Julian Simon (1932-1998)
I began my intellectual career as a Malthusian, believing that expanding populations would exhaust resources and endanger the environment. But as I studied the data, I found that people were not the problem but the solution. My last public lecture, made a few miles away from your beautiful campus, was titled “More People, Greater Wealth, Expanded Resources, Cleaner Environment.”
My thesis? We have problems, but our problems can make us better. And, generally speaking, the more people the more progress.
My major nemesis was ‘Mr. Malthusian’ Paul R. Ehrlich. He got about all the fame and prizes—and still does. He refused to debate me head-to-head in my lifetime and vilified me personally. But I bested him in a famous wager concerning the future scarcity of ‘depleting’ minerals. Ehrlich et al. chose five minerals and a date ten years in the future. I bet that the price would not rise adjusted for inflation, and, Ehrlich et al. jumped at the chance to make “easy money.” I won! All of the prices declined in real terms despite growing demand.
Expanding ‘depletable’ resources? How? Enter human ingenuity, a limitless, expanding resource, what I call the ultimate resource. Consider today’s oil and gas production, a business employing some of your parents. We were running out of oil and gas in the 1970s, the intelligensia said, yet today we are running into unimagined quantities. (Maybe even I was a tad too pessimistic in my lifetime!) The term resourceship explains why a few can create the minerals needed by the many.
I am getting more popular in my afterlife. I was pleased that Bjørn Lomborg, who set out to refute me with this team of students, actually published a tome of data and analysis that was in large agreement. His The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, and the pro-con arguments surrounding it, is worth reading for those of you who are interested in sustainable development.
My critics say that I am like the person who jumps off the tall building and reports that things are fine and breezy on the way down. But this analogy is wearing thin. The doomsayers have been wrong for far too long and in far too many instances. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb … running out of resources … numbing global cooling …. catastrophic global warming …. What will be next?
My work is part of a broader tradition called free-market environmentalism. Private property rights can help overcome the so-called tragedy of the commons and what innovative, free individuals can collectively do. The world’s only female economics Nobelist explained how, in the New York Times words, “people collaborate and organize themselves to manage common resources like forests or fisheries, even when governments are not involved.” Her research “overturned the conventional wisdom about the need for government regulation of public resources.”
In the field of sustainable development, fundamental ideas are in play. You top students are invited to improve our understanding of real problems and real solutions.
“Discoveries, like resources, may well be infinite: the more we discover, the more we are able to discover.”
“The most important benefit of population size and growth is the increase it brings to the stock of useful knowledge. Minds matter economically as much as, or more than, hands or mouths.”
“Humans are, on net balance, builders rather than destroyers…. The main fuel to speed the world’s progress is our stock of knowledge, and the brake is our lack of imagination.”
“The complete failure of the dire forecasts of the doomsayers, starting in the 1960s and continuing through the 1980 Global 2000 Report until now, should confer credibility [to critics]. Regrettably, however, the doomsayers’ failure has not reduced the frequency of forecasts of doom, or sapped the reputations or influence of the forecasters. This disregard of contrary evidence is one more sign of the absence of true science—whose essence is the comparison of theories and forecasts against the data—in the conventional literature of impending doom.”
“The extent to which the political-social-economic system provides personal freedom from government coercion is a crucial element in the economics of resources and population. . . . The key elements of such a framework are economic liberty, respect for property, and fair and sensible rules of the market that are enforced equally for all.”
“The world’s problem is not too many people, but lack of political and economic freedom.”
“My message to … young people … certainly is not one of complacency. In this I agree with the doomsayers–that our world needs the best efforts of all humanity to improve our lot. I part company with the doomsayers in that they expect us to come to a bad end … because of inexorable natural limits [to which] you are likely to feel resigned, and therefore to literally resign. But if you recognize the possibility–in fact the probability–of success, you can tap large reservoirs of energy and enthusiasm.”