The Heretics: Dr. Julian Simon

The grandfather of modern environmental skepticism discredited the preeminent doomsayers of his day.

If there is a grandfather of modern day environmental skepticism, that honor should be bestowed on one man: the late Dr. Julian Simon. An unrepentant optimist who believed that science and industry continually improve the human condition, Simon, who passed away in 1998, spent the better part of his career shredding the dire – and wildly inaccurate – predictions made by alarmists of every ilk. Most famously, he discredited Paul Ehrlich’s now famously wrongheaded prediction that the world would run out of vital natural resources over the course of a few decades.

Where Simon led the way for today’s generation of independent skeptics, Ehrlich was perhaps the most important founder of the doom-and-gloom school of thought that gave rise to what we now call the environmental movement. Ehrlich, then employed as a professor at Stanford University, published The Population Bomb in 1968. In it, he declared that the world was careening towards disaster caused by over-population and rapid depletion of natural resources. In his book and subsequent lectures, Ehrlich predicted, among other things, that the world would enter “an age of scarcity” by 1985 in which key mineral resources would no longer be available; that the world’s population would drop to 1.5 billion by 1985 because of widespread famine; that the average life expectancy of Americans would drop to 42 by 1980 due to the use of pesticides; and that the total population of the United States would be reduced to 22.5 million by 1999.

Nonsense, Simon countered. Indeed, for Simon, Ehrlich’s doom saying was dangerous nonsense. In Simon’s view, the world had made and would continue to make remarkable progress. The worst thing that could happen would be to hinder that progress by changing course to address a non-existent emergency. Taking Ehrlich and his admirers into his sights, Simon, then employed as a business professor at the University of Illinois, fired back. In his 1981 book The Ultimate Resource he argued that the human ability to adapt, along with technological progress, meant that fears about over population and depletion of natural resources were nothing but baseless alarmism. Left alone to work its magic, the free market would come up with new ways to find new resources, reuse old resources and feed the world.

Simon put his money where his mouth was. In 1980, he challenged Ehrlich to make a bet. He allowed Ehrlich to pick any five metals he wished and predicted that the cost of those metals would decrease by 1990 rather than – as Ehrlich held – climbing to heights that would prove the alarmist case right: that depletion of mineral resources would make some natural resources unaffordable. Ehrlich eagerly took the wager and, with the help of fellow alarmists John Harte and John Holdren, picked tin, nickel, tungsten, chromium and copper as its basis. Ten years came and went and, in 1990, the results were in: Simon won, across the board.

Then and now, Ehrlich’s apologists tried to make excuses for their leader’s dismal failure. New exploration techniques made it easier to find new mineral deposits. Better refining methods dropped the prices of some metals. Changes in technology reduced demand for other metals. But all those arguments did was buttress Simon’s point: the free market and technological advances figure out a way. That’s what happened and, absent an over-bearing, interfering government presence, that is what should continue to happen. Just as the need to feed a growing world led to the “green revolution” in the 1970’s, which saw stunning advances in agricultural production, so did the market pressures for cheap metals and alternative materials drive down the price of the five natural resources that were at the center of Ehrlich and Simon’s dispute.

The population dud: Paul Ehrlich’s predictions of global environmental disaster were discredited by Julian Simon’s work.

When global warming hysteria began to heat up in the 1990’s, Simon recognized this latest environmental call to arms for what it was: another way to derail free markets in the name of a supposed global emergency. He had been around long enough to realize that many of the same scientists who had been at the forefront of the “global cooling” hysteria during the 1970’s, like Stanford University’s Stephen Schneider, had switched sides in order to declare that human activity would turn the world into a tinderbox, rather than an icebox. Simon pushed back, recognizing “climate change” alarmism for what it was: another way to derail progress in the name of environmental protection that would ultimately result in increased statist control at the expense of the free market he so admired.

Were it not for his death in 1998, Simon undoubtedly would be leading the way for healthy skepticism today in his cheerful, ever-optimistic way. Yet, his legacy lives on, not only among today’s generation of skeptics, but through organizations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which established the Julian Simon Memorial Award and The Institute for the Study of Labor, which created the Julian L. Simon Keynote Lecture.

Simon enjoyed great success exploding the more fanciful environmentalist projections, yet he was not above making predictions of his own. "This is my long-run forecast in brief," Julian Simon once said. "The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely. Within a century or two, all nations and most of humanity will be at or above today's Western living standards. I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse." Recent history has proved this maverick entirely right.