The Happy Horseman
The Ultimate Resource.
by Julian L. Simon.
Princeton. 363 pp. $14.95.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse weren’t the sort of fellows you’d want your sister to marry. It is perhaps because of this fact that apocalyptic literature is generally assumed to deal with revelations about how bad things are or about how bad they can be seen to be now that the veil has been torn off. Julian L. Simon’s study reminds us that it is possible to be an optimistic apocalyptician. Considering that he is writing about natural resources and population growth, which for a decade have supplied the subject matter for an unrelieved diet of despair from other apocalypticians, this is no mean feat. Considering that he bases his work on a massive array of evidence from the widest distribution of sources, rather than on incantation, it is a feat without parallel.
Simon’s good news consists in three claims that in the contemporary context are nothing short of sensational: that natural resources are virtually infinite; that food supplies have been increasing and can continue to increase faster than population; and that population, far from being merely a drain on resources, is a resource itself.
The bases for Simon’s claim of an infinitude of resources are both empirical and theoretical. He begins by noting that despite our heavy use of many resources, reserves have been increasing to outstrip use. Between 1950 and 1970, for example, of our known reserves of tungsten, tin, manganese, zinc, lead, copper, bauxite, oil, chromite, iron, potash, and phosphates, only tungsten declined. The rest increased, in a range from 10 percent to 4430 percent. This situation is certainly not what one would have expected, given the claims of contemporary doomsayers.
Simon’s resolution of this apparent paradox is persuasive. Technological forecasting, especially pop technological forecasting, tends to ignore the effect of demand on supply, an effect which operates through the price mechanism. The result of a perceived scarcity is a price increase that renders new ranges of resources economic, thus increasing supply. The doomsayers underestimate natural resources by confusing known reserves with total reserves. They also underestimate by confusing structure and function; that is, they ignore the phenomenon of substitutability. In a pioneering discussion of this question, Petr Beckmann as long ago as 1972 argued that non-renewability is not the same thing as non-replaceability.1 Thus, even if the supply of copper is limited, that does not limit the supply of electric transmission cables, for in this use, aluminum can substitute for copper. The range of such replacements is extraordinarily wide. In a more recent discussion, Beckmann has noted that communications satellites substitute for immense amounts of copper by eliminating the need for communications lines strung out along the surface of the earth. His brilliant insight, an anticipation of Simon’s most interesting argument, is that the resource here substituted for copper is human intelligence. The two factors—the influence upon supply of demand and substitution—explain, according to Simon, why the last major national study of the raw-material problem, the Paley Commission Report of 1952 [sic], should have proven to be so overly pessimistic.
Thus far, most careful readers will agree with Simon. He then proceeds to state a position that will lose many of them: his view that there is literally no reason to regard natural resources, taken as a whole, to be finite; that natural resources are, in fact, infinite.
Finitude, he accurately suggests, is a more complex concept than it looks. The concept is borrowed from mathematics, where the length of a line defined by two points is reasonably said to be finite: that’s all there is, there isn’t any more. But as Simon notes, the finite line contains an infinite number of points within its finite bounds. This, of course, is because these points can be considered to be infinitely small, a situation possible only in an abstract realm. In reality, though, not even atoms of hydrogen can be considered to be infinitely small, and the ocean can accordingly hold only so many of them.
Applying these abstractions to the realities of the earth, Simon says, is difficult because it is difficult to establish bounding points. Resources cannot be seen as finite in terms of economically recoverable supplies because price is an infinite quantity. Although we can all agree that there is only so much copper in the earth, even if we were to recover every atom of it, that would not impose a necessary limit because we can substitute for it and because there is copper in the rest of the universe; and to regard the size of the universe as finite is to make an assumption about it for which we have no warrant. Ergo, there is no limit on raw materials.
Moving on to a question that involves man’s husbanding of natural resources, Simon argues that the world has been steadily becoming better fed; increases in food supply continue to outrace increases in population, and one more bugaboo in the armamentarium of the doomsayer can be seen to be fraudulent. In this connection, he cites an influential 1967 book by William and Paul Paddock, Famine 1975. This terrifying study applied the medical doctrine of triage to the problem of famine. Some countries, the Paddocks said, could achieve population stability and avert famine without help from the developed world. Others would be destroyed by famine no matter what was done from the outside. And still others could profit from food help from elsewhere. It was imperative to concentrate our aid on the salvageable cases. Among the hopeless cases, destined for devastation during the middle 1970’s, were Egypt and India.
The fact is, as reported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, between 1948 and 1968 world food production per capita increased by 28 percent. There are, Simon points out, no data to contradict this. Simon makes a strong case that what famine remains is largely caused by inadequate distribution networks rather than actual shortages of food. That is, famine is now a disease of inadequate industrialization.
Simon gives an incisive analysis of our energy future, showing in great detail how previous pessimistic forecasters have invariably been wrong, and a wealth of detail showing why their contemporary avatars are no more accurate. Here he is somewhat less striking, if only because the energy debate has for some time been joined by other rational and informed people, and good sense in this area is consequently less rare than in others.
The most sensational of Simon’s positions is certainly his view that population growth is part of the solution rather than part of the problem. His epigraph is from Sir William Petty, the founder of modern statistics: “As for the Arts of Delight and Ornament, they are best promoted by the greatest number of emulators. And it is more likely that one ingenious curious man may rather be found among 4 million than among 400 persons.”
Before addressing this pregnant remark, Simon devastates the traditional Malthusian claim that population increases inexorably as sustenance increases. This is not hard to do, since the evidence from affluent countries directly contradicts Malthus. There are many data to show that prosperity eventually brings a comparatively stable population; there is nothing to show that a declining rate of population growth eventually leads to prosperity.
The effects of population growth, Simon suggests, are far more complex than the neo-Malthusians, their eye intent on one simple formula, understand. To choose one of many cogent examples: sparse population makes transportation difficult, and difficult transportation is a barrier to the distribution of food. A rising population density leads to better transport and then to more efficient food distribution and generally improved nutrition. A rising population also leads to increases in arable land. Simon demonstrates persuasively that in this century the United States has increased its arable land and its recreational land as well as its population—this, despite the widely propagandized notion that our farms are being paved over for roads and shopping centers. And he notes that the greater proportion of the young in a growing population provides society with highly productive workers who are proportionately less well remunerated, a situation guaranteed to advance productive capacity and the standards of living.
These are a few arguments out of a great many. The case is complex, detailed, and not easy to summarize, but one by one Simon demolishes the common assumptions of the population controllers. Much of the demolition resides not in arcane reasoning or sophisticated research, but in simple citation of statistics that have been developing in the public eye for decades.
But it appears that the last thing that can discredit a popular prophet is being proven flatly wrong by the course of history. Recently a letter appeared in the Boston newspapers recalling the twentieth anniversary of a speech made by Bertrand Russell in Trafalgar Square. The letter, which presented Russell as a prophet well worth our attention in these troubled times, cited without comment his claim—made in November 1962—that nuclear war was inevitable within a few months.
It is hard to come to a final judgment on Simon’s position that natural resources are infinite. It is certainly false if the universe is finite, but that is by no means certain. It is at best a commonsense suspicion that it is finite, and these notions can be terribly misleading. Even if it is not, Simon’s notion of infinitude is bounded by a series of mechanical barriers: at the moment we are limited to the natural resources on the earth, and we know that they are finite. We are on the verge of exploiting the natural resources of the moon, and we know that they are finite. And so on to a possibly infinite universe. This is a grand prospect as long as there is no competition out there.
But in reality the resources we are likely to exploit are finite. Does this mean that Simon, as the blurb on his book jacket asks us, is a distributor of “Quackery? Foolishness? Lying Propaganda?” Hardly. Because even if we regard his views on finitude as ultimately erroneous, they are so much nearer to the truth than the conventional wisdom of the doomsayers as to be the functional equivalent of truth. Man has shown and continues to show an ability to develop known reserves in response to demand and to develop adequate substitutes when development ceases to be economical. He does this through human intelligence, a resource which, set down in records and available to the future, is no more or less infinite than the universe itself. That is the essential thing to learn from Julian Simon, and the book which contains his message is a document of the first importance.
1Ecohysterics and the Technophobes, Golem Press. This is a seminal work in articulating an intellectual defense of technology.