"People are the solution, not the problem"

By Sheila Kumar

(This article appeared in The Times of India in April 24, 1997)

Professor Julian Simon, who teaches business administration at the University of Maryland is an economist with a theory, a theory that has environmentalists and population control experts reacting with outrage. Directly contradicting the Malthusian hypothesis, Prof Simon claims that more people and more wealth correlates with more, and not less, resources and a cleaner environment.
To prove that this is not mere whistling in the dark, the professor made a wager with noted ecologist Paul Ehrlich, a strong advocate of curbing population growth to preserve the environment. Prof Simon challenged Prof Ehrlich's view that prices for natural resources would go up over time due to population growth. For his part, Prof Simon argued that human ingenuity would lead to more resources being found and hence, prices would only go down.
The wager was sealed in 1980 for a sum of $ 1,000 on the future of five metals: chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten. If the prices of these metals rose during the next ten years, (taking inflation into account) Prof Simon was to pay Prof Ehrlich the amount of the increase.
Ten years on, the prices of the metals had fallen and Prof Ehrlich had to pay Prof Simon $ 576. During that same time, the earth's population grew by 800 million... more potential customers for the metals, in Prof Simon's worldview. The wager remains open for fresh challengers.
``There is no crisis of our environment,'' insists the professor, who was in India to deliver the inaugural lecture at the second Freedom Workshop organised by the Liberty Institute. "Scientific data proves conclusively that the world's population has been eating ever better since World War II. Equally, it can be proved that all natural resources have been getting more available, not more scarce, as shown by their falling prices over the centuries.''
The death rate is another telling factor, says Prof Simon. Life expectancy has almost tripled in the rich countries in the past two centuries and almost doubled in the developing countries in just over 50 years. India's infant mortality rate, currently 74 deaths per 1,000 live births, is a dramatic improvement on the figure of 200 that prevailed in the early decades of this century.
The professor asserts that the Cassandras who sound the alarm bells for an environmental or population crisis are making short- run comparisons. ``View it over a reasonably long period of time and you will see that almost every economic and social trend points in a positive direction.'' Citing the history of human life expectancy to back his assertion, he says, ``After World War II, the length of life one can expect in developing countries has leaped upwards by perhaps 15 or even 20 years, caused by advances in agriculture, sanitation and medicine. In the 19th century, the earth could sustain only 1 billion people. Now, 5 billion people are on average living longer and more healthily than before.''
According to Prof Simon, even the food scenario is a benign one. ``Famine deaths due to insufficient food supply have decreased both in absolute terms as well as in relation to population, in the past century. Per person food consumption is up over the last 30 years. If Africa's food production per person is down, the cause of hunger in that continent is a combination of civil wars and collectivisation of agriculture, worsened by periodic droughts.''
Decrying the prophets of doom, Prof Simon states that studies agree that there is no negative statistical relationship between economic growth and population growth. ``The Malthusian theory of increasing scarcity based on supposedly fixed resources runs contrary to data over the long sweep of history. More people and increased income cause problems in the short run. Short-run scarcity raises prices. This sets off the search for solutions and in a free society, solutions are eventually found. So, in the long run, new developments leave us better off than if the problems had not arisen.''
This begs the question: If things are indeed getting better, why are we told that our planet is being plundered and in crisis, we are running out of resources, pollution is increasing?
The professor puts it down to institutional and economic influences (such statements are proven money-getters) and also, intellectual error. Indeed, there are many who recognise these doomsday sayings for the faulty ones they are, but feel that if it helps society tighten its belt, morally and physically, no harm could come of these alarms.
Prof Simon stresses that he is not complacent; he recognises that there are serious problems. However, in order to tackle these problems, he calls for a clearer perspective. And that, in a nutshell, is to recognise not that things are good but that they are getting better.
Summing up, Professor Simon says more people do cause problems but people are the means to solve these problems. The ultimate resource is people, especially skilled, spirited, hopeful young people who will exert their will and imagination for their own benefit and in doing so, will inevitably benefit the rest of us as well.
However, concludes the professor, even as humanity's condition will improve in just about every material way, humans will continue to sit around, complaining about everything getting worse.
(c) Copyright The Times of India, 1997.
Reprinted here courtesy The Times of India.

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