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Tuesday, October 1, 1996

The State of Humanity

Simon Presents the True Facts of the Environmental Debate

Dr. Block is a professor of economics at the College of the Holy Cross.

If you are one of those persons whose intellectual style can be summarized by the motto. “Don’t confuse me with the facts,” then you won’t like this book one bit. On the other hand, if you think that facts, evidence, and history can contribute to our understanding of where mankind has been and where it is likely to go, then The State of Humanity is the book for you.

The thesis of this book is that the lot of humanity has been improving in the last few centuries, decades, and years, and that the most likely prospect is for more of the same. This idea should occasion no surprise given the book was edited by Julian Simon. Professor Simon is perhaps the most careful, sophisticated, and productive critic of modern-day Malthusians. Even overshadowing his scholarly output is the bet for $10,000 he won from Paul (The Population Bomb) Ehrlich, over whether resources are becoming more plentiful (yes!) or scarce (no!) relative to our population. The point is that if anything like economic freedom prevails, and the Ultimate Resource—man’s mind—is thus allowed free rein, this planet can support far more people than presently living.

In order to make this point, Simon marshals the work of no fewer than 58 separate authors. These chapters address six different aspects of the issue: life, death, and health; standard of living, productivity, and poverty; natural resources; agriculture, food, land, and water; pollution and the environment; and the contribution of public and media opinion to the environmental crisis. To summarize: the infant mortality rate is declining, length of life is increasing, the number of people required to grow food is falling, food and natural resources are becoming more available, at a lower price, the standard of living is improving, pollution is decreasing.

But Simon is no simplistic Pollyanna. Instead, his analysis (and that of his colleagues) is backed up by a veritable gold mine of information. On practically every page there is a chart, or a diagram, either an increasing curve (for good things, e.g., life expectancy), or a decreasing curve (for bad things, e.g., pollution). The overall impression is one of complete, total, and even exhaustive coverage. This book is an encyclopedia of the case against the chicken littles of the world.

Let me give but a few examples, first, to attest to the authors’ consummate mastery of this material, and second, to bring aid and comfort to those taken in by the alarmists. In 1490, corn yield was ten bushels per acre; in 1980 it had reached 120. In 1895, some 20 million acre-feet of water was stored in all U.S. reservoirs; in 1985 this number was in excess of 400 million acre-feet. In the year 8000 B.C., life expectancy at birth was about 21 years; this rose to the mid-30s in the sixteenth century, to the 60s in the nineteenth century, and now exceeds 70 years. Free time rose by six hours per week between 1965 and 1985.

As might be expected in such a large work, there are one or two jarring notes to which the hypersensitive reader may object. One author, Robert Nelson, takes pride in the fact that acreage in public parks has been increasing; in my own view, enlarged governmental participation in the economy in any regard is cause for alarm not gratification. But to be fair, Nelson was concerned with access to outdoor recreation, not its ownership.

If you are concerned with improving the livability of the planet, buy this book! Mass purchases, true, will mean the death of many trees. But this will just raise the price of pulp, calling forth yet additional supplies. With The State of Humanity at hand, you will have the facts of the environmental debate at your command—just about all of them.

  • Walter Edward Block is an American economist and anarcho-capitalist theorist who holds the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at the J. A. Butt School of Business at Loyola University New Orleans. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.