Tierney, Simon, and 300 Million Resources

by Don Boudreaux on October 14, 2006

in Current Affairs, Myths and Fallacies, Standard of Living

John Tierney, like me, was deeply influenced by the ideas and research of the late Julian Simon.  John’s Simon-esque wisdom is on vivid and important display in his New York Times column today; in it, he discusses the fact that the U.S. population now is 300 million persons.  Here’s a snippet:

“Overpopulation” is history’s oldest environmental crisis, and it’s the
most instructive for making sense of today’s debates about energy and
climate change. It’s a case study of intellectual arrogance, and of the
perils of putting too much faith in a “scientific consensus” of experts
infatuated with their own forecasts.

Four decades ago, scientists were so determined to prevent famines
that they analyzed the feasibility of putting “fertility control
agents” in public drinking water. The physicist William Shockley
suggested using sterilization to impose a national limit on the number
of births.

Planned Parenthood’s policy of relying on voluntary
birth control was called a “tragic ideal” by the ecologist Garrett
Hardin. Writing in the journal Science, Hardin argued that “freedom to
breed will bring ruin to all.” He and others urged America to adopt a
“lifeboat ethic” by denying food aid, even during crises, to countries
with rapidly growing populations.

Those intellectuals didn’t
persuade Americans to adopt their policies, but they had more impact
overseas. Under prodding from Westerners like Robert McNamara, the head
of the World Bank, countries adopted “fertility targets” to achieve
“optimal” population size. When an Indian government official proposed
mandatory sterilization for men with three or more children, Paul
Ehrlich criticized the United States for not rushing to help.

“We
should have volunteered logistic support in the form of helicopters,
vehicles, and surgical instruments,” he wrote, and added: “Coercion?
Perhaps, but coercion in a good cause.”

By the way, this essay on Julian from Wired, appearing one year before Simon’s untimely death in February 1998, remains among my favorites.  And among my favorite passages in this essay is this one:

[R]esources, for the most part, don’t grow on trees. People produce them, they create them, whether it be food, factories, machines, new technologies, or stockpiles of mined, refined, and purified raw materials.

"Resources come out of people’s minds more than out of the ground or
air," says Simon. "Minds matter economically as much as or more than
hands or mouths. Human beings create more than they use, on average. It
had to be so, or we would be an extinct species."

The defect of the Malthusian models, superficially plausible but
invariably wrong, is that they leave the human mind out of the
equation. "These models simply do not comprehend key elements of people
– the imaginative and creative."

As for the future, "This is my long-run forecast in brief," says Simon.
"The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most
people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely. Within a
century or two, all nations and most of humanity will be at or above
today’s Western living standards.

"I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse."

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