TED2009

Pete Alcorn: The world in 2200

Filmed:

In this short, optimistic talk from TED2009, Pete Alcorn shares a vision of the world of two centuries from now -- when declining populations and growing opportunity prove Malthus was wrong.

- Media exec
Pete Alcorn is the head of podcasting for Apple, and a veteran of the paper-publishing industry. Full bio

I used to be a Malthusian.
00:12
This was my mental model of the world:
00:15
exploding population, small planet;
00:18
it's going to lead to ugly things.
00:21
But I'm moving past Malthus,
00:23
because I think that we just might be about 150 years
00:25
from a kind of new enlightenment.
00:28
Here's why.
00:30
This is the U.N.'s population data,
00:32
you may have seen, for the world.
00:34
And the world's population expected to top out
00:37
at something hopefully a bit less than 10 billion, late this century.
00:39
And after that, most likely it's going to begin to decline.
00:43
So what then?
00:47
Most of the economic models are built around scarcity and growth.
00:50
So a lot of economists
00:53
look at declining population
00:55
and expect to see stagnation, maybe depression.
00:57
But a declining population is going to have
01:00
at least two very beneficial economic effects.
01:03
One: fewer people on a fixed amount of land
01:07
make investing in property a bad bet.
01:12
In the cities, a lot of the cost of property
01:16
is actually wrapped up in its speculative value.
01:20
Take away land speculation,
01:24
price of land drops.
01:26
And that begins to lift a heavy burden
01:28
off the world's poor.
01:30
Number two: a declining population
01:33
means scarce labor.
01:37
Scarce labor drives wages.
01:39
As wages increase
01:41
that also lifts the burden on the poor and the working class.
01:43
Now I'm not talking about a radical drop in population like we saw in the Black Death.
01:48
But look what happened in Europe
01:52
after the plague:
01:54
rising wages,
01:56
land reform,
01:58
technological innovation,
02:00
birth of the middle class;
02:03
and after that, forward-looking social movements
02:05
like the Renaissance,
02:09
and later the Enlightenment.
02:11
Most of our cultural heritage has tended to look backward,
02:14
romanticizing the past.
02:17
All of the Western religions begin with the notion of Eden,
02:20
and descend through a kind of profligate present
02:23
to a very ugly future.
02:26
So human history is viewed
02:29
as sort of this downhill slide
02:31
from the good old days.
02:33
But I think we're in for another change,
02:35
about two generations after the top of that curve,
02:38
once the effects of a declining population
02:41
start to settle in.
02:44
At that point, we'll start romanticizing the future again,
02:46
instead of the nasty, brutish past.
02:50
So why does this matter?
02:53
Why talk about social-economic movements
02:55
that may be more than a century away?
02:57
Because transitions are dangerous times.
02:59
When land owners start to lose money,
03:03
and labor demands more pay,
03:06
there are some powerful interests that are going to fear for the future.
03:08
Fear for the future leads to some rash decisions.
03:12
If we have a positive view about the future
03:16
then we may be able to accelerate through that turn,
03:19
instead of careening off a cliff.
03:22
If we can make it through the next 150 years,
03:25
I think that your great great grandchildren
03:28
will forget all about Malthus.
03:30
And instead, they'll be planning for the future
03:32
and starting to build the 22nd Century Enlightenment.
03:36
Thank you.
03:39
(Applause)
03:41

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About the Speaker:

Pete Alcorn - Media exec
Pete Alcorn is the head of podcasting for Apple, and a veteran of the paper-publishing industry.

Why you should listen

Pete Alcorn has been in the forefront of several head-snapping changes in media over the past two decades. Starting as a computer-textbook writer in the late '80s, Alcorn became fascinated with the new electronic side of print. He founded NetRead in the early '90s to help book publishers work with metadata and understand the next world of e-publishing.

Since 2005, he has led the podcasting operation at iTunes, bulking up the iTunes Music Store's podcast library with thousands of free (and very findable) titles. Before Apple, he led the sale of ebooks and electronic documents at Amazon.com. In his spare time, he thinks big thoughts.

More profile about the speaker
Pete Alcorn | Speaker | TED.com