Commentary

The State of Humanity: Good and Getting Better

By Julian L. Simon and Sheldon L. Richman
November 11, 1996

In 1980 the Global 2000 Report to the President began by stating that “if present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now.” The introduction to The Resourceful Earth (edited by Julian Simon and the late Herman Kahn) revised that passage: “If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be less crowded (though more populated), less polluted, more stable ecologically, and less vulnerable to resource-supply disruption than the world we live in now.”

The years have been kind to those forecasts — or more important, the years have been good for humanity. The benign trends have continued. Our species is better off in just about every measurable material way. And there is stronger reason than ever to believe that progressive trends will continue indefinitely.

When we widen our scope beyond such physical matters as natural resources and the environment — to mortality, the standard of living, slavery and freedom, housing and the like — we find that the trends pertaining to economic welfare are heartening also.

Yet many people believe that conditions of life are generally worse than in the past. The comparison one chooses is always crucial. It usually makes sense to compare our present state of affairs with how it was before. But many private and public discussions instead compare the present state of one group with the present state of other groups or the actual situation to some ideal one.

Let’s start with the longest and deepest trends. Surprising though they may be, these trends represent the uncontroversial settled findings of the economists and other experts who work in these fields.

The most important and amazing demographic fact — the greatest human achievement in history, in our view — is the decrease in the world’s death rate (deaths per thousand). It took thousands of years to increase life expectancy at birth from just over 20 years to the high 20s. Then in just the past two centuries, the length of life one could expect for a newborn in the advanced countries jumped from less than 30 to perhaps 75 years.

Starting in the 1950s, well after World War II, length of life in the poor countries leaped upward by perhaps 15 or even 20 years because of advances in agriculture, sanitation and medicine. The decrease in the death rate is the root cause of today’s large world population. It represents humanity’s victory over death.

Since antiquity, people have worried about running out of natural resources. Yet, amazingly, all the historical evidence shows that raw materials — all of them, even oil — have become more abundant rather than less. And there is no reason why that trend should not continue forever.

The evidence is particularly strong that the trends in food production and nutrition are benign despite rising population. The long-run price of food is down sharply, even relative to consumer products, as a result of increased productivity. And per person food consumption has risen during the last 30 years.

Only one important resource has shown a trend of increasing scarcity rather than increasing abundance: the most important and valuable resource of all — human beings. There are more people on earth now than ever before. But if we measure the scarcity of people the same way we measure the scarcity of other economic goods — by how much we must pay to obtain their services — we see that people are becoming more scarce even though there are more of us.

We are not saying that all is well everywhere, and we do not predict that all will be rosy in the future. For most relevant economic matters, however, the aggregate trends are improving. And they will continue to do so. We’re willing to bet on it.

Our message certainly is not one of complacency. The ultimate resource is people — especially skilled, spirited and hopeful young people endowed with liberty — who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit and inevitably benefit the rest of us as well.

Julian L. Simon is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and Sheldon Richman is vice-president for academic affairs at the Future of Fredom Foundation.