Julian Simon, optimistic about humanity

Dr Julian Simon was born on February 12th 1932. I befriended him through the Mont Pelerin Society and hugely enjoyed his company. To say he was an optimist would be to understate it because he took the view that human creativity and ingenuity could solve all of its problems, and that gloomy forecasts of impending doom failed to take account of this.

Simon was of the Chicago School of Economics, and a friend of Milton Friedman and F A Hayek. His book, "The Resourceful Earth," was in response to the best-selling books "The Population Bomb" (1968) and "The Limits to Growth" (1972) by Paul Erlich. Erlich was high priest of the view that the explosion of the world's population would lead to catastrophe because the planet could not support the predicted numbers. He took the equally pessimistic view that people were using up the Earth's limited supply of resources, leaving none for future generations. These limited resources, said Erlich, would mean that economic growth could not continue.

Simon took the opposite view, arguing that although resources might be physically limited, they were not limited economically because technological progress and increased wealth enable them to be recycled, and develop substitutes that decrease the need for them.

He challenged Erlich in a 1980 wager that became famous. He asked Erlich to pick 5 raw materials that he thought would rise in price over the next decade. Erlich accepted, and chose tin, nickel tungsten, chromium and copper. When the decade expired, they had all fallen in price, so Erlich paid up, sending a cheque to Simon.

Simon published "The Resourceful Earth" in 1984, co-edited with Herman Kahn, in response to the doom and gloom of the "Global 2000" report. He argued that the prices of raw materials, especially metals, tended to be stable or to decrease in the long term, and that population, far from being a problem, was a solution because people are creative and innovative. His anti-Malthusian position has been vindicated by events. The world's population rose by 145% between 1960 and 2016, yet average world income per capita rose by 183% over the same period. Many analysts now think the world's population, currently 7 billion, will peak at 10 billion and then fall as people become richer and raise fewer children.

Julian Simon was a remarkable man, way ahead of his time. He provided an effective counterweight to the scare stories. After his untimely death in 1998, his last book, published posthumously with Stephen Moore in 2002, was "It's Getting Better all the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years." It shows in statistics and charts how much life has improved worldwide for most of humanity, despite all the scaremongering that says it is becoming worse.