A Pangloss For The Millennium


Edited by Julian L. Simon

Blackwell 694pp $54.95

No one can accuse Julian L. Simon of thinking small. In his new book, he tackles nothing less than the fate of all mankind. The State of Humanity, a massive new volume of essays assembled and edited by Simon, is an attack on the fashionable notion that human progress has stalled. "Just about every important long-run measure of human welfare shows improvement over the decades and centuries, in the United States as well as in the rest of the world," claims Simon in his introductory essay. "There is no persuasive reason to believe that these trends will not continue indefinitely."

This happy assessment is no surprise. In previous books, Simon, an economist at the University of Maryland, has argued the benefits of population growth and immigration, giving him a well-deserved reputation as perhaps the most optimistic economist alive. His argument that humanity is still on an upward trend is backed up by almost 700 pages of hard data and numerous charts and graphs. Simon and his co-authors, including Nobel prize-winning economist Robert W. Fogel, have put together what is probably the single most concentrated mass of upbeat statistics ever assembled, covering virtually every aspect of the human condition, from child mortality to air pollution, from housing and food to natural resources and ozone depletion.

For the most part, the arguments are convincing. We have been warned that the world is about to run out of oil. Not so, Simon points out: Global crude-oil reserves have soared over the past 15 years, as higher prices have stimulated exploration and new technology for exploiting existing fields. In 1980, the world had about a 30-year supply of crude oil at current rates of consumption. By the early 1990s, though, the world had about 45 years' worth. Notes Simon: "Metals, foods, and other natural resources have become more available rather than more scarce."

The perspective of Simon and his co-authors is decidedly global. While developed economies such as the U.S. have struggled in recent years, developing countries such as China, Taiwan, and Malaysia have seen explosive income growth, making this the greatest period of wealth creation in history. These economic gains have been accompanied by other advances, as well. Over the past 30 years, life expectancy in poor countries has soared, from 46 to 63 years. The spread of education in developing countries has been equally spectacular: The proportion of children aged 6 to 11 enrolled in school has risen from less than 50% in 1960 to about 70% today.

Interestingly, Simon's upbeat view does not depend on new technology. The State of Humanity barely takes notice of computers. There is no mention of the Internet, virtual reality, gene splicing, cellular telephones, or any of the other marvels that are supposed to be boosting productivity and improving the modern standard of living.

Instead, Simon bases his forecasts on a simple principle: Assume that long-term trends will continue, in the absence of convincing evidence to the contrary. So if the steady accumulation of knowledge has produced a rising standard of living for the past 200 years, there's no reason to believe that things will suddenly change.

Of course, many would consider Simon's view of the world to be naive. The conventional wisdom is that global overpopulation is inexorably leading to ecological and economic disaster--a modern version of Malthusian misery. "For those who think the future may be a simple extrapolation of the past, there may be some surprises ahead," observes Lester R. Brown, president of Worldwatch Institute, in the forthcoming book State of the World 1996 (Norton). Brown, as committed a pessimist as Simon is an optimist, argues that the "spiraling human demands for resources are beginning to outgrow the capacity of the earth's natural systems."

Food, especially, will be in short supply, in part because the people of China and other growing nations will demand better diets as they become richer. Notes Brown: "Oil can be replaced with other energy sources, but there is no replacement for food."

The State of Humanity tries to answer each of these negative arguments. Despite the fears, Simon cites statistics from the Environmental Protection Agency to assert that "the air in the U.S. and in other rich countries is irrefutably safer to breathe now than in decades past." Moreover, there is no sign of any widespread food shortages yet. Crop yields have risen as fast as world population. The price of food, like that of other natural resources, is still falling compared with other goods and services.

Simon points out that in every era, there have been doomsayers who see the imminent end of civilization. For example, in the mid-1800s, the British began to worry about running out of coal. Writes Simon: "The great English economist, Stanley Jevons, calculated that a shortage of coal would bring England's industry to a standstill by 1900; he carefully assessed that oil could never make a decisive difference."

Despite the power of its arguments, The State of Humanity does have some flaws. The essays are of uneven quality--Simon's own contributions, especially the introduction, are pointed and well-written, but some of the other chapters are confusing and less than helpful. The book also suffers from overkill. One grows weary of being told over and over how everything is getting better all the time.

Moreover, while whining about how the pessimists get more attention than he does, Simon does not acknowledge that scaremongers are often responsible for much of the improvement he cites. The death rate from all accidents, for example, dropped by more than 20% over the past 10 years--thanks in no small part to the consumer-safety advocates Simon professes to deplore. Indeed, it may very well be that alarmism is the only way to stimulate an effective response to large-scale problems, such as global warming and ozone depletion, that require concerted multinational action.

Still, The State of Humanity will become essential reading for anyone who wants to put today's policy debates into a larger context. At a time when politicians are locked in a bloody stalemate in Washington and many Americans are disappointed with their lot, it's worth remembering the progress that the human species has already made--and pondering the potential for gains to come.