While many celebrate the life of Abraham Lincoln today, I celebrate the wonderful life of Julian Simon – the economist I have learned the most from, and the one I never heard a thing about in my 4 years as an undergraduate or 5 years as a graduate economic student.
Here is an excerpt from his introduction to the issue of population growth in his masterpiece, The Ultimate Resource:
“After performing the most exact calculation possible…I have found that there is scarcely one- tenth as many people on the earth as in ancient times…the population of the earth decreases every day, and if this continues the earth will be nothing but a desert”.
Charles Louis de Secondat Montesquieu, 1721, in Cerf and Navasky, 1984, p. 299.
The facts of human population growth are simple.
Paul Ehrlich, “World Population: A Battle Lost?”, in Reid and Lyon, 1972, p. 12).
Chapter 22: Table of Contents
Population Growth Rates
The Approaching Victory Against Premature Death
Schoolchildren “know” that the world’s environment and food situation have been getting worse. And the children’s books leave no doubt that population size and growth are the villains. As the Golden Stamp Book of Earth and Ecology says, “Can the earth survive this many people?…If the population continues to explode, many people will starve. About half of the world’s population is underfed now, with many approaching starvation…. All of the major environmental problems can be traced to people – more
specifically, to too many people.”
This child’s text distills into simplest form the popular adults’ books and articles about population and resources. And Herbert London’s study of schoolbooks shows this text to be representative. Indeed, the National Education Association in 1980 published a guide for teachers that says “Food production is losing the race with the population explosion, and a massive famine within the next decade seems probable”. It then goes on to forecast across-the-board worsening conditions in natural resources and the
But these propositions that are given to children with so much assurance are either unproven or wrong. (Indeed, the NEA 1980 forecast has already been proven incontrovertibly wrong; it would be interesting to know what the NEA says now.) This chapter deals with the demographic facts. The next chapter considers various forecasts, and the following chapter examines the dynamics of the birthrate and of population growth, in order to lay the foundation for the economic discussion of these issues in the
rest of Part II.
Indeed, schoolchildren increasingly “know” these foregoing facts to be true. If you watched the Super Bowl, the only reason the Audi ad was even a twinge funny was because there is much truth to it. I would remind readers to reread the end of the above section carefully. Simon met his critics head on with facts, empirical work and evidence supported by sound economic theory. Can his critics say the same? The large body of alarmist work is based on technical forecasts, superstition, and a complete ignorance of economic theory. Yet the alarmists’ stories still seem to win the day.
The beauty of the human mind and human ingenuity is that the internet and advanced modern technology have made millions of people aware of the work and ideas of Julian Simon. Indeed, I would not have been aware of his work without it. And now his work is an important chunk of what each and every one of my hundreds of students learn each year.