This February marks 10 years since the death of Julian Simon, the provocative thinker who refuted the notion that society would collapse as finite resources run out.
Simon reframed our thinking about sustainable resource use. Despite his premature death, Simon’s ideas continue to sort the real from the rhetorical in the environmental movement.
Popular thinking about humans’ relationship with the environment plays like a long-running version of Apocalypse Soon. Fear of ecological catastrophe is almost as old as the Ark. The classic tale was Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population, which was published and updated from 1798 to 1826, predicting starvation. Despite 28 years of dire predictions, the famine never came.
Since then, world population has exploded and life expectancy has grown, but disaster has not followed. Paul Ehrlich picked up the doomsayer baton in 1968 and predicted that resource shortages would create mass starvation by the 1980s. Jared Diamond’s Collapse is the latest manifestation of this long, myopic melodrama.
Disciples of spiritual and ecological apocalyptic thinking remain commonplace. Even now, a spiritual group in Russia is holed up in a cave waiting for the end of the world while exasperated officials attempt to coax them out. Thousands of concerned Canadians are promising to turn off their lights for an hour in March to show their commitment to making a smaller environmental impact. A couple in Britain had a voluntary abortion and sterilization, so they will not have offspring who would use resources. More moderate disciples settle for training their children to recycle.
The underlying theme is the depressing notion that we are parasites on the planet, so we must choose between consuming nothing and destroying the Earth. For extreme advocates, sterilizing yourself is the only moral choice.
But Simon offers a fresh insight. Without its natural resources, the Earth is useless to us. Instead of worrying about how much copper, timber and oil is available, our concern should be the uses to which we can put available materials. Because our creativity is unlimited, there is no reason to expect we will ever run out of resources.
Simon famously challenged Ehrlich to name five metals that would be more expensive by 1990 than they were in 1980. As Simon predicted, the prices fell as we got better at refining the metals and found substitute materials for some of their uses, proving that our lifestyle is hostage to no basic material.
It is not difficult to find evidence of Simon’s thesis, even in our own pockets. Imagine, 20 years ago, demanding to listen to 600 songs plus the radio, take and store 3,000 photographs, calculate basic sums, be entertained by virtual games and talk to anyone on Earth from anywhere at the touch of a button. One would require a long-playing record player with 40 12-inch records, a radio receiver, a camera and 90 or so rolls of film and a “pocket” calculator. A person would have to borrow something stupendous from the military for mobile communication. It would cost thousands of dollars and would be much too bulky to carry. New technology is delivering all these features in a $200 cell phone that fits in your pocket, for much less money and through the consumption of fewer resources.
Who would have thought that a wafer of silicon (basically sand) injected with boron and phosphorous could store 16 billion digits, the equivalent of a backpack of film and records? Not only can we achieve the same utility with a fraction of the environmental impact, but we also do it with materials that were once considered useless.
Simon died an untimely death at 65. He did not benefit much from the growing life expectancy that has confounded Malthus, Ehrlich and other commentators of eco-doom. But Simon changed the environmental debate forever by refuting the finite-resource-and-inevitable-doom paradigm.
Through Simon’s influence, the environmental movement has shifted focus from worrying about running out of resources to worrying that we have so many resources we can change the climate. Simon’s ideas deserve to outlive him for generations.