(Fwd) Julian Simon's last article (fwd)

Kathryn Aegis (aegis@igc.apc.org)
Wed, 4 Mar 1998 19:07:37 +0000

Little elves have been dropping these wonderful e-mail text articles
into my box, so on I forward them to these lists to enjoy:

------- Forwarded Message Follows -------

Simon Said: Good News!
There Are Fewer Constraints With Each New Generation

By Julian Simon

The Washington Post

Sunday, February 22, 1998; Page C01

Julian Simon, a University of Maryland business professor who died on
Feb. 8, was an indefatigable optimist. In his books, "The State of
Humanity" and "The State of Humanity 2," he marshaled mountains of
statistics to buttress his argument that the lives of most people in
the world are improving and will continue to improve. The following
essay, summarizing his most recent work, is adapted from a piece he
submitted to Outlook shortly before his death.


Look around when you are next in a theater, a mall, classroom or
religious service. (I happened to be in a church celebrating a wedding
as this thought entered my mind.) Note the well-dressed man who might
be an engineer, the neatly groomed woman who might be a business
executive, the casually dressed service worker and other middle-class
attendees. Reflect that 200 years ago or less, the ancestors of 19 out
of every 20 people you see today were living at or just above
subsistence level somewhere in the world: grubbers in the soil
or perhaps village smiths or shoemakers. Virtually all of their
ancestors were people that the tiny middle and upper classes thought
of as loutish and dull peasants whose lot in life -- "nasty, brutish
and short" in Thomas Hobbes's famous phrase -- would not greatly
improve before their deaths (though they surely celebrated weddings
with the same fervor and joy that we do). And the situation was pretty
much the same for every generation before them, going back 2,000 or
20,000 years.

"The farther back you look," Winston Churchill is reputed to have said,
"the further ahead you can see." When we look very far back, we see
clearly that the long-term prospects for the standard of living of all
humanity are spectacularly good. The progress that humanity has
experienced in the last two centuries has no precedent. Since 1750,
every trend in material human welfare has shown accelerating
improvement, almost everywhere. It is our happy fate to live in the
midst of this most amazing time.

These trends do not mean that people will be more or less "happy" about
their own lives; about that I have no prediction. Nor am I ignoring
contemporary social ills: mass graves in Bosnia, HIV epidemics, sexual
exploitation of children and the like. These are sometimes cited as
justification for long-range pessimism about the state of humanity.
But over the last 200 years, pessimistic forecasts about human
prospects based on anecdotes about social ills have been repudiated by
the reality of material progress.

The most mistaken forecast of all time was made by English economist
Thomas Malthus in 1798 when he predicted in "An Essay on the Principle
of Population" that population growth was an inexorable juggernaut that
would keep the mass of mankind in misery forever. In fact, at the very
time that Malthus wrote, the advanced countries of the world were
taking off into the astonishing period of progress which continues to
this day.

To Malthus's credit, after his dismally wrong first edition based on
nothing but arithmetic and speculation, he educated himself and
reversed his original conclusions. Unfortunately, almost no one pays
attention to the correction Malthus made in his own theory. Instead
"Malthusian" has come into the language to describe what Malthus wrote
while still in a state of scientific ignorance.

The claims of modern-day Malthusians notwithstanding, mankind's
progress will continue indefinitely in the future. Barring catastrophic
surprises in the first half of the 21st century, most of humanity will
soon come to share the long healthy life that is now enjoyed by the
middle-class contemporary residents of the advanced countries.

Consider the history of life expectancy. Since the mid-18th century,
the life expectancy of the average person in England has gone from the
mid-thirties to close to almost 70 by 1985. In China, the average
person in 1750 could expect to live to his or her late twenties; by
1985, Chinese people were typically living into their sixties. Now,
most of humanity enjoys better health and longevity than the richest
people in the richest countries did just 100 years ago.

The speed of the race against death has been breathtaking since the
first miracle drug against infection was discovered. As Henry Sigerist
wrote in "Civilization and Disease" in 1942, "Bacteria, our chief
enemies once they were firmly entrenched in the body seemed resistant
against chemicals -- until [Nobel Prize-winning bacteriologist] Gerhard
Domagk discovered the action of the drug prontosil, later to be
developed and known as sulfanilamide. This was ... only yesterday, and
in the last few years dozens of highly effective sulfa drugs have been

Progress in the fight against the AIDS virus in recent years is but the
latest demonstration of the awesome intellectual power that humanity
can now muster against threats to our well-being. This power results
from tested theories accumulated during the past millennium and
especially during the past two centuries. It also flows from our
communal wealth. Much more than the power to enjoy gadgets, our wealth
represents the power to mobilize nature to our advantage, rather than
to just accept the random fates of nature.

A personal example: I have mild asthma. I once slept in a home where
there was a dog. In the middle of the night woke with a bad cough and
shortness of breath. When I realized that it was caused by the dog
hair, I took out my $12 pocket inhaler, good for 3,000 puffs, and took
a couple. Within 10 minutes, my lungs were clear. A small miracle.
Forty years ago, I would have been miserable all night.

Or consider diabetes: If your child had diabetes 100 years ago, you had
to watch helplessly as the child went blind and died early. Now
injections, even pills, can give the child almost as long and healthy a
life as other children. And glasses: Centuries ago you had to give up
reading when your eyesight got dim as you reached 40 or 50. Now you can
buy simple glasses at the drugstore. And you can even wear contact
lenses for eye problems and keep your vanity intact.

This is not just the good fortune of a few. The improvement in material
human welfare in poor countries since World War II has been startling.
Economist Richard Easterlin calculates that by 2050, the average income
in the present-day Third-World's poor countries will be about 80
percent of the average per capita U.S. income in 1990.
This trend is based in part on improving food, nutrition and diet, the
world over. Only a hundred years ago, meat was a rare luxury for most
people. Fresh vegetables were unavailable in Europe for much of the
year, no matter how rich you were. Now Americans officially classified
as living "in poverty" can purchase a much better diet than could
European royalty a couple of centuries ago. After spending 100,000
years trying to get enough calories, mankind is now trying to consume

By any measure, natural resources have become more available rather
than more scarce. Consider copper, which is representative of all the
metals. The cost of a ton is only about a tenth of what it was 200
years ago. There is evidence that oil -- the most worrisome of
resources because it is mostly burned up and therefore cannot be
recycled -- has actually been getting cheaper to produce.
On the one hand, the falling price of oil throughout the 20th century
was proof that the overall cost of obtaining oil had to be falling. But
wells were being drilled deeper and deeper, which called into question
whether the physical production costs were rising in some important
parts of the industry. But industry data, reported in Business Week,
shows that the worldwide production cost per barrel has been falling
since 1980. So not only is more oil being found but it is getting
cheaper, and not more expensive, to find it.

How are we to understand the trends of the past and their implications
for the future?

A theory that fits the facts: More people and increased income cause
problems of increased scarcity of resources in the short run.
Heightened scarcity causes prices to rise. The higher prices present
opportunity, and prompt inventors and entrepreneurs to search for
solutions. Many fail, at cost to themselves. But, in a free society,
solutions are eventually found. And in the long run, the new
developments leave us better off than if the problems had
not arisen. That is, prices end up lower than before the increased
scarcity occurred.

The record of humanity shows that, on average, the people in each
generation create a bit more than they use up. Not only must this be
true to account for the increase in our wealth and numbers, but if this
were not so -- if we used up a bit more than we create, and our assets
deteriorated like a many-times-patched tire deteriorates until it is no
longer useful -- we simply would have become extinct as a species. The
essential condition of fitness for survival of our species is that each
generation creates a net surplus on average, or at least breaks even.
Since we have survived and increased, this condition must
have been present.

The question then immediately arises: Must not we, like other species,
cease our growth when we have filled up our niche -- that is, reached
the limit of the available resources? One cannot answer this question
with assurance, of course, because with each increase of wealth and
numbers, we proceed into a situation with which which we have no prior

But as can be seen in the evidence of the increasing availability of
natural resources throughout history as measured by their declining
prices --especially food, metals and energy -- there apparently is no
fixed limit on our resources in the future. There are limits at any
moment, but the limits continually expand, and constrain us less with
each passing generation. In this, we are quite unlike all other

The doubters wonder whether our present glorious age is just another
blip in history, like the Egyptian, Persian and Roman empires and the
Golden Age of Greece. The doubters ask why we should believe that the
progress we have experienced since 1750 is an irreversible
breakthrough. They suggest that we simply may be living through an
episode of glory that will soon be eclipsed, as were previous Roman,
Greek and Chinese civilizations.

The first reason is that ours is the first age in which material gains
have been enjoyed by more than a tiny fraction of humanity -- 5 percent
or 10 percent of the population -- while the rest remained at mere
subsistence levels. Never before has material progress ever spread
beyond the richest people.

Second, every measure of human material welfare has shown a dramatic
upturn, not only life expectancy and mortality, but also
transportation, communications, nutrition, leisure time, you name it.
Every measure shows change, the first time in human history this has

A third reason is that our stock of knowledge is widely distributed. In
ancient times, the destruction of the library in Alexandria, Egypt was
a huge setback to civilization. The decentralization of knowledge
makes that kind of catastrophe almost impossible today.

And last, the concept of evolution argues that -- in the absence of
huge change in the physical world from climate change or planetary
collision -- humanity will continue to go forward. We ride the greatest
trend of all: to leave the world a little better than we entered it.
This is the strongest reason to believe that humanity will not retreat
to the Stone Age or to extinction the way other civilizations have

Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company