Julian Simon Essay

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Julian Lincoln Simon was an economist and professor of business administration at the University of Maryland who is best known for challenging some widely held public beliefs with respect to population growth and environmental change. His beliefs were that humanity had the ability to provide resources and means of survival for a continually growing global population indefinitely. Arguing from an economics-based framework, Simon held that increasing efficiencies of production would answer most needs for increased future demands and activists who held a particular political agenda had deliberately misled the public understanding of putative environmental disaster. As a result of this perspective, Simon found his work praised by libertarians and others who maintain that environmental pollution and climate change are not really happening.

Simon’s reputation was established as a result of making his case directly to the public, bypassing his fellow economists, who were almost uniformly unimpressed with the level of his arguments. He initially supported the idea that population growth should be limited internationally, particularly in less-developed countries, because future demand for resources would not be sustainable. This followed orthodox thinking derived from the original conception of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). However, he subsequently changed his mind and became known as an optimist and a contrarian who challenged what he considered wrongly accepted public knowledge.

He won a public wager with Paul Ehrlich, who was a leading light of the pessimist school of thought. The wager, in 1981, concerned the change in price of a combination of five different minerals over the subsequent decade. Ehrlich maintained that increased demand and resource depletion would cause the prices to rise. However, increased production capacity and efficiency meant the composite price decreased to less than half the original by 1990.

Despite winning the wager, Simon and those who agreed with him largely lost the public debate. Although he was able to demonstrate that the quality of human life had increased greatly over the previous two centuries, the prevailing mood of public opinion was that this was not sustainable in the future and that evidence of pollution, environmental degradation, and climate change demonstrated that current expenditure of scarce resources would lead to future scarcity. His reputation is likely to rest on the quality of his empirical investigation and his investigative methods, rather than any genuine contribution to scientific knowledge.

Bibliography:

  1. Dennis A. Ahlburg, “Julian Simon and the Population Growth Debate,” Population and Development Review (v.24/2, 1998);
  2. Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge University Press, 2001);
  3. Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2 (Princeton University Press, 1998);
  4. Julian Simon, Hoodwinking the Nation (Transaction Publishers, 1999).

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