A Free-Market Energy Blog

‘A Look at Resourceful Earth Day’ (Fred Smith Jr. on Julian Simon)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- April 23, 2020

Ed. Note: Fred L. Smith Jr. (1940–), founder and chairman emeritus of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, originally published this article in April 1999. Its insights remain as relevant today as 21 years ago.

April 22, once associated with the optimism of revolutionary Marxism (as the birthday of Lenin) and then with the pessimism of modern Malthusianism (as the environmentalist’s Earth Day since 1970), merits redemption.

A new label, Resourceful Earth Day, is appropriate as we enter the 21st century, a title selected to honor mankind’s increasing ability to solve environmental as well as economic problems.

This title, of course, is inspired by the late Julian Simon, author of “The Resourceful Earth,” who combated with passion and power those who viewed man as the cancer of this planet and his future as bleak and austere.

Resourceful Earth Day also signals a hope more appropriate to spring, marking a return to a positive view of man’s role on this planet. Indeed the old Marxists, convinced that they would dominate the future, optimistically favored economic and technological change. The forces of change, they believed, would move man toward heaven here on Earth.

That optimistic element has disappeared. The environmental establishment has grown increasingly gloomy, convinced that the Earth is suffering from the “Terrible Toos” — too many people, too much consumption, too great a reliance on technology which is understood too little. Earth Day has become a day of atonement for man’s criminal assault on our planet. That pessimism reflects, in part, their realization that history is no longer on their side; thus, change is no longer in their interest. Stasis must be the order of the day.

With attacks on things like biotechnology, automobiles, suburban opportunity and trade, they now seek only, as Aaron Wildavsky noted, “an egalitarian society based on rejection of economic growth in favor of a smaller population eating lower on the food chain, consuming a lot less, and sharing a much lower level of resources much more equally.”

Had God not expelled man from the Garden of Eden, so the story goes, the “greens” certainly would have. And, indeed, their ideal land use is “wilderness,” defined as an area from which man is excluded.

Simon was a wonderful critic of all this foolishness. He investigated and refuted the gloomy projections that Western Civilization was a failure, that our civilization was non-sustainable and doomed to inevitable decline as the planet’s finite resources were depleted.

But the finite nature of the Earth’s material resources pose no great problem, he argued, because the Earth’s most precious resource is infinite and organic. It is its people, contributing to  the ever-growing stock of useful human knowledge. When people have been free to apply their intellect, they have always found ways to meet needs and answer crises, and always will.

Simon pointed out that, while people are born with stomachs, they are born with brains and hands as well. The latter allow them to create far more than they consume. People, after all, are not ciphers, which helps explain how the growth in the world’s food supply has outstripped the growth in the world’s population.

The problems of famine, overpopulation, poverty and disease are resolvable. In fact, they have been resolved in the United States and other places where human ingenuity is free to solve them. The calamity criers of the green movement predicted great disasters afflicting the planet by the year 2000. The Carter administration’s Global 2000 Report forecast global calamity, and Paul Ehrlich claimed on the “Johnny Carson Show,” “If I were a gambler, I would bet even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

Unfortunately for the eco-catastrophists, as we approach their due date for disaster, the planet is in increasingly good shape. This point was recently conceded by America’s arch-druid. “Not only do we have the healthiest economy in a generation,” said Vice President Al Gore, “we also have the cleanest environment.”

On this Resourceful Earth Day, we may hope that Gore and his fellow foot soldiers in the environmental brigades will ponder these points and rethink the wisdom of the current policy of placing all one’s faith in federal political solutions. The greens’ constant calls for massive government controls, forced population limits, harsh curbs on economic activity, and a curtailing of technology threaten to produce exactly the results that such actions seek to avoid —a world of ecological and economic disaster. On this April 22, let us commit to both a freer and a cleaner world; they go together after all.

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