"People are the solution, not the problem"
By Sheila Kumar
(This article appeared in The Times
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
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
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
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.
courtesy The Times of India.
Labels: Feature, Features, Julian Simons