Updated: 7 July, 2000

 

Review - The Ultimate Resource 2

by Julian Simon

EcoFuture (TM) Population and Sustainability
Books, Non-fiction

 
Ultimate Resource 2, Julian Simon; Princeton Univ Press, 1998, ISBN 0691003815, (656p, $20).
 
Why read Simon? To find out what the uproar is really all about. I know what Ehrlich and Bartlett have said about Simon, but what did Simon really say? Julian Simon was a professor of economics at the Universities of Illinois and Maryland. Could he really be as idiotic as some of his critics have suggested? The answer, unsurprisingly, is no.
 
First, I have not read Simon's original book, The Ultimate Resource. I have read only The Ultimate Resource 2, a second edition, which responds to criticisms of the original volume. All of my comments here apply to this book specifically.
 
The Introduction and first three chapters develop Simon's basic thesis and apply it very convincingly to mineral resources.
 
First, Simon establishes some carefully justified definitions. Barring extraplanetary sources, he concedes that our physical resources are finite in the mathematical sense of the word, but argues cogently that this is irrelevant to our wellbeing. He uses, instead, the dictionary (common language) definition of finitude, and justifies his choice. His arguments are entirely consistent with this definition.
 
He equates scarcity with cost, and justifies this equation from his anthropocentric and economic perspective.
 
Then he goes on to argue that we do not need, for instance, copper. What we really need is the services we obtain from copper. And we are learning to obtain those services from ever less copper, and from alternative materials as well. Thus, even if we were to exploit all of the copper on earth, we would not necessarily run short of the services we obtain from copper. The supply of the services of copper is therefore ultimately not finite.
 
The price of virtually all resources has decreased over the long span of human history, measured relative to average wages (which is to say hours of labor required to purchase them), and fraction of total economic product (which is to say fraction of total human labor). In other words, as measured by cost, these resources have become less scarce even as we have used ever more of them.
 
Simon concedes that this thesis contradicts common sense, and argues that common sense is unreliable. Consider that Newton, Galileo, Einstein, and Heisenburg also violated contemporaneous common sense. The history of science is largely the refutation of common sense.
 
Is there any rational reason to believe that this trend of decreasing scarcity (cost) will end in the foreseeable future? Simon argues persuasively that there is not.
 
Chapter 4 briefly addresses entropy, and doomsday arguments based on the second law of thermodynamics. Simon argues that such arguments overlook a key phrase in the law, "in a closed system," and are invalid because the Earth is not a closed system.
 
Simon next addresses food production, Chapters 5-8. First, using cost as the index, he documents that food has become ever less scarce over the course of human history. Productivity per area of ground cultivated has risen, and continues to rise. He then argues that it is biologically, technically, and economically possible to raise food production far above present levels.
 
It turns out that Japan has recorded rice production since the seventh century! Beginning at 0.7 tons per hectare then, it gradually crept up to 2.7 t/ha in 1890. Since then productivity has soared to 5.9 t/ha in 1980. Rice productivity in much of Asia, including India, is still below Japan's level of 1890. China's productivity is 3.6 t/ha. Simply raising all of Asia's rice productivity to the current level of Japan would double rice output. (I have read elsewhere that African productivity is only about a tenth of India's, implying even greater potential increase there.)
 
Commercial vegetable production in the West has shown even greater productivity increases.
 
So why aren't we drowning in excess food? Chapter 7 addresses the amazing ability of government to create famine. The most spectacular example is the Cultural Revolution, which resulted in the starvation of about 30 million. Many other governments have produced famine on a smaller scale, though smaller than 30 million still leaves room for a lot of death. Governments create famine primarily through central planning and military adventures. This is especially conspicuous in Africa. Absent war or natural calamity. free market economies consistently produce adequate food to feed their populations. All of this is well documented by Simon.
 
Chapter 8 documents that arable land is increasing, by about 6% between 1961-65 and 1989. So are we home free? I don't think so. I have read elsewhere that the increase in arable land is due to irrigation, which inevitably ends with salinization.
 
Simon persuasively argues that food production may be increased dramatically above present levels, at least in the short run. But he does not, to my satisfaction, prove that this can go on indefinitely.
 
I found the next couple of chapters utterly unconvincing; both his documentation and the rigor of his arguments deteriorates. For instance, he documents that urban sprawl is not consuming 3 million acres of farmland a year. The actual figure is somewhere between one and two million acres. Simon concludes that urban sprawl is not an agricultural problem. Huh? One or two million is certainly a smaller problem than three million, but hardly a non-problem. The long term implication is identical; only the time scale is changed. His discussion of water makes some interesting points, but ultimately rests on an infinite supply of energy, he suggests the nuclear sort. When he discusses timber he confuses pulpwood (which is more abundant than ever) with construction lumber (where I understand the situation is rather different).
 
The quality of Simon's documentation and the rigor of his arguments varies widely. On some subjects he is very persuasive; on others much less so.
 
Simon next turns to energy in Chapters 11-14. He addresses fossil fuels using his basic argument that: if we judge scarcity by cost, fossil fuels have become ever less scarce even as we have used more of them. There is no reason to expect this trend to change in the foreseeable future. He argues persuasively that we are in no more immanent danger of running out of fossil fuels than any other mineral resource. Global warming is another matter, which Simon simply dismisses as unproved.
 
But Simon's great hope for infinite energy is nuclear. He argues that the problems of waste disposal are more political than physical, claiming that safe storage is entirely feasible. I don't have enough knowledge of this area to judge this argument. Could safe storage of radioactive waste possibly be as feasible as Simon suggests? Would anyone with a quantitative knowledge of nuclear waste half-lives and volumes like to read Chapter 13 and report on it?
 
Chapters 15-17 address pollution. Simon, ever anthropocentric, proposes that the best measure of pollution is human health and longevity. By that criterion, world wide pollution has clearly decreased over the past century or two. He goes on to argue that increasing wealth is associated with decreasing pollution. Apart from these arguments, the rest of his discussion of pollution seems a little weak, not entirely convincing. But human health and longevity is certainly a relevant dimension, and it's hard to argue with him on that score.
 
I found the next three chapters rambling, weak, and skippable. But Chapter 21, on Coercive Recycling, Forced Conservation, and Free Market Alternatives, presents some food for serious thought. Do you favor liberty or coercion? Does the end justify the means?
 
Simon next turns to population per se, in Chapters 22-34. But if you decide to read the book, I would suggest skipping ahead to Chapter 39 at this point, where Simon lays out his philosophical and political premises, which illuminates his perspective on population. Concisely, he is the ultimate humanist, with libertarian leanings.
 
First, Simon denies that human population has risen in a smoothly geometric (Malthusian) fashion throughout history. He claims (though he does not well documented) that human population has experienced three rapid increases, following the development of tool making (how about the exodus from Africa?), agriculture, and the industrial revolution. He further states that specific populations have had periods of stability and decline. He concludes that human population increase is not an "inexorable force checked only by famine and plague." But his (poorly documented) data do not prove his general contention. If he is right, then Darwin must be wrong. And I think there is a lot of evidence which supports Darwin. For much better analyses of human population and its constraints see the relevant chapters in Africa: A Portrait of the Continent, The Green History of the World, and Virginia Abernathy's Population Politics.
 
Next Simon attacks "Voodoo Forecasting." He demonstrates that extrapolation is very unreliable, and that past population projections have proven wildly inaccurate, in both directions. He concludes that we simply do not, cannot know what future population will be. He argues convincingly that the current population explosion (he admits it is happening) is driven by a declining death rate rather than increasing birth rate.
 
Simon then discusses the effects of population growth on capital formation, productivity, education, and technology, arguing persuasively that population growth benefits all. I found his argument that population growth does not cause overcrowding rather less persuasive.
 
He documents (very well) that alarmist claims of mass extinction are completely undocumented, and that the available data indicate much lower rates of species loss than alarmists have been claiming.
 
In Chapters 33 and 34 Simon argues that current data reveal no correlation between population growth and economic growth. Other factors swamp any effect that population may have. He briefly discusses a computer model of the effects of population growth on economic growth and its results, including the adverse effect of very rapid population growth on LDCs.
 
Note that Simon does not claim that human population and consumption can increase infinitely. Since Simon seems to have been widely misquoted in this regard, this may merit further discussion.
 
All that Simon really argues is that we have not yet reached the limits of growth, and that those limits, wherever they may lie, are flexible and ultimately unknowable.
 
For example, the planet already supports about half again as many people as would be possible without chemical agriculture. Prior to the advent of chemical agriculture there was no way to predict that the planet could possibly support more than 4 billion people. The invention of chemical agriculture greatly increased the human carrying capacity of the planet. It is in this sense that the limits are flexible, in that they are no longer determined entirely by nature, but can now be altered by human invention.
 
No one in the 19th century could predict the invention of chemical agriculture. Similarly, we have no idea what new technology may appear in the 21st century. Thus, we cannot know what the limits will be in the 22nd century. Thus, the ultimate limits are unknowable.
 
Flexible and unknowable limits are not no limits. Flexible and unknowable does not equal infinite. But it is inconsistent with the dictionary (that is, common language, not mathematical) definition of "finite." In that sense, the Earth's human carrying capacity is not finite. But Simon does not argue that it is infinite.
 
Simon then concludes with a few rambling chapters about philosophy and values. The only one I found particularly interesting is Chapter 39, on Simon's own philosophy and values. It, too, is food for serious thought. You will likely agree with Simon's premises, and be startled and challenged by the way he develops them.
 
Simon concludes that human ingenuity is the ultimate resource. Most other resources are in fact the result of human ingenuity, and have been steadily expanded by human ingenuity. Simon seems to have boundless faith in the ability of human ingenuity to overcome whatever problems may arise in the future.
 
 

Summary


 
The quality of Simon's documentation and the rigor of his arguments are variable. When both are good he is very persuasive. When he gets sloppy he is not.
 
Simon persuasively argues that:
  • Cost is an appropriate measure of scarcity.
  • If we accept cost as the criterion, minerals, fossil fuels, and food have become ever less scarce even as we have used ever more of them. We face no immanent shortage of any of these commodities.
  • It is technically possible to increase food production vastly above present levels, at least in the short run (next century).
  • Human health and longevity are relevant measures of pollution.
  • Population growth is generally economically beneficial.
  • Population growth improves quality of life in some circumstances.

 
I found Simon unconvincing in his arguments that:
  • Food production can be increased indefinitely over the long term.
  • Overcrowding is not a problem.
  • Human population pressures are less than evolutionary theory suggests.
  • Pollution has consistently decreased over the long span of human history.
  • Population growth always improves quality of life.
  • Population growth is generally beneficial to the environment.

 
I believe Simon has achieved some important insights into some implications of population and economic growth. I highly recommend that anyone with a serious interest in population issues read The Ultimate Resource 2 for himself. I doubt if it will persuade you that unlimited population growth is desirable, but it will certainly challenge your preconceptions and affect your thinking on the subject.
 
I offer the following outline for those who would like to explore Simon's thesis, but do not want to read all 600 pages. Simon provides a summary at the end of each chapter.
 
 
TopicsChapters
Development of basic thesis and application to mineralsIntro, 1-3
Entropy4
Food production 5-8
Energy11-13
Pollution15-17
Population, general39,22-24
Economic implications of population growth25-30,33-34
Mass extinction31
Population and general human well-being32
Food for serious thought (you might want to read these early on)39,21
Reply to criticsEpilogue

 
 
      -- Review by Brooke Jennings
 
 
Arguments against Simon's position have been made by Prof. Al Bartlett and Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb.
 
 

 


 
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