Berkshire Hathaway 2002 Annual Meeting Audience Question # 30

Population projections have been “notoriously inaccurate” over the years

Warren Buffett:

Number 7.

Audience Member:

Good afternoon, gentlemen. Wayne Peters is my name, and I’m from Sydney, Australia.

Warren Buffett:

I’d have never guessed.

Audience Member:

No.

I’ll speak a little slower so my accent doesn’t throw you.

Warren Buffett:

Good.

Audience Member:

My question goes further to the resolution on population control raised this morning. Firstly, can I just say I voted against it, and I guess that’s just the beauty of the democratic society?

Of concern, however, was the gentleman’s implication that the world’s population has decreased, or is decreasing.

Having read the book Charlie recommended last year, by Garrett Hardin, called “Living Within Limits,” (you can get a copy of the book here) I’ve got a reasonable feel and understand the population grew by about 1.7 percent last year, which is approximately 67 million people.

In my terms, I’d relate that to approximately 4 times the population of Australia, clearly an alarming rate over the long term if you’re talking, you know, 500 or a thousand years.

Reading between the lines, my guess is that the issue of population growth is likely to be a key focus of the Buffett Foundation.
My question to you this afternoon is, how do you currently see this critical issue being tackled?

Warren Buffett:

Yeah, well, population projections are just that, they’re projections. And they’ve been notoriously inaccurate over the years. And the gentleman that made the motion referred to a recent New York Times story.

And there are some… there are projections that, based on fertility rates and what happens to them in different countries, under different economic conditions and all that, I mean, you can come up with all kinds of projections.

I don’t know the answer on it. Nobody does at any given time. And the carrying capacity of the Earth has turned out to be a lot greater than people have thought in the past, but there is some amount that does relate to the carrying capacity. It may have been expandable, but it’s not infinitely expandable.

And I would suggest that the errors of being on the low side, in terms of population relative to estimated carrying capacity, the danger from those errors is far, far less than the dangers from overshooting, in terms of population compared to carrying capacity.

And since we don’t know what carrying capacity is or will be a hundred years from now, I think that, generally, that mankind has an interest in making sure it doesn’t overshoot, in terms of population. And if it… there’s no great penalties attached to undershooting at all that I see.

And it’s very, you know, it’s the old analogy. If you were going to go on a spaceship for a hundred years and you knew in the back of the spaceship there were provisions… there were a lot of provisions, but you didn’t know exactly how much… in terms of filling the front of the spaceship with a given number of people, you would probably err on the low side.

I mean, you would… and if you thought maybe it could handle 300, in terms of the provisions, I don’t think you’d put 300 people in there. I think you’d put about 150 or 200.

And you’d figure that you just didn’t know, you know, for sure, the spaceship would get back in a hundred years. You wouldn’t know how much was in the back. And you would be careful, in terms of not overshooting the carrying capacity of whatever the vehicle you were in.

And we are in a vehicle called Earth. We don’t know its carrying capacity. We have learned that it’s a lot larger than might have been thought by Malthus or somebody a few hundred years ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s infinite at all.

And I don’t… the one thing I will assure you is that the projections that were run in the New York Times, you know, a few weeks ago, are not going to be the ones that are going to be run 50 years from now, or 30 years from now.

And it’s not the sort of thing that is cured after the fact. I mean, you’re not going to go around trying to intentionally reduce the population. It’s much better to prevent population growth than to try and correct afterwards. And Garrett Hardin has got some interesting stuff on that.

Charlie?

Charlie Munger:

Yeah, I will say that the whole controversy has been interesting in the way both sides don’t understand the other side’s model.

But by and large, on the population alarm side, the ecology side, they’ve always underestimated the capacity of modern civilization to increase carrying capacity.

And the more they underestimate, why the least… the less they seem to learn. That is not to the credit.

And the other side has equal folly. I think it’s… I think you’re just talking about the human condition.

It’s a complicated, controversial subject and people feel strongly about it, and they learn slowly. And I just think that’s the way it’s going to be as far ahead as you can see.

Warren Buffett:

I think the chances of a world inhabited by 15 billion people having behavior, on average, better than if the world were inhabited by 5 billion people is low, but you know, that is… we’ll never find a way to test that. But that’s my instinct on it.

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