All Commentary
Saturday, February 1, 1992

Book Review: Prospects For Growth: A Biblical View Of Population, Resources, And The Future by E. Calvin Beisner

Crossway Books, 9825 West Roosevelt Road, Westchester, IL 60154 • 1990 * 282 pages • $9.95 paper

Although collectivism has ignominiously collapsed not only in Eastern Europe but in the Soviet Union as well, it survives in America among environmentalists and within the church. There may, indeed, be no area where theological thinking is more muddled than the environment, with the emergence of pantheism with a Christian gloss.

That people are concerned about the environment is hardly surprising. The popular image is one of impending disaster. Writes E. Calvin Beisner:

This poor world, it’s overpopulated. Exploited. Polluted. Unorganized. Nothing short of radical and stringent new measures will prevent catastrophes. Left to themselves, people . . . breed mindlessly, multiplying geometrically to their own destruction. They rape the earth, stripping it of its resources, leaving nothing for future generations. They poison air, water, and land, heedless of their own safety.

So runs the conventional wisdom. Although powerful critics of this apocalyptic view—Kent Jeffreys, Julian Simon, Fred Singer, Fred Smith, and R. J. Smith, among others—have not been silent, none of them has really spoken to America’s religious community. Happily, Beisner, a prolific writer from Pea Ridge, Arkansas, has helped fill the void. Prospects for Growth provides a welcome antidote for both the doomsayers who would wreck the economy and the tree-huggers who would have us worship the earth.

In Beisner’s view, the most fundamental problem is theological: “Theology, in all its departments, supplies the guiding principles by which to answer all the pragmatic problems of political economy.” God has created the earth and given man dominion over it. He is to act as steward, “to cultivate it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15) Exactly how we are to do so is not spelled out in Scripture, however, so Beisner moves on to what he calls the “foundational principles of civil government and economics.” His conclusion is that freedom is better than statism: “the free market excels over the controlled market in regard to both Biblical ethics and productivity.”

After laying this basic groundwork for assessing environmental problems, Beisner turns to specific issues. He begins with the lurid predictions of deadly overpopulation, which he rightly dismisses for being fanciful. “In fanning the flames of the population scare, statistics are more misleading than fun.” He shows that the United States and the world are not overcrowded and that predictions of certain doom in the future don’t take into account the behavioral changes and technological developments that will inevitably occur. He concludes that “what we learn from history is that over the long haul and on the average, per-capita health, economic well- being, and psychological well-being tend to improve faster than population grows.”

Beisner backs up this assertion with separate chapters on population and both living standards and economic growth. He is particularly adept at demolishing the 18th-century Malthusian view that continues to dominate the thinking of such scaremongers as Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich, whose erroneous predictions of mass famine in the 1970s haven’t stopped him from making new doomsday forecasts for the future. In sum, Beisner writes:

. . . population growth yields short-term losses but long-term gains . . . . Over their lifetimes, people tend to produce more than they consume; higher population density makes possible greater economic efficiencies from division of labor, economies of scale, and capital application; more people mean more and faster increases in knowledge and its application through discovery, innovation, and invention. These long-term benefits of population growth so far outweigh the short-term costs that economic production has consistently outgrown population. There is no reason to think this trend has ended or will end in the foreseeable future.

Equally trenchant is his discussion of natural resources. Improved productivity and continuing innovation—leading to both substitution of one substance for another and transformation of economic processes altogether—have resulted in what he calls “multiplying returns” from resources. As a result, natural resources are actually becoming more abundant. This fact is reflected in the steady increase in the estimated reserves of everything from copper to off to zinc; between 1985 and 1990 alone proven international petroleum reserves jumped by 400 billion barrels. Moreover, resource prices have been consistently falling.

Finally, Beisner takes on the myriad of environmental “problems” that are said to beset us. Although he acknowledges that pollution is a legitimate issue, he finds that the environment has been getting cleaner, not dirtier. And, relying on the latest scientific evidence, he debunks some of the most outrageous scaremongering, particularly acid rain, ozone depletion, radon, and global warming.

All in all, he concludes, we need to defend the “paramount principles” of “life, liberty, and property.” The practical reasons are obvious enough: “To the extent that life, liberty, and property are protected, economic growth will abound; to the extent that they are undermined, economic growth will subside or even reverse,” he’ writes. But even more important is the moral dimension. For “in the final analysis, government planning—whether of population, resource use, or the economy—amounts to nothing but brute force.” And that, he explains, violates “the Biblical principle of liberty.”

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.