Argues in Favor of Population Growth Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Controversy was provoked when prominent economist Julian Simon published The Ultimate Resource, which offered facts and figures to support his thesis that the world’s population explosion would improve rather than degrade the quality of human life.

Summary of Event

When Julian Simon published The Ultimate Resource in 1981, he was expressing a minority opinion that to many seemed perverse, if not insane. For years, people had been warned in books, articles, speeches, lectures, and in television documentaries that the world’s mushrooming population was threatening the quality of human life and even threatening human existence. A notable example of such warnings was The Population Bomb (1968), Population Bomb, The (Ehrlich) in which Paul R. Ehrlich predicted that overpopulation would lead to famine and devastating epidemics, just as Thomas Robert Malthus had foretold in 1798. Ultimate Resource, The (Simon) Population;growth [kw]Ultimate Resource Argues in Favor of Population Growth, The (1981) [kw]Population Growth, The Ultimate Resource Argues in Favor of (1981) Ultimate Resource, The (Simon) Population;growth [g]North America;1981: The Ultimate Resource Argues in Favor of Population Growth[04390] [g]United States;1981: The Ultimate Resource Argues in Favor of Population Growth[04390] [c]Publishing and journalism;1981: The Ultimate Resource Argues in Favor of Population Growth[04390] [c]Economics;1981: The Ultimate Resource Argues in Favor of Population Growth[04390] [c]Environmental issues;1981: The Ultimate Resource Argues in Favor of Population Growth[04390] Simon, Julian Ehrlich, Paul R. Malthus, Thomas Robert

It seemed logical enough that increasing numbers of people would eventually consume all of the planet’s natural resources, pollute the environment, kill off other species, disrupt the ecological balance, and probably even destroy the planet when the masses of people began to fight over the last available space and the last reserves of minerals and fossil fuels. Citizens of the developed countries were plagued with fears of being overwhelmed by desperate hordes of Africans, Asians, South Americans, and others who would be forced across their borders by sheer weight of numbers. It also seemed logical that invasion by people with no skills and no capital would lead to a decline in the developed countries’ standards of living. The entire globe would come to resemble the worst slums of Calcutta, where beggars die in the streets by the hundreds and where bodies are carted off to be buried in mass graves.

Simon, however, proclaimed that humans themselves are “the ultimate resource,” because they produce more than they consume and they invent new ways to solve the problems they themselves create. He stopped short of saying that human beings should reproduce to infinity, but he estimated that Earth could support far more human inhabitants than the present population. He claimed there was no cause for panic, because these added millions would improve the environment rather than deplete it.

In The Ultimate Resource, Simon shows little concern for the fates of species other than humans. Evidently, he accepts the transformation of more wilderness areas into croplands and the accompanying annihilation of many birds and animals. Less than one page in the book is devoted to the question of “Conservation of Animals or People.” Of the vanishing American buffalo Simon asks, “Why not just put them in a few big zoos?” This attitude did not endear him to ecological activists.

Simon, an economist, believed that all values can be compared with one another; he denied that there are values that cannot be quantified. His approach throughout The Ultimate Resource is totally factual and primarily mathematical; many pages of tables and figures are presented to support his thesis that increased population has not resulted in lowered standards of living, but rather has resulted in greater prosperity.

Simon was an advocate of increased immigration. He believed that the United States should increase its rate of immigration because “immigrants are young, strong, ambitious, just beginning their working lives, willing to try anything.” He presented statistics to prove that immigrants pay more money in taxes than they consume in the form of government services.

The Ultimate Resource is a large book replete with charts and graphs, but despite the work’s technical nature, commentators have frequently remarked positively on Simon’s conversational, often humorous prose style in the book. Although The Ultimate Resource requires close attention from readers, it is far less intimidating than the average book on economics. Simon’s thesis is summed up in a statement quoted in an interview printed in the April 2, 1990, issue of Forbes magazine: “The more people we have, the more business we have, and the more we produce, the more efficiently we learn to produce. More people means more heads, more good ideas, more sources of increase in productivity.”


Simon’s well-written, logically argued book forced all participants in the population controversy to argue more rationally. The key word that appears in arguments between pessimists and optimists regarding world population is “limits.” Environmentalists have warned for decades that Earth can support only a limited number of human beings, because space and resources are limited; therefore, urgent measures are needed to impose limitations on population growth. Their opponents have resisted government intervention, and Simon’s book has given them a powerful weapon with which to wage battle.

The debate between the doomsters and the boomsters, the Malthusians and the cornucopians, the Pollyannas and the Chicken Littles continues to rage in the twenty-first century. The Simon camp continues to circulate statistics showing improvements in world conditions in spite of the exploding world population; the Ehrlich camp continues to predict disaster, claiming that the day of reckoning is only being postponed and that improvements in the standard of living are symptomatic of disease rather than of good health.

In 1980, Simon challenged Ehrlich to “put his money where his mouth is” by offering to bet that the real-dollar price of any natural resources Ehrlich himself selected would be lower at any future date. Ehrlich accepted the bet and selected five metals chrome, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten with a ten-year settlement date. Ehrlich was confident that the prices of all five metals would go up within that period, because it was a matter of simple economics: A finite supply of metals divided among a growing number of potential consumers would result in higher prices. In 1990, however much to Ehrlich’s chagrin the environmentalists’ champion was forced to send Simon a check for $576.07, because the prices of all five metals had declined in spite of the fact that the world’s population had grown by 800 million people.

One of the most dramatic cases supporting Simon’s argument was the price of tin. In 1948, doomster William Vogt Vogt, William had alarmed the public with his book Road to Survival, Road to Survival (Vogt) in which he mentioned that “we might go to war to ensure access to tin sources.” However, the amount of tin that could be bought for $200 in 1980 would cost only $56 in 1990. Tin prices plummeted partly because can manufacturers were substituting aluminum, a vastly more plentiful ore, for tin. Furthermore, there has been a powerful incentive for people to save aluminum beverage cans because can manufacturers have found it is profitable to recycle them. The total quantity of aluminum begins to seem nearly infinite because it can be used over and over. This is exactly the kind of adaptability that Simon claims will solve all of humanity’s problems if free market forces are allowed to operate without government interference.

Plastic has also replaced tin and other metals. For a time, it appeared that plastic might be a serious threat to the environment because it is not biodegradable; however, this problem is being coped with through recycling and the development of biodegradable forms of plastic. This is another example of human adaptability.

Undaunted by his loss of money and more embarrassing loss of face, Ehrlich claimed that what happened to metal prices between 1980 and 1990 was only a temporary fluctuation and that in the longer run all resources would necessarily become more costly as the demand increased and the supply diminished. He accused Simon of being like a man who jumps off the Empire State Building and claims that everything is going great as he passes the tenth floor.

What is essentially at stake in the acrimonious arguments between the doomsters and the boomsters is the issue of more government control versus more market freedom. Simon’s persuasive book, with its impressive array of facts and figures, has provided the boomsters with a forceful argument against increased government control. The failure of Communism, the ultimate form of government control, in the bankrupt Soviet Union provided the laissez-faire economists with more verbal ammunition to use against their opponents.

The environmentalists, however, seem to be winning many skirmishes in the ongoing war. Simon claims that doom-and-gloom predictions get more publicity because they are more dramatic, because they offer opportunities for bureaucrats to create new government jobs, and because such predictions appeal to the xenophobia of workers in developed countries who fear the loss of their jobs to immigrants who will work for lower wages.

Although Simon and Ehrlich may represent opposite poles in the ongoing debate over population control, they by no means represent the only opinions on the subject. For example, James A. Swaney, Swaney, James A. a professor of economics, claims that both perspectives are incomplete. He asserts that Simon has a fair understanding of economics but is ignorant of biology and ecology, while Ehrlich is knowledgeable about biology and ecology but is ignorant about matters of human adaptability.

Others who have become involved in the population debate include the so-called pro-life and pro-choice factions in the abortion controversy. Abortion The Roman Catholic Church steadfastly prohibits both abortion and artificial contraception and has received harsh criticism for its position, even from its members. Many Roman Catholics are emotionally torn because they believe that they are sinning by practicing birth control in direct disregard of Church doctrine. The population controversy and the acrimonious abortion debate are inextricably entwined.

Many feminists regard the population issue as crucially important to the struggle for women’s rights, especially in Third World countries. Many Third World intellectuals regard the West’s efforts to promote international birth control as a sort of neocolonialism, charging that the haves want to limit the number of have-nots in order to be free to continue consuming an unfair portion of the world’s natural resources.

The population controversy is not limited to the views of Simon and Ehrlich. It has come to involve religion, politics, science, technology, economics, ecology, public health, education, and virtually the entire spectrum of inquiry and opinion. The issue affects every individual on the planet as well as every individual yet to be born, even as the debates continue to excite doomsters and boomsters. Ultimate Resource, The (Simon) Population;growth

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehrlich, Paul R., and Anne H. Ehrlich. The Population Explosion. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. The authors claim that the disasters predicted in Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb were actually occurring all over the world in 1990, by which time the population had risen from 3.5 billion to 5.3 billion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hardin, Garrett. “Dr. Pangloss Meets Cassandra.” The New Republic, October 28, 1981, 31-34. A hostile review of The Ultimate Resource that asserts that Simon denies the reality that there are real limits to human progress because resources are finite. Dr. Pangloss is a foolishly optimistic character in Voltaire’s Candide; Cassandra was a prophetess in Greek mythology who always made accurate predictions but was never believed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Malthus, Thomas Robert. An Essay on the Principle of Population: Or, A View of Its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness. London: J. Johnson, 1803. A classic work often referred to in books and articles dealing with population growth, environmental destruction, and related subjects. Malthus stated that a portion of humanity was doomed to live in misery because population tends to increase geometrically while the food supply increases linearly an idea that Simon explicitly contradicts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simon, Julian L. The Economic Consequences of Immigration. 2d ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. Argues for increased immigration to the United States, claiming that, in general, immigrants are well educated, skilled, and quickly assimilated; they boost national income, increase the rate of economic growth, and help support the growing native elderly population.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Resources, Population, Environment: An Oversupply of False Bad News.” Science 208 (June 27, 1980): 1431-1437. An article that raised a storm of controversy among economists, environmentalists, and journalists. Simon asserts that deliberately falsified bad news about population growth, natural resource depletion, and environmental destruction creates immobilizing panic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Ultimate Resource 2. Rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. Simon’s controversial thesis, in an updated edition, which contends that the world’s supply of natural resources will progressively become less scarce and less costly. Contains a comprehensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simon, Julian L., and Herman Kahn, eds. The Resourceful Earth: A Response to Global 2000. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1984. In direct contradiction of the findings of Global 2000, the editors present a series of essays by experts intended to disprove the predictions of GTR.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swaney, James A. “Julian Simon Versus the Ehrlichs: An Institutionalist Perspective.” Journal of Economic Issues 25 (June, 1991): 499-509. An excellent synopsis and critique of the controversial ideas of Julian Simon and the Ehrlichs by a professor of economics who tends to side with the Ehrlichs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tierney, John. “Betting the Planet.” The New York Times Magazine, December 2, 1990, 52-81. This article provides profiles of two leading opponents in the controversy over population control as well as an overview of two sides of the argument over the most crucial question facing mankind. Explains the bet made between Simon and Ehrlich in 1980 and its outcome in 1990.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Department of State. Council on Environmental Quality. The Global 2000 Report to the President: Entering the Twenty-First Century. 3 vols. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980. Report of a study of probable changes in world’s population, natural resources, and the environment commissioned by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Calls for changes on an international scale, including radical measures to promote birth control.

Club of Rome Issues The Limits to Growth

World Fertility Survey Is Conducted

U.N. Declaration on Hunger and Malnutrition

The Global 2000 Report Is Issued

United Nations Holds a Population Conference

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