Dr. Julian Simon, the Catholic Church, and “Overpopulation”

An economist from the Cato Institute by the name of Julian Simon was something of a legendary figure due to his work debunking the various overpopulation myths. He famously bet Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, about the prices of various natural resources. Ehrlich’s theory was that as populations grew, scarcity would increase, and natural resource prices would rise. Simon’s view was that human ingenuity would create a better world, decreasing the prices (overall) of natural resources. So Simon decided to put his money where his mouth was.

To get an idea about the kind of “science” that Ehrlich was pushing, here’s how he famously began The Population Bomb:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to ‘stretch’ the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production and providing for more equitable distribution of whatever food is available. But these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control.

Very authoritative-sounding, very scare-mongering, and very, very wrong (both morally and factually). We know that now, of course, but Ehrlich’s book, filled with technical references (Google Book’s list of keywords for The Population Bomb begins “Lassa fever, pesticides, population control, endrin, birth control, heptachlor, UDCs,” etc.), was accepted as scientific orthodoxy, an orthodoxy none were to challenge. The book sold shockingly well for such a science-y tome, at over 3 million copies. Julian Simon, watching Ehrlich hype up this neo-Malthusian drivel on the Johnny Carson Show, felt compelled to speak out. He knew, after all, that Ehrlich had relied on simplistic models on animal overpopulation – that human beings had never operated the way that Malthus or Ehrlich had predicted, and that humans (unlike horseflies) consciously improved their environment, and made important adjustments to accommodate larger populations: adjustments like the creation of massive civilizations, like high-rises, like the Green Revolution. So Simon put his money where his mouth was. From Wired’s excellent article on the subject (which I’m borrowing from liberally in this recounting; read it from the start here):

In response to Ehrlich’s published claim that “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000” – a proposition Simon regarded as too silly to bother with – Simon countered with “a public offer to stake US$10,000 … on my belief that the cost of non-government-controlled raw materials (including grain and oil) will not rise in the long run.” You could name your own terms: select any raw material you wanted – copper, tin, whatever – and select any date in the future, “any date more than a year away,” and Simon would bet that the commodity’s price on that date would be lower than what it was at the time of the wager.

So Ehrlich and a few others responded. Paul chose five raw materials he felt would be the hardest hit: namely, copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten. He set a time-frame of ten years, to prevent any random dips or spikes in price. Then he bet $200 on the price of each. The wager was simple: if between September 29, 1980 and September 29, 1990, the price of these resources rose (on average) faster than inflation, Ehrlich won the difference in price; if they rose equal to inflation, they tied; and if the prices decreased relative to inflation, Simon won the difference.

Flash forward ten years. Simon won all five bets. Wired again:

Between 1980 and 1990, the world’s population grew by more than 800 million, the
largest increase in one decade in all of history. But by September 1990, without
a single exception, the price of each of Ehrlich’s selected metals had fallen,
and in some cases had dropped through the floor. Chrome, which had sold for
$3.90 a pound in 1980, was down to $3.70 in 1990. Tin, which was $8.72 a pound
in 1980, was down to $3.88 a decade later. Which is how it came to pass that in October 1990, Paul Ehrlich mailed Julian Simon a check for $576.07.

In a reasonable world, Ehrlich would then be laughed off of the stage. He managed to get virtually every prediction he made wrong. No mass starvation, no sky-rocketing prices, no population bomb, and by 2000, England was still around. But we don’t live in a reasonable world. In 1990, Ehrlich was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award for promoting “greater public understanding of environmental problems.” As Wired put it:

Furthermore, there seemed to be a bizarre reverse-Cassandra effect operating in the universe: whereas the mythical Cassandra spoke the awful truth and was not believed, these days “experts” spoke awful falsehoods, and they were believed. Repeatedly being wrong actually seemed to be an advantage, conferring some sort of puzzling magic glow upon the speaker.

Which is why the new papal encylical is important. In it (specifically, in paragraph 44), Pope Benedict acknowledges that there are “problems associated with population growth,” which are important to address for genuine social development, but that:

To consider population increase as the primary cause of underdevelopment is mistaken, even from an economic point of view. Suffice it to consider, on the one hand, the significant reduction in infant mortality and the rise in average life expectancy found in economically developed countries, and on the other hand, the signs of crisis observable in societies that are registering an alarming decline in their birth rate.

Pope Benedict then examines the necessity of “responsible procreation,” but emphasizes that this is to be achieved by re-connecting sex with reproduction, not artifically separating it through birth control; further, that the “primary competence” belongs to the family in this regard, not the State. In other words, discuss with your spouse your financial readiness for children (if you’re not ready, don’t have sex), and prepare for children financially when you’re engaging in sex. The pope proceeds to say that:

Morally responsible openness to life represents a rich social and economic resource. Populous nations have been able to emerge from poverty thanks not least to the size of their population and the talents of their people. On the other hand, formerly prosperous nations are presently passing through a phase of uncertainty and in some cases decline, precisely because of their falling birth rates; this has become a crucial problem for highly affluent societies. The decline in births, falling at times beneath the so-called “replacement level”, also puts a strain on social welfare systems, increases their cost, eats into savings and hence the financial resources needed for investment, reduces the availability of qualified labourers, and narrows the “brain pool” upon which nations can draw for their needs.

Like Simon, the pope recognizes that humans are the “ultimate resource” for producing a better society: the more people, the more minds working on a given problem, the more hands building up society, and so forth. The pope rightly views Europe as dying, not because of overpopulation, but because of a secular society which views birth control and abortion as weapons in the fight against children, which is to say, a fight against the future of society. The solution, both Simon and Pope Benedict agree, is to embrace new life. “Resources come out of people’s minds more than out of the ground or air,” said Simon. “Minds matter economically as much as or more than hands or mouths. Human beings create more than they use, on average. It had to be so, or we would be an extinct species.”

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