In Defense of People: Julian Simon, “The Ultimate Resource Is Mankind”

by David Bier on November 18, 2011

This week’s excerpts have shown that 1) natural resources are not as limited as experts have believed (Daniel Yergin). 2) Natural resource consumption leads to more, not less resources (Mark Mills/Peter Huber). 3) Natural resources aren’t “natural”–they are the result of human ingenuity (Robert Bradley). 4) Non-renewable, finite, depletable energy sources made economic growth sustainable (Matt Ridley). Today’s excerpt from brilliant resource economist Julian Simon’s The Ultimate Resource 2 adds to these points, particular to Robert Bradley’s point. Simon argues that the ultimate resource isn’t energy–it’s mankind.

When I began to work on population studies, I aimed to help the world contain its “exploding” population, which I believed to be one of the two main threats to humankind (war being the other)….

One spring day about 1969 I visited the U.S. AID office on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., to discuss a project intended to lower fertility in less-developed countries. I arrived early for my appointment, so I strolled outside in the warm sunshine. Below the building’s plaza I noticed a road sign that said “Iwo Jima Memorial.”  There came to me the memory of reading a eulogy delivered by a Jewish chaplain over the dead on the battlefield at Iwo Jima, saying something like, “How many who would have been a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an Einstein have we buried here?”

And then I thought, Have I gone crazy? What business do I have trying to help arrange it that fewer human beings will be born, each one of whom might be a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an Einstein – or simply a joy to his or her family and community, and a person who will enjoy life?

I still believe that helping people fulfill their desires for the number of children they want is a wonderful human service. But to persuade them or coerce them to have fewer children than they would like to have—that is something entirely different….

Enabling a potential human being to come into life and to enjoy life is a good thing, just as protecting a living person’s life from being ended is a good thing. Of course a death is not the same as an averted life, in large part because others feel differently about the two. Yet I find no logic implicit in the thinking of those who are horrified at the starvation of a comparatively few people in a faraway country… but who are positively gleeful with the thought that 1 million or 10 million times that many lives will never be lived that might be lived.

Economics alone cannot explain this attitude, for though the economic consequences of death differ from those of non-life, they are not so different as to explain this difference in attitude. So what is it? Why does Kingsley Davis (one of the world’s great demographers) respond to the U.S. population growth during the 1960s with, “I have never been able to get anyone to tell me why we needed those [additional] 23 million”? And Paul Ehrlich: “I can’t think of any reason for having more than one hundred fifty million people [in the U.S.], and no one has ever raised one to me.”…

The absence of this basic value for human life is at the bottom of Ehrlich’s well-known restatement of Pascal’s wager. “If I’m right, we will save the world [by curbing population growth]. If I’m wrong, people will still be better fed, better housed, and happier, thanks to our efforts. [All the evidence suggests that he is wrong.] Will anything be lost if it turns out later that we can support a much larger population than seems possible today?” …Would he make the same sort of wager if his own life rather than others’ lives were the stake?

In this I agree with the doomsayers—that our world needs the best efforts of all humanity to improve our lot.  I part company with the doomsayers in that they expect us to come to a bad end despite the efforts we make, whereas I expect a continuation of humanity’s successful efforts.  And I believe that their message is self-fulfilling, because if you expect your efforts to fail because of inexorable natural limits, then you are likely to feel resigned, and therefore to literally resign.  But if you recognize the possibility–in fact the probability–of success, you can tap large reservoirs of energy and enthusiasm.

Adding more people to any community 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 brake is our lack of imagination.  The ultimate resource is people—skilled, spirited, and hopeful people—who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit as well as in a spirit of faith and social concern. Inevitably they will benefit not only themselves but the poor and the rest of us as well.

 (Excerpted from the preface)
Lawrie Ayres November 19, 2011 at 8:12 pm

The beauty of real nature is that it is self moderating. Too many trees, some die. Too many gazelles, more lions and so on. I’m convinced humans react in the same way. People migrate voluntarily to better countries just as the wildebeast migrate after new grass. If and when the world population reaches capacity it will become self regulating, deaths through starvation or disease or fewer children because of better survival rates as in Europe and the West generally. US and Australian population growth is mainly through immigration.

The last thing humans need is some sort of uber government elite telling them how many kids they can have. Government is there to support them in their choice not to choose for them.

It’s a very positive article.

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