Jeff Bezos’s Economic Prophecy

A few weeks ago, Jeff Bezos (of fame) invited reporters to tour his space venture “Blue Origin.” The company has existed in some form or another since the early 2000’s, but this was the first time that Blue Origin held a formal press event. The New York Times put together a great article on the event, written by Kenneth Chang. While much of the proceedings focused on the business plans and technological achievements of the firm, Bezos also took a little time to extoll his vision for the future of humanity (as you might expect from a billionaire who privately bankrolled a multimillion dollar rocketry firm). Here’s how Chang lays out Bezos’s prophecy for humanity:

Like Mr. Musk, Mr. Bezos talks about Blue Origin less as a business than as part of a glorious future for humanity, with millions of people living and working off the planet. It is also a path, he asserted, that humanity must pursue if it is to continue to prosper.
His argument was simple: Energy consumption has been rising at 2 or 3 percent a year. Even at that modest rate, within a few centuries, the energy usage would be equal to the energy produced by high-efficiency solar cells covering the entire surface of the planet. “We’ll be using all of the solar energy that impacts the Earth,” he said. “That’s an actual limit.”

But there is much energy and raw materials to use elsewhere in the solar system, and eventually, he prophesies, there will be the “great inversion.” Instead of factories on Earth manufacturing sophisticated components that go into tiny machines that go into space, the heavy manufacturing will all be done elsewhere, and Earth, he joked, would be zoned for residential and light industrial use, allowing much of Earth to return to a more natural state. “It’ll be universities and houses and so on,” he said.

Bezos’s vision reminded me of the predictions of Malthus and the theory of peak oil, both of which predict the economic future using arguments based on physical constraints. Happily, both of these dire prophecies have not (yet) manifested. Many economists are rightly skeptical of these types of predictions, which they argue underestimate the ingenuity of humanity. Bezos’s predictions, on the other hand, place good confidence in our collective ingenuity and paint a rather rosier vision than the others. Whether they will end up holding any water is anyone’s guess, but, at the very least, they’re an interesting thought.

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