Julian Simon, who waged intellectual war on environmentalists and Malthusians, died suddenly on Sunday. He would have been 66 tomorrow, the day of his funeral.
Simon could sometimes glow like an exposed wire, crackling with nervous intellectual intensity. Privately, he had a soul of purest honey. But by force of will, fueled by his sizzling energy, Simon helped push a generation of Americans to rethink their views on population, resources and the environment. By now it is clear that in this task he was largely successful. As the years roll on he will be more successful yet, his work studied, and picked at, by regiments of graduate students.
His keystone work was "The Ultimate Resource," published in 1981 and updated in 1996 as "The Ultimate Resource 2" (Princeton University Press). Its central point is clear: Supplies of natural resources are not finite in any serious way; they are created by the intellect of man, an always renewable resource. Coal, oil and uranium were not resources at all until mixed well with human intellect.
The notion drove some enviromentalists crazy. If it were true, poof!--there went so many of the crises that justified their existence. From their air-conditioned offices in high-rise buildings, they brayed: Simon believes in a technological fix! The attacks often got personal: Simon's doctorate was in business economics, they sniffed; he had merely been a professor of advertising and marketing, and--get this--he had actually started a mail-order business and written a book about how to do it. Never mind that he also studied population economics for a quarter century.
In fact, it was Simon's knowledge of real-world commerce that gave him an edge in the intellectual wars. He knew firsthand about some things that many environmentalists had only touched gingerly, like prices. If the real resource was the human intellect, Simon reasoned, and the amount of human intellect was increasing, both quantitatively through population growth and qualitatively through education, then the supply of resources would grow, outrunning demand, pushing prices down and giving people more access to what they wanted, with more than enough left over to deal with pollution and congestion. In short, mankind faced the very opposite of a crisis.
Simon rarely presented a sentence not supported by facts--facts arranged in serried ranks to confront the opposition; facts about forests and food, pollution and poverty, nuclear power and nonrenewable resources; facts used as foot soldiers to strike blows for accuracy.
In a famous bet, gloom-meister Paul Ehrlich took up Simon's challenge and wagered that between 1980 and 1990 scarcity would drive resource prices up. Simon bet that progress would push prices down. Simon won the bet, easily. Mr. Ehrlich won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. But the wheel turns, and we'll see who's a genius. Fortune magazine listed Simon among "the world's most stimulating thinkers." Mr. Ehrlich didn't make the cut.
Simon sensed the primacy of something else that many environmentalists and crisis-mongers didn't catch on to for a quite a time: Human intellect could best be transformed into beneficial goods and services in an atmosphere of political and economic liberty. At the United Nations' Mexico City population conference in 1984 Simon winced, and counterattacked, when population alarmists caricatured the Reagan-appointed American delegation as promoting the idea that "capitalism is the best contraceptive." It was not a good idea to ridicule capitalism, or free markets, or human liberty, in Simon's presence.
Of course, rising living standards do tend to depress fertility. Living standards do rise faster under democratic market systems. Smart folks now know that the fruits of economic growth can be used to diminish pollution. You don't hear much anymore about how we're running out of everything. (Next task: Simonize the Global Warmists.)
Finally, unlike many of his opponents, Julian was a traditionalist. He did not work on the Sabbath, and the Friday Sabbath dinner at the Simon house was always a gentle and joyous celebration.
At rest on the Sabbath, Julian was indefatigable the rest of the week, chasing his precious facts. If Thomas Malthus is in heaven, he's in for an argument, laced with facts, facts, facts.