Are we running out of resources? That’s been a hotly debated question since the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb in 1968. The Stanford University biologist warned that population growth would result in the exhaustion of resources and a global catastrophe. According to Ehrlich, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate”.
The University of Maryland economist Julian Simon rejected Ehrlich’s thesis. In his 1981 book The Ultimate Resource, he argued that humans were intelligent beings, capable of innovating their way out of shortages through greater efficiency, increased supply, or development of substitutes. He wrote: “There is no physical or economic reason why human resourcefulness and enterprise cannot forever continue to respond to impending shortages and existing problems with new expedients that, after an adjustment period, leave us better off than before the problem arose.”
A just-released paper, which I co-authored with Brigham Young University economics professor Gale Pooley, revisits the Ehrlich-Simon debate. In The Simon Abundance Index: A New Way to Measure Availability of Resources, we look at prices of 50 foundational commodities covering energy, food, materials and metals. Our findings confirm Simon’s thesis. Between 1980 and 2017, the world’s population increased from 4.46 to 7.55 billion or 69 per cent. Yet resources have become substantially more abundant.