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“Happy Earth Day”: Julian Simon’s Silver Anniversary (1995) Earth Day Letter

[Ed Note: This letter was originally published two years ago today at MasterResource with the permission of the Julian Simon family.]

“So how about it, Al [Gore]?  Will you accept the offer?  And how about your boss Bill Clinton, who supports your environmental initiatives?  Can you bring him in for a piece of the action?”

- Julian L. Simon, May 1, 1995

“EARTH DAY: SPIRITUALLY UPLIFTING, INTELLECTUALLY DEBASED”

- by Julian L. Simon

April 22 [1995] marks the 25th anniversary of Earth Day.  Now as then its message is spiritually uplifting.  But all reasonable persons who look at the statistical evidence now available must agree that Earth Day’s scientific premises are entirely wrong.

During the first great Earth Week in 1970 there was panic.  The public’s outlook for the planet was unrelievedly gloomy.  The doomsaying environmentalists–of whom the dominant figure was Paul Ehrlich–raised the alarm: The oceans and the Great Lakes were dying; impending great famines would be seen on television starting in 1975; the death rate would quickly increase due to pollution; and rising prices of increasingly-scarce raw materials would lead to a reversal in the past centuries’ progress in the standard of living.

The media trumpeted the bad news in headlines and front-page stories.  Professor Ehrlich was on the Johnny Carson show for an unprecedented full hour–twice.  Classes were given by television to tens of thousands of university students.

It is hard for those who did not experience it to imagine the national excitement then.  Even those who never read a newspaper joined in efforts to clean up streams, and the most unrepentant slobs refrained from littering for a few weeks.  Population growth was the great bugaboo.

Every ill was the result of too many people in the U. S. and abroad.  The remedy doomsayers urged was government-coerced birth control, abroad and even at home.

On the evening before Earth Day I spoke on a panel at the jam-packed auditorium at the University of Illinois.  The organizers had invited me for “balance,” to show that all points of view would be heard. I spoke then exactly the same ideas that I write today; some of the very words are the same.

Of the 2,000 persons in attendance, probably fewer than a dozen concluded that anything I said made sense.  A panelist denounced me as a religious nut, attributing to me weird beliefs such as that murder was the equivalent of celibacy.  My ten-minute talk so enraged people that it led to a physical brawl with another professor.

Every statement I made in 1970 about the trends in resource scarcity and environmental cleanliness turned out to be correct. Every prediction has been validated by events.  Yet the environmental organizations and the Clinton administration–especially Vice President Al Gore, the State Department, and the CIA –still take as doctrine exactly the same ideas expressed by the doomsayers in 1970, despite their being discredited by recent history.  And the press overwhelmingly endorses that viewpoint.

Here are the facts: On average, people throughout the world have been living longer and eating better than ever before.  Fewer people die of famine nowadays than in earlier centuries.  The real prices of food and of every other raw material are lower now than in earlier decades and centuries, indicating a trend of increased natural-resource availability rather than increased scarcity.  The major air and water pollutions in the advanced countries have been lessening rather than worsening.

In short, every single measure of material and environmental welfare in the United States has improved rather than deteriorated. This is also true of the world taken as a whole.  All the long-run trends point in exactly the opposite direction from the projections of the doomsayers.  There have been, and always will be, temporary and local exceptions to these broad trends.  But astonishing as it may seem, there are no data showing that conditions are deteriorating.

Rather, all indicators show that the quality of human life has been getting better.  As a result of this evidence of improvement rather than degradation, in the past few years there has been a major shift in scientific opinion away from the views the doomsayers espouse. There now are dozens of books in print and hundreds of articles in the technical and popular literature reporting these facts.

Responding to the accumulating literature that shows no negative correlation between population growth and economic development, in 1986 the National Academy of Sciences published a report on population growth and economic development prepared by a prestigious scholarly group. It reversed almost completely the frightening conclusions of the previous 1971 NAS report. The group found no quantitative statistical evidence of population growth hindering economic progress, though they hedged their qualitative judgment a bit. The report found benefits of additional people as well as costs. Even the World Bank, the greatest institutional worrier about population growth, reported in 1984 that the world’s natural resource situation provides no reason to limit population growth.

A bet between Paul Ehrlich and me epitomizes the matter.  In 1980, the year after the tenth Earth Day, Ehrlich and two associates wagered with me about future prices of raw materials.  We would assess the trend in $1000 worth of copper, chrome, nickel, tin, and tungsten for ten years.  I would win if resources grew more abundant, and they would win if resources became scarcer.  At settling time in 1990, the year after the twentieth Earth Week, they sent me a check for $576.07.

A single bet proves little, of course. Hence I have offered to repeat the wager, and I have broadened it as follows: I’ll bet a week’s or a month’s pay that just about any trend pertaining to material human welfare will improve rather than get worse.  You pick the trend–perhaps life expectancy, a price of a natural resource, some measure of air or water pollution, or the number of telephones per person– and you choose the area of the world and the future year the comparison is to be made.  If I win, my winnings go to non-profit research.

I have not been able to close another deal with a prominent academic doomsayer.  They all continue to warn of impending deterioration, but they refuse to follow Professor Ehrlich in putting their money where their mouths are.  Therefore, let’s try the chief “official” doomsayer, Vice President Al Gore.  He wrote a best-selling book, Earth in the Balance, that warns about the supposed environmental and resource “crisis.”  In my judgment, the book is as ignorant and wrongheaded a collection of cliches as anything ever published on the subject.

So how about it, Al?  Will you accept the offer?  And how about your boss Bill Clinton, who supports your environmental initiatives?  Can you bring him in for a piece of the action?

It is not pleasant to talk rudely like this.  But a challenge wager is the last refuge of the frustrated.  And it is very frustrating that after 25 years of the anti-pessimists being proven entirely right, and the doomsayers being proven entirely wrong, their credibility and influence waxes ever greater.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that there is every scientific reason to be joyful about the trends in the condition of the Earth, and hopeful for humanity’s future, even if we are falsely told the outlook is grim.

So Happy Earth Day!

7 comments

1 Ed { 04.22.11 at 7:20 am }

“[I]t is very frustrating that after 25 years of the anti-pessimists being proven entirely right, and the doomsayers being proven entirely wrong, their credibility and influence waxes ever greater.”

I think Simon would be much more optimistic today. Sure, charlatans like Al Gore continue to win accolades from fellow travelers in the various media, but in 2011 the average citizen is armed as never before with powerful, personal means of communication, portable tools of research and learning, the ability to almost instantly refute the doomsayers’ dire predictions and outright lies. The communication revolution that has taken place since 1995 is akin to the printing revolution that followed Gutenberg’s invention. This widespread democratization of knowledge is the most potent force yet in the eternal struggle of reason and confidence vs. ignorance and despair. But smartphones and search engines are only tools, of course. They are no substitute for a consistent, coherent philosophy.

2 rbradley { 04.22.11 at 9:23 am }
3 Rolf Westgard { 04.24.11 at 2:53 am }

From the Mpls Star Tribune & other papers:

With the arrival of April we welcome Earth Day, a time to consider our obligation to the environment in light of the responsibilities assigned to humanity in biblical stories of creation.
In Genesis, humans receive dominion over the fish of the sea, and presumably the sea in which the fish live; over the fowl of the air and the atmosphere in which the fowl live, and over every living thing that moves upon the Earth that humans must replenish.
We have the means to carry out this obligation. Our bodies, while not the strongest of all nature’s creatures, are by far the most flexible, and our brains are without peer.
Earth Day is an appropriate time for Americans to consider their record as keepers of our nation’s lands and waters, a country blessed with bountiful natural resources.
But as we look east, we see Appalachian mountain forests, clear-cut so as to blast mountain tops off into the valleys, retrieving small seams of coal while blocking miles of streams in the ruined valleys below.
In the Midwest, we have plowed dry-area grasslands that once supported countless birds and buffalo.
Now we grow crops intended by nature for wetter regions. To accomplish this, we take up to 3 feet of irrigation water annually from underground aquifers, which are replenished by nature at the rate of one inch per year.
The fate of those aquifers is not difficult to forecast. In the arid west, we dam rivers so that people and crops can live in deserts. The land becomes more saline, and the rivers no longer reach the sea.

The Earth’s lines of meridian run from pole to pole, and they mark westward progress in degrees of longitude from the prime meridian at Greenwich, England. The 100th meridian emerges from central Canada. It bisects the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. To the east of the 100th is wet America, with its corn and soybeans. To the west, except for part of the Pacific Northwest, is dry America — wheat, cattle ranches and irrigation.
The primary water sources for dry America are the snowpacks of its mountain ranges, which feed the rivers during dry seasons. The west’s major river is the Colorado. It brings life to hundreds of cities, an increasingly thirsty 21 million people, and more than 2 million acres of irrigated farmland in seven states and two countries. The Colorado’s dams and diversions were planned and built at time when the river’s annual flow ranged from 16 million acre-feet to more than 20 million.
In the drier 21st century, the flow is now averaging 14 million to 15 million acre-feet. The river’s two major reservoirs are Lake Powell, behind Glen Canyon Dam, and Lake Mead, behind Hoover Dam. Those reservoirs are in slow decline, and they are currently averaging half-full.
Before the Europeans, Minnesota was a natural-resource treasure, with forests of virgin White Pine, and some of the world’s largest deposits of rich iron ore. Deep layers of our glacially deposited soil were nourished by the ample waters of our lakes, streams and aquifers.
Now those forests are clear-cut, their lumber exported to the world. Most of the iron ore has also gone everywhere, leaving behind those empty pits. We need to protect our remaining soil and the waters that nourish it.

All over the Earth, this drawing-down of nature’s resources continues. More than a billion people are hungry, while the rest of us make a place at the table for nearly a billion cars and trucks to consume their diet of food-based biofuels.
The vengeance for these acts of desecration will not be sudden, as in the great flood of biblical history. Instead, the rivers will gradually silt up the dams, overtop and remove them, and resume their destined routes to the sea.
Soils, impoverished and eroded from single-cropping and excessive fertilizers, will no longer nourish our billions. A warming atmosphere, polluted by overuse of carbon fuels, will wreak its own havoc.

There is still time, but not much time, to take seriously the responsibility for the Earth that dominion gives us.

Rolf Westgard, of St. Paul, is a professional member of the Geological Society of America.

4 Ed { 04.24.11 at 7:18 am }

Free and rational individuals, left alone to manage their own interests within an objectively defined political and economic framework that protects their inherent rights, will always be better “stewards” of “the environment” than collectivist bureaucrats with their Five Year Plans.

5 Kent Hawkins { 04.24.11 at 5:49 pm }

Rolf Westgard gives us a lot to think about. The pattern he describes is all too clearly part of human nature, and has been since our earliest stages. Then we were in balance with nature, largely because we were a very frail and small part of it. Evolution has allowed our species to become dominant for a number of reasons, and religious beliefs have developed hand in hand with this. We survived and prospered resulting in population and technology growth to our current position of dominance.

In early times we were foragers, and foraging is a very energy efficient process, especially for animals with a relatively high development of intelligence. The reasons for our evolution from this apparently somewhat idyllic origin have been many, not the least of which has been the need to overcome the frail nature of our existence, threatened by predators and the vagaries of nature. We accomplished this through the development of “technologies”, for example tools. An important outcome of tool development was the creation of power enhancement to more effectively access energy sources, both that inherent in our bodies and in other elements of nature. Once started on this path, there was no turning back. Technology and the associated economic development that followed ensured survival of our species and, unfortunately, became ends in themselves.

As Westgard points out, having dominion over “nature” is an element of the Christian religion. I don’t know if this is characteristic of other religions as well. I suspect not. The early settlers in North America and other missionary ventures brought European values to the rest of the world, made possible by the technological leadership that they enjoyed. In the New World, religious beliefs encouraged that forests be cleared and land made “productive”. Of course, there were other imperatives to bring order to the wilderness and ensure economic domination. Such success breeds hubris.

This campaign against nature to ensure the success of humans up to the present day was made possible by the effective development of access to and use of energy sources. Undeniably such advances also brought prosperity and well-being to those who had the most access to this resource, and to some degree to those less fortunate.

We have in effect a two-edged sword. One edge ensures our survivability and well-being, and the other the capability of endangering this. Apparently, we have now arrived full cycle to the point where our existence is threatened by nature as in the beginning. Clearly we are on a path with a possible outcome that is apocalyptic. “Climate change” is not the only form that this might take. The avoidance of these undesirable outcomes could be a close run thing.

What is the issue we face today? We do not have abundant New Worlds left to conquer for natural resources that allow us to continue on the path of using our developed technologies with abandon as we have in the past. As in the earliest of times, we must use our intelligence to set us on a path that gives us the best chance of survival.

Our survival and the desired social, political economic and environmental outcomes have the best chance of being realized with the right decisions on energy. A good place to start for insights is the writings of Vaclav Smil.

6 Jon Boone { 04.24.11 at 6:49 pm }

Some may remember this piece (http://www.stopillwind.org/lowerlevel.php?content=SierraClubWindSupport) I wrote last year re The Sierra Club, in which I laid out the historical situation described by Rolf Westgard and reinforced by Kent Hawkins. Much of the “degradation” described took place in eras where there was little risk in destroying habitats–for there were always more to exploit. However, during the last 120 years, we have developed a keen knowledge about the adverse consequences of exploiting sensitive habitats. We know, for example, that removing whole mountains to get cheap coal is environmentally unconscionable. We should know that fracking for natural gas requires substantial independent monitoring, but we permit much of it to take place on the industry “honor system.” This is beyond despicable.

On the other hand, past bad practices are not necessarily prolog. The achievements of modernity should not be held captive to environmentally irresponsible extraction practices. This is where government regulation should intervene. But crony capitalism has captured government in ways that mock independent regulatory practices. Nowhere is this more evident than in West Virginia re coal and FERC re renewables.

A “free market” can only be effective in a well-informed society with relatively level playing fields and independent applications of justice. Neither of which are sufficiently robust today.

7 Julian Simon on rational optimism | The Rational Optimist… { 04.25.11 at 1:39 pm }

[...] Master Resource reposts Julian Simon's wonderful and inspiring message of 1 May 1995. For good and bad, it has aged  not at all: [...]

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