Julian Simon's Theory of Population Growth: Biography & Comparisons

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  • 0:01 Julian Simon
  • 0:55 Simon's Population Theory
  • 2:41 The Simon-Ehrlich Wager
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Human population growth is an issue that has attracted lots of attention. In this lesson, you will explore one position on population growth and discover the unique way it was defended. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Julian Simon

What would you say to a friendly wager? Just a small bet, just for fun? How about whether or not humanity is doomed? Sound good? This may not be the conventional sort of bet you're used to, but back in the 1980s, it actually become a major issue. Why? Well, the population just kept growing and growing and growing, and that made people nervous. Many researchers thought that we were doomed, that the population was growing too fast and that we'd eventually all starve to death. But Julian Simon took that bet. Literally. This professor of business administration proposed an alternate theory about human population, but do you think that this theory made a splash? Oh, you can bet on it.

Simon's Population Theory

So, who is Julian Simon? Well, he was a professor at the University of Maryland, and he approached this question of human population growth from an economic perspective. While many were concerned that population growth would eventually mean a scarcity of resources, Simon arrived at the conclusion that really, there was nothing to worry about. In his 1981 book The Ultimate Resource, Simon claims that from an economic perspective, resource scarcity increases the cost of a product, thus creating incentive to find alternative materials. Basically, if wood becomes scarce, then it becomes expensive and people start looking for a new material. Once a new material replaces wood, then wood becomes dramatically cheaper. Thanks to technology and our ability to synthetically produce material, Simon claimed that humans will just keep developing new resources, recycling old ones and discovering new innovative solutions.

So, Simon argued that even though certain materials will become physically less available, resources are economically indefinite. How'd Simon come to this conclusion? He studied the prices of metals, as well as other raw materials, across history and noted that, over the long run, prices for these goods actually decreased as new materials became available. Human population has been growing for a long time, and people have been worried about that for a long time, but we've yet to run out of resources. Humans just keep inventing and discovering and creating, and since that's worked for the last 40,000 years or so, there's no reason to believe we'll stop solving our problems now.

The Simon-Ehrlich Wager

Many theorists have labeled Simon's theory as cornucopian, which describes a belief that humanity has unlimited growth potential through technology. Simon himself was actively opposed to the Malthusian model of population growth, which was a late 18th-century theory that population growth would inevitably outpace resource production and result in massive starvation, warfare and a reduction of the population to sustainable levels.

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