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Julian Simon’s ‘The Ultimate Resource’ (1981) Speaks to Us Today

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- February 12, 2014

[Ed. note: Julian Simon, born February 12, 1932, died four days before his 66th birthday. He would have been 82 years old today. MasterResource takes its name from Simon’s term for energy, and we publish on his oeuvre from time to time.]

Thirty-three years after its publication by Princeton University Press, The Ultimate Resource remains insightful and timely—if not timeless. Simon’s Ultimate Resource 2, published in 1996, greatly expanded upon the original, but the major themes were not changed due to the solid worldview that Simon had developed in the 1970s.]

Energy: The Master Resource

“Energy is the master resource, because energy enables us to convert one material into another. As natural scientists continue to learn more about the transformation of materials from one form to another with the aid of energy, energy will be even more important.”

– Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 91.

Energy Optimism

“Technological forecasts of resource exhaustion are often unsound and misleading [in part because] … the physical quantity of a resource in the earth, not matter how closely defined, is not known at any time, because resources are only sought and found as they are needed.” (p. 40)

“I do not believe that nature is limitlessly bountiful. I believe instead that the possibilities in the world are sufficiently great so that with the present state of knowledge, and with the additional knowledge that the human imagination and human enterprise will develop in the future, we and our descendants can manipulate the elements in such fashion that we can have all the mineral raw materials that we need and desire at prices ever smaller relative to other prices and to our total incomes. In short, our cornucopia is the human mind and hear, and not a Santa Claus natural environment. So has it been in the past, and therefore so is it likely to be in the future.” (p. 41)

“Are we now ‘entering an age of scarcity’? You can see anything you like in a crystal ball. But almost without exception, the best data—the long-run economic indicators—suggest precisely the opposite…. Natural resources have been becoming less scarce over the long run, right up to the present.” (p. 3)

“[T]he long-run future of our energy supply is at least as bright as that of other natural resources, though political maneuvering can temporarily boost prices from time to time.” (p. 6)

People: The ‘Ultimate Resource’

“The main fuel to speed the world’s progress is our stock of knowledge, and the brake is our lack of imagination.” (p. 348)

“The ultimate resource is people—skilled, spirited, and hopeful people who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so, inevitably, for the benefit of us all.” (p. 348)

“The is no physical or economic reason why human resourcefulness and enterprise cannot forever continue to respond to impending shortages and existing problems with new expedients that, after an adjustment period, leave us better off than before the problem arose.” (p. 345)

“Adding more people will cause [short run] problems, but at the same time there will be more people to solve these problems and leave us with the bonus of lower costs and less scarcity in the long run. The bonus applies to such desirable resources as better health, more wilderness, cheaper energy, and a cleaner environment.” (p. 346)

Public Policy Warnings

“False prophecies of doom can damage us in many ways.” (p. 348)

“The apparently obvious way to deal with resource problems—have the government control the amounts and prices of what consumers consume and suppliers supply—is inevitably counter-productive in the long run because the controls and the price fixing prevent us from making the cost-efficient adjustments that we would make in response to the increased short-run costs, adjustments that eventually would more than alleviate the problem.” (p. 348)

There is little doubt that none of ‘'[the government energy programs] can match the mechanisms of a free market. No government decision-maker can come close to the efficiency of millions of individual buyers and investors who go comparison shopping among gas, oil, coal, and so on.” (p. 119)

APPENDIX A: Final Thoughts (1999 book)

“The message about human betterment and economic progress is more general than any individual statements about raw materials, air, water, life expectancy, education, and the like. There is solid theoretical basis for the idea that that all aspects of human welfare should get better, not just as a matter of coincidence but as part of a broad causal mechanism.”

“Humanity has necessarily evolved so that we have more of the nature of creators than of destroyers—or else the species would have died out long ago. People seek to improve their conditions, and therefore on balance people build more than they tear down and produce more than they consume. Hence each generation leaves the world a bit better in most respects than it begins with.”

– Julian Simon, Hoodwinking the Nation (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1999), p. 52.

APPENDIX B: Other Julian Simon Posts at MasterResource

“Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability” Revisited: Part I” (November 26, 2013)

“Julian Simon and the Triumph of Energy Sustainability” Revisited: Part II” (November 27, 2013)

“Julian Simon: A Pathbreaking, Heroic Scholar Remembered” (February 12, 2013)

Julian Simon Remembered (Would have been 80 today) (February 12, 2002.)

“Happy Earth Day”: Julian Simon’s Silver Anniversary Earth Day Letter (April 22, 2011)

Julian Simon Changed His Mind–Can Others Come to View Humans as the Solution, not the Problem? (February 15, 2010)

Remembering Julian Simon (1932–1998) (February 8, 2010)

Julian Simon on the Ultimate Resource (Forget Peak Oil, Worry About Peak Government) (January 1, 2010)

“The Cheaper the Energy the Better” (Julian Simon in 1993 speaks to us today) (July 13, 2009)

One Comment for “Julian Simon’s ‘The Ultimate Resource’ (1981) Speaks to Us Today”

  1. Victor  

    Who will stand up and fill the void he left behind and be the ‘doomslayer’ of our time?
    The opinion that man is the cancer of this planet is depressingly ubiquitous. People are seen as problems, a blight to the working order of nature.
    I would hope to live until an age where we believe again in man’s capacity to shape Earth and make it into a better, nicer, more beautiful, safer and healthier place to live.
    Because really, people are absolutely awesome, we should celebrate their unmatched capacity to turn their dreams into reality.
    Disclaimer: author is human and could have an anthropocentric bias


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