The Most Fun and Useful Article on Environmental Issues

…that I have ever read is called “The Doomslayer.” It begins this way:

This is the litany: Our resources are running out. The air is bad, the water worse. The planet’s species are dying off—more exactly, we’re killing them—at the staggering rate of 100,000 per year, a figure that works out to almost 2,000 species per week, 300 per day… We’re trashing the planet, washing away the topsoil, paving over our farmlands, systematically deforesting our wildernesses, decimating the biota, and ultimately killing ourselves.

The world is getting progressively poorer, and it’s all because of population, or more precisely, overpopulation. … The limits to growth are finally upon us, and we’re living on borrowed time. The laws of population growth are inexorable. Unless we act decisively, the final result is written in stone: mass poverty, famine, starvation, and death.

Time is short, and we have to act now.

That’s the standard and canonical litany. …

There’s just one problem with The Litany, just one slight little wee imperfection: every item in that dim and dreary recitation, each and every last claim, is false. Incorrect. At variance with the truth.

Not the way it is, folks.

Thus saith The Doomslayer, one Julian L. Simon, a neither shy nor retiring nor particularly mild-mannered professor of business administration at a middling eastern-seaboard state university.

The delightful writing is by Ed Regis. The article is from Wired magazine, May 1997. The Doomslayer is the late, great Julian Simon.

It came up in discussion with my Honors Principles of Microeconomics class today when one of the nineteen top students in it expressed a concern about resource depletion in terms similar to those in The Litany:

There’s a finite store of resources on our pale blue dot, spaceship Earth, our small and fragile tiny planet, and we’re fast approaching its ultimate carrying capacity

I responded by telling my students about this article, in which Simon is quoted as follows:

“Our species is better off in just about every measurable material way,” he says. “Just about every important long-run measure of human material welfare shows improvement over the decades and centuries, in the United States and the rest of the world. Raw materials – all of them – have become less scarce rather than more.

Later in the day, another student asked me to send her a link to the article, and I realized it made sense to inform readers of this blog about Simon’s work, too. So here it is.

I recommended to my students three other sources of environmental enlightenment having to do with the great Julian Simon:

First, Julian Simon won a famous bet with Paul Ehrlich.

Ehrlich is the astoundingly wrong-headed biologist and best-selling author of The Population Bomb, which was a bestseller scaring the wits out of people when I was a high school senior. It began,

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.

That was in 1968. Julian Simon, who had studied the data, “went bananas.” Read Regis’s account; it’s delightful. Eventually Simon offered Ehrlich a bet: Pick any five resources and any date more than a year into the future. If the inflation-adjusted prices of those resources had risen, indicating that they actually were becoming more scarce, Simon would pay Ehrlich an amount based on the overall increase. If their inflation-adjusted prices had fallen, indicating that they were actually becoming less scarce, Ehrlich would pay Simon an amount based on that decrease.

Time passed. The day came. All the prices were lower (inflation-adjusted). Ehrlich wrote Simon a check for $576.07, but never conceded that Simon was correct.

Second, a PhD statistician named Bjorn Lomborg happened to pick up in an airport the issue of Wired magazine that contained “The Doomslayer.” He found Simon’s claims foolish, set out to disprove them with statistical analysis, ended up persuaded by the data he found, and wrote up his findings is a detailed, fascinating book called The Skeptical Environmentalist. Highly recommended.

Third, Julian Simon wrote a book called The Ultimate Resource. What resource do suppose he has in mind?

People. There are not enough of us.

Julian Simon, we miss you.

UPDATE: Less than one day after posting the above, I have just discovered on Reason.com a Ronald Bailey review of a new book called The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future, by Paul Sabin. It’s good for humanity that that bet is getting more attention.

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