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“Happy Earth Day” (Julian Simon 25th anniversary essay speaks to us today)

“[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.”

[Editor note: This post reprints the Earth Day 1995 essay of Julian Simon, "Earth Day: Spiritually Uplifting, Intellectually Debased." Posts about the ideas of Simon (1932–1997), an inspiration to this blog, can be found here]

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.

4 comments

1 rbradley { 04.22.14 at 12:27 pm }

Amazing–the New York Times had nothing about Earth Day on their editorial pages. Is it time for our side to call April 22 Resourceful Earth Day in honor of Julian Simon??

2 Dr. James H. Rust { 04.22.14 at 2:47 pm }

Wonders never cease. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had nothing about Earth Day on its Editorial Pages and I think nothing anywhere in the paper. As a recipient of News Releases from tax payer funded EPA, I can testify they recognized Earth Day–they called April Earth Month and Gina McCarthy is on a country-wide trip for Earth Week. My estimate is $50 million spent by EPA on their ventures for April Earth Month.

I concur with Bob Bradley’s naming April 22 Resourceful Earth Day in honor of Julian Simon. If he was alive today, he would be noting at least one billion have been pulled out of extreme poverty since 1995 by providing electricity to people in China and India who were without electricity.

James H. Rust, Professor

3 John Menzies { 04.22.14 at 8:00 pm }

The world is so obviously better today than at any time in human history and it will continue to get better. Communications continue to improve, food quality continues to improve, healthcare continues to improve, travel is easier. Almost any area of human endeavor from nature to the built environment is simply better. Mining operations think closure before they open, our societal tolerance for pollution is at an all time low and the future simply looks better and better.

You would however not think this if you heard the banter of the eco-left. But then this has become a business. WWF in the USA is a $400 million annual business with well paid staff positions, comfortable offices and “prestige” while they drive their expensive eco-cars to the office complex. Given this dynamic the howl of the eco-left is likely to become more shrill.

4 rbradley { 04.23.14 at 7:52 am }

Excellent piece by Mark Perry (University of Michigan): “On Earth Day, Hail Fossil Fuels, Energy of the Future.”
http://news.investors.com/ibd-editorials-brain-trust/042114-697802-earth-day-fossil-fuels-will-remain-main-energy-source.htm?p=full

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