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Julian Simon: High School Debaters Hear His Message

By Greg Rehmke -- June 16, 2020

“I began publishing Julian Simon’s upbeat analytical articles on the benefits of population growth…. [O]ur ‘Econ Update’ newsletter was mailed to every high school with a debate program. Julian Simon’s Ultimate Resource thus joined the battle of ideas against ‘Growth DAs’ in debate classes, clubs, and tournaments across the country.”

When I worked at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in New York in the mid-1980s, Julian Simon used to call from time to time. Sometime he would send a letter with just a leaf inside.

High school debate was my connection to Julian Simon. 

Discovering Julian Simon

I learned about The Ultimate Resource (1981) from Andrea Rich’s Laissez-Faire Books catalog. A few years earlier, Economics in Argumentation had outsourced a debate resource guide to a former debater for the national high school debate topic. I was hired to direct Economics in Argumentation (see Economic Thinking website) and to promote economic principles and analysis relevant to each years national debate topic.

That first debate resource book turned out to be a problem. It included twenty or more pages of “Growth DAs” [Growth Disadvantages]: evidence blocks claiming economic growth would be negative if not disastrous for the world.

For example, a debate case making Americans wealthier was bad because they would eat more meat, which would expand cattle grazing in Brazil to cut down more rainforest. Less Amazon rainforest meant reducing the Earth’s CO2 “lungs,” leading to runaway global warming.

Page after page of “Growth DAs” claimed population increases and economic growth polluted the air and water and caused cancer and species extinction. In short, “The Litany.” 

The Ultimate Resource

In his book The Ultimate Resource, Julian Simon explained that he once believed all this too. But as he researched these fears and claims, he couldn’t find adequate support. The more he applied his statistics training, the more he realized these claims were just wrong. In developed countries the air and water was getting cleaner, forests were expanding, cancer rates were falling.

The Ultimate Resource, published by Princeton University Press in 1981, would have a growing, wide influence. Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg read about Julian Simon in a WIRED magazine cover story he picked up at an airport, which resulted in a whole new voice from the Left joining the facts-first revision.

So…for my part, with Economics in Argumentation and later at FEE, I began publishing Julian Simon’s upbeat analytical articles on the benefits of population growth. For a year, our “Econ Update” newsletter was mailed to every high school with a debate program. Thus Julian Simon’s Ultimate Resource joined the battle of ideas against “Growth DAs” in debate classes, clubs, and tournaments across the country.

FEE’s and later Economic Thinking’s book tables at each year’s national debate tournaments got sour looks from Growth DA debate coaches but lots of attention from interested students.

Meeting Simon

A year or two later I met Julian Simon in person. He somehow knew about FEE’s high school debate program. He was happy to meet–and share a story from his recent trip to Egypt.

On a tour bus to see the Pyramids, he talked to a mother and daughter from New York City. Into the conversation they introduced themselves. When Julian said his name, the daughter perked up: “I know you! I’ve quoted your writings in debate!” 

There was much hate and ridicule of Julian Simon from mainstream environmentalists. But his research and writing over the years made a powerful case for optimism and against the doom and gloom fears of technology and overpopulation.

Simon was happy to know his research and arguments for man as the Ultimate Resource were reaching bright and motivated high school debate students each day.


I regularly recommend Julian Simon in posts for high school and homeschool speech and debate students, trying to place the ideas into the context they know. [See, for example, “Infinity Resource War: Thanos, 12 Monkeys, and Tomorrow’s Eco-Terrorists” (April 2019)]

Another point that will always be on my mind when remembering Julian Simon is how he championed that everyday people better understand statistics, since they were so often misused to make alarming predictions about resource scarcity and environment.

Just knowing facts and trends (such as climate-related deaths significantly declining around the world) was a curative to the Malthusian ills. And for specialists, Simon’s “Resampling: The New Statistics” is now available online.


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  2. Gregory Rehmke  

    The phrase in article “Growth DAs” may be confusing. In debate DAs are short for Disadvantages.

    Policy debate has two people on each team, one going affirmative, supporting a chosen resolution, the other team on the negative, opposing the policy reform proposed by the affirmative team, and often arguing that even if reform were successful, they would lead to unintended consequences that would overwhelm any benefits. These are the DAs. In regular high school debate I’ve heard that now some 80% of debates center on claims about disadvantages, rather than on the actual debate resolution. This is unfortunate and usually comes from the influence of summer debate camps run by college communications departments.

    In any case the negative team can spend time arguing the affirmative’s policy reform won’t solve the problems it claims to solve.

    Then… the negative starts additions lines of attack: even if the aff. case does achieve its goal, unintended problems it creates, disadvantages, will overwhelm any benefits. The negative might run 3, 5, or more DAs in the hope that the affirmative wont have time to counter all the DA claims.

    To some extent DAs are very Bastiat. The seen and the unseen. It turns out that most government program, even reforms, create new problems unforeseen by eager reformers. Here is relevant Econlib.org post: “The Power of Bastiat’s Unseen” https://www.econlib.org/the-power-of-bastiats-unseen/


  3. Kevin  

    Malthus was kept at bay by the opening of agricultural lands in Australia and the western hemisphere and the technological advances of scientists of european descent. There are no new agricultural lands left to exploit and europeans are becoming a small minority in the world. Is there any evidence that scientists in Asia or developing nations will be able to sustain the necessary technological progress?


  4. Gregory Rehmke  

    Global food shortages ended the year Chinese farmers were allowed to “own” (actually 99 year lease) their land privately. Unable to find data on this with Google search (maybe Chinese government controls this history?). I remember that before privatization of ag. land, China was world’s biggest importer of food. Year after private farmland, China was exporting food. Here are notes from FEE article:

    “In 1978, the farmers in a small Chinese village called Xiaogang gathered in a mud hut to sign a secret contract. They thought it might get them executed. Instead, it wound up transforming China’s economy in ways that are still reverberating today.”

    “Grain output increased to 90,000 kilograms in 1979, over six times as much as the previous year,” according to China.org. “The per capita income of Xiaogang climbed to 400 yuan from 22 yuan.”



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