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“More People, Greater Wealth, More Resources, Healthier Environment” (Part I: 1994 Julian Simon essay reprinted)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- July 24, 2014

“Adding more people causes problems, but people are also the means to solve these problems. The main fuel to speed the world’s progress is our stock of knowledge, and the brakes are a) our lack of imagination, and b) unsound social regulations of these activities.

The ultimate resource is people – especially skilled, spirited, and hopeful young people endowed with liberty – who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so inevitably they will benefit not only themselves but the rest of us as well.”

– Julian L. Simon, essay of February 28, 1994 (below).

This is the economic history of humanity in a nutshell: From 2 million or 200,000 or 20,000 or 2,000 years ago until the 18th Century, there was slow growth in population, almost no increase in health or decrease in mortality, slow growth in the availability of natural resources (but not increased scarcity), increase in wealth for a few, and mixed effects on the environment.

Since then there has been rapid growth in population due to spectacular decreases in the death rate, rapid growth in resources, widespread increases in wealth, and an unprecedented clean and beautiful living environment in many parts of the world along with a degraded environment in the poor and socialist parts of the world.

That is, more people and more wealth has correlated with more (rather than less) resources and a cleaner environment – just the opposite of what Malthusian theory leads one to believe.

The task before us is to make sense of these mind-boggling happy trends.

The current gloom-and-doom about a “crisis” of our environment is all wrong on the scientific facts. Even the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that U.S. air and our water have been getting cleaner rather than dirtier in the past few decades. Every agricultural economist knows that the world’s population has been eating ever-better since World War II. Every resource economist knows that all natural resources have been getting more available rather than more scarce, as shown by their falling prices over the decades and centuries.

And every demographer knows that the death rate has been falling all over the world – life expectancy almost tripling in the rich countries in the past two centuries, and almost doubling in the poor countries in just the past four decades.

The picture also is now clear that population growth does not hinder economic development. In the 1980s there was a complete reversal in the consensus of thinking of population economists about the effects of more people. In 1986, the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences completely overturned its “official” view away from the earlier worried view expressed in 1971. It noted the absence of any statistical evidence of a negative connection between population increase and economic growth. And it said that “The scarcity of exhaustible resources is at most a minor restraint on economic growth”.

This U-turn by the scientific consensus of experts on the subject has gone unacknowledged by the press, the antinatalist environmental organizations, and the agencies that foster population control abroad.

Here is my central assertion: Almost every economic and social change or trend points in a positive direction, as long as we view the matter over a reasonably long period of time.

For proper understanding of the important aspects of an economy we should look at the long-run trends. But the short-run comparisons – between the sexes, age groups, races, political groups, which are usually purely relative – make more news. To repeat, just about every important long-run measure of human welfare shows improvement over the decades and centuries, in the United States as well as in the rest of the world. And there is no persuasive reason to believe that these trends will not continue indefinitely.

Would I bet on it? For sure. I’ll bet a week’s or month’s pay – anything I win goes to pay for more research – that just about any trend pertaining to material human welfare will improve rather than get worse. You pick the comparison and the year.

Let’s quickly review a few data on how human life has been doing, beginning with the all-important issue, life itself.

The Conquest of Premature Death

The most important and amazing demographic fact – the greatest human achievement in history, in my view – – is the decrease in the world’s death rate. Figure 1 portrays the history human life expectancy at birth. It took thousands of years to increase life expectancy at birth from just over 20 years to the high ’20’s about 1750.

Then about 1750 life expectancy in the richest countries suddenly took off and tripled in about two centuries. In just the past two centuries, the length of life you could expect for your baby or yourself in the advanced countries jumped from less than 30 years to perhaps 75 years. What greater event has humanity witnessed than this conquest of premature death in the rich countries? It is this decrease in the death rate that is the cause of there being a larger world population nowadays than in former times.

Then starting well after World War II, the length of life you could expect in the poor countries has leaped upwards by perhaps fifteen or even twenty years since the l950s, caused by advances in agriculture, sanitation, and medicine. (See Figure 2)

Let’s put it differently. In the 19th century the planet Earth could sustain only one billion people. Ten thousand years ago, only 4 million could keep themselves alive. Now, 5 billion people are living longer and more healthily than ever before, on average. The increase in the world’s population represents our victory over death.

Here arises a crucial issue of interpretation: One would expect lovers of humanity to jump with joy at this triumph of human mind and organization over the raw killing forces of nature. Instead, many lament that there are so many people alive to enjoy the gift of life. Even regret death rate. And it is this worry that leads them to approve the Indonesian, Chinese and other inhumane programs of coercion and denial of personal liberty in one of the most precious choices a family can make — the number of children that it wishes to bear and raise.

Decreasing Scarcity of Natural Resources

Throughout history, the supply of natural resources always has worried people. Yet the data clearly show that natural resource scarcity — as measured by the economically-meaningful indicator of cost or price — has been decreasing rather than increasing in the long run for all raw materials, with only temporary exceptions from time to time. That is, availability has been increasing. Consider copper, which is representative of all the metals. In Figure 3 we see the price relative to wages since 1801. The cost of a ton is only about a tenth now of what it was two hundred years ago.

This trend of falling prices of copper has been going on for a very long time. In the l8th century B.C.E. in Babylonia under Hammurabi — almost 4000 years ago — the price of copper was about a thousand times its price in the U.S. now relative to wages. At the time of the Roman Empire the price was about a hundred times the present price….

So by any measure, natural resources have getting more available rather than more scarce. Regarding oil, the shocking price rises during the 1970s and 1980s were not caused by growing scarcity in the world supply. And indeed, the price of petroleum in inflation-adjusted dollars has returned to levels about where they were before the politically-induced increases, and the price of of gasoline is about at the historic low and still falling.

Concerning energy in general, there is no reason to believe that the supply of energy is finite, or that the price of energy will not continue its long-run decrease forever. I realize that it sounds weird to say that the supply of energy is not finite or limited; for the full argument, please see my 1981 book (revised edition forthcoming) (Science is only valuable when it arrives at knowledge different than common sense.)

Food is an especially important resource. The evidence is particularly strong for food that we are on a benign trend despite rising population. The long-run price of food relative to wages is now only perhaps a tenth as much as it was in 1800 in the U. S. Even relative to consumer products the price of grain is down, due to increased productivity, just as with all other primary products.

Famine deaths due to insufficient food supply have decreased even in absolute terms, let alone relative to population, in the past century, a matter which pertains particularly to the poor countries. Per-person food consumption is up over the last 30 years. And there are no data showing that the bottom of the income scale is faring worse, or even has failed to share in the general improvement, as the average has improved.

Africa’s food production per person is down, but by 1994 almost no one any longer claims that Africa’s suffering results from a shortage of land or water or sun. The cause of hunger in Africa is a combination of civil wars and collectivization of agriculture, which periodic droughts have made more murderous.

Consider agricultural land as an example of all natural resources. Though many people consider land to be a special kind of resource, it is subject to the same processes of human creation as other natural resources. The most important fact about agricultural land is that less and less of it is needed as the decades pass.

This idea is utterly counter-intuitive. It seems entirely obvious that a growing world population would need larger amounts of farmland. But the title of a remarkable prescient article in 1951 by Theodore Schultz tells the story: “The Declining Economic Importance of Land.” The increase in actual and potential productivity per unit of land have grown much faster than population, and there is sound reason to expect this trend to continue. Therefore, there is less and less reason to worry about the supply of land.

Though the stock of usable land seems fixed at any moment, it is constantly being increased – at a rapid rate in many cases – by the clearing of new land or reclamation of wasteland. Land also is constantly being enhanced by increasing the number of crops grown per year on each unit of land and by increasing the yield per crop with better farming methods and with chemical fertilizer. Last but not least, land is created anew where there was no land.

Increasing Scarcity: Human Time

There is only one important resource which has shown a trend of increasing scarcity rather than increasing abundance. That resource is the most important of all — human beings. Yes, there are more people on earth now than ever before. But if we measure the scarcity of people the same way that we measure the scarcity of other economic goods — by how much we must pay to obtain their services — we see that wages and salaries have been going up all over the world, in poor countries as well as in rich countries.

The amount that you must pay to obtain the services of a barber or a cook has risen in India, just as the price of a barber or cook — or economist — has risen in the United States over the decades. This increase in the price of peoples’ services is a clear indication that people are becoming more scarce even though there are more of us.

About pollution now: Surveys show that the public believes that our air and water have been getting more polluted in recent years. The evidence with respect to air indicates that pollutants have been declining, especially the main pollutant, particulates. (See Figure 5). With respect to water, the proportion of monitoring sites in the U.S. with water of good drinkability has increased since the data began in l961.

Every forecast of the doomsayers has turned out flat wrong. Metals, foods, and other natural resources have become more available rather than more scarce throughout the centuries. The famous Famine 1975 forecast by the Paddock brothers — that we would see millions of famine deaths in the U.S. on television in the 1970s — was followed instead by gluts in agricultural markets.

Paul Ehrlich’s primal scream about “What will we do when the [gasoline] pumps run dry?” was followed by gasoline cheaper than since the 1930’s. The Great Lakes are not dead; instead they offer better sport fishing than ever. The main pollutants, especially the particulates which have killed people for years, have lessened in our cities. (Socialist countries are a different and tragic environmental story, however!)….


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