultimate Resource 2 (1998), and I explained in my Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future (1990), division of labor depends in part on density of population. The more people there are in a given locale—whether that locale is defined geographically, as in a city or state, or technologically, as in online collaboration—the greater the division of labor, and therefore the greater the productivity.
It is far more likely, then, that Africa's population growth will stimulate, not impede, its economic growth. And, as history testifies, economic growth will lead to slower population growth, for everywhere in the world, as per capita income rises, fertility rates decline. Which means that, though in fact Africa wouldn't be overpopulated with 4 billion people, as Gates seems to think, it's likely that its population at the end of the century will be many times richer than today's and considerably lower than he expects.
People, in short, are not the population boom, but the population bloom; not people pollution but the people solution; not a cancer (as Rockefeller Foundation spokesmanMerton Lambert put it in 1962) but an answer.