The idea that we’re running out of natural resources seems obvious, though untrue. How can that be? Resolving this conundrum requires understanding why human ingenuity is the Ultimate Resource, as the late economist Julian Simon called it in his classic book by that name. First published in 1981, its insights remain valuable today.
For an in-depth look into Julian Simon’s legacy, we turn to John Tierney, longtime New York Times columnist, science writer, co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, and winner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s 2014 Julian L. Simon Memorial Award. He holds court this week on RealClear Radio Hour.
Over the last three decades, Tierney has made a career out of calmly and patiently deconstructing the new religion of environmentalism, the politically correct worship of “pristine” Mother Earth, and the notion that the world is going to hell in a hand basket unless we all repent, and soon. With facts at his side, Tierney has long provided a strong antidote to the fear mongering that passes for science reporting these days. And how he arrived at his insights makes for a great story.
We begin our journey in 1985, when the Times assigned Tierney to write a story on the demographic crisis in Kenya, the country with the fastest growing population in human history. He called Julian Simon to get his perspective on Kenya’s alarming birthrate statistics, and was taken aback when Simon replied, “Isn’t it wonderful that so many people can be alive in that country today.” Thus began a mentorship that continued until the elder man’s passing in 1998.
Simon’s advice to Tierney about reporting on the seemingly never-ending stream of “crises” peddled by doomsayers was simple, yet profound: “Don’t look just at the problem, look at the trend.”
Taking this advice, Tierney visited a village in Kenya that, 10 years earlier, had been featured in an alarming United Nations documentary that predicted its collapse due to overpopulation and resource exhaustion. He found exactly the opposite. While still poor by developed world standards, the village had boomed and its residents much better off than they were when the documentary was made. “They were healthier, wealthier, and more educated,” notes Tierney. “They were getting electricity and running water.”
This has been the story of every developing nation to have adopted free enterprise. Never in human history have so many people climbed out of poverty so quickly through their own efforts—counterproductive foreign aid programs be damned.
The trend continues to be positive not despite, but because of significant population growth. As Simon well understood, every person enters the world not just with a stomach to feed, but with hands to work and a brain to solve problems.
And yet the regular prognosis of experts continues: “We’re doomed.”
“Journalists love to cover crises,” says Tierney. “There’s always a crisis, but the real question is: Are things getting better or worse?” Tierney’s contrarian motto has been: Just because an idea appeals to a lot of people doesn’t mean it’s wrong—but that’s a good working theory.
Tierney’s most controversial New York Times piece was a 1996 lengthy Sunday magazine feature titled “Recycling is Garbage.” In that article—which to this day holds the Times’ record for the most hate mail received for a single story—Tierney thoroughly debunks the artificial “crisis” narrative that the U.S. has been running out of space for landfills. As he notes, the notion is so absurd that it can be refuted simply by looking at a map.
Yet, the “crisis” conventional wisdom continues to be embraced by politicians, environmental zealots, and a waste management industry eager to generate demand for higher margin services like mandatory recycling. Thus, the recycling craze has grown without bound, despite ample evidence that it is not only economically wasteful (with the exception of a few materials like aluminum and newsprint), but downright counterproductive. Since federal bureaucrats announced a “national goal” of recycling 20 percent of all our garbage, city after city has passed laws making it mandatory, despite the cost. “It’s central planning at its most absurd.”
How to explain this? “It’s a sacrament in a religion” that helps people feel better by “atoning for their sin of consumption.” Supporters argue that even if recycling programs are uneconomic they teach self-discipline, “which is what religions have always done,” says Tierney. “All this stuff came out of the ground. There’s plenty of room for it back in the ground.”
And so, Tierney continues Julian Simon’s mission, always with a smile, debunking the doomsayers, painting a more accurate picture of mankind’s progress, and calling the press and “experts” to account for their trumped up crisis mongering. The pessimist inside me wonders, will this do any good? But, like Tierney, the optimist insists on giving it a try.
Listen to John Tierney in his own words on RealClear Radio Hour here .