The State of Humanity: Good and Getting Better

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In 1980 the Global2000 Report to the President began by stating that "ifpresent trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded,more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable todisruption than the world we live in now." The introductionto The Resourceful Earth (edited by Julian Simon and thelate Herman Kahn) revised that passage: "If present trendscontinue, the world in 2000 will be less crowded (though morepopulated), less polluted, more stable ecologically, and lessvulnerable to resource-supply disruption than the world we livein now."

The years have been kind to thoseforecasts -- or more important, the years have been good forhumanity. The benign trends have continued. Our species is betteroff in just about every measurable material way. And there isstronger reason than ever to believe that progressive trends willcontinue indefinitely.

When we widen our scope beyondsuch 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 toeconomic welfare are heartening also.

Yet many people believe thatconditions of life are generally worse than in the past. Thecomparison one chooses is always crucial. It usually makes senseto compare our present state of affairs with how it was before.But many private and public discussions instead compare thepresent state of one group with the present state of othergroups or the actual situation to some ideal one.

Let's start with the longest anddeepest trends. Surprising though they may be, these trendsrepresent the uncontroversial settled findings of the economistsand other experts who work in these fields.

The most important and amazingdemographic fact -- the greatest human achievement in history, inour view -- is the decrease in the world's death rate (deaths perthousand). It took thousands of years to increase life expectancyat birth from just over 20 years to the high 20s. Then in justthe past two centuries, the length of life one could expect for anewborn in the advanced countries jumped from less than 30 toperhaps 75 years.

Starting in the 1950s, well afterWorld War II, length of life in the poor countries leaped upwardby perhaps 15 or even 20 years because of advances inagriculture, sanitation and medicine. The decrease in the deathrate is the root cause of today's large world population. Itrepresents humanity's victory over death.

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

The evidence is particularlystrong that the trends in food production and nutrition arebenign despite rising population. The long-run price of food isdown sharply, even relative to consumer products, as a result ofincreased productivity. And per person food consumption has risenduring the last 30 years.

Only one important resource hasshown a trend of increasing scarcity rather than increasingabundance: the most important and valuable resource of all --human beings. There are more people on earth now than everbefore. But if we measure the scarcity of people the same way wemeasure the scarcity of other economic goods -- by how much wemust pay to obtain their services -- we see that people arebecoming more scarce even though there are more of us.

We are not saying that all iswell everywhere, and we do not predict that all will be rosy inthe future. For most relevant economic matters, however, theaggregate trends are improving. And they will continue to do so.We're willing to bet on it.

Our message certainly is not oneof complacency. The ultimate resource is people -- especiallyskilled, spirited and hopeful young people endowed with liberty-- who will exert their wills and imaginations for their ownbenefit and inevitably benefit the rest of us as well.

Julian L. Simon and Sheldon L. Richman

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.