Poverty and pollution

International | Remembering the economist who showed Westerners can be friends of the poor and the environment

Issue: "Honest Abe Rosenthal," March 14, 1998

Julian Simon, University of Maryland professor and author of The Ultimate Resource and Population Matters, died last month. He was known as an iconoclastic scholar whose research and writing on the economics of population growth flew in the face of conventional, Malthusian population-control wisdom.

Once a proponent of population control, Mr. Simon turned against it when his research in the late 1960s and early 1970s-begun with the intent of providing scholarly support for population-control programs-led him to conclude that dense population and rapid population growth lead to economic growth and environmental improvement, not poverty and environmental destruction. His first major assault on the conventional wisdom came in The Economics of Population Growth (1977). In the ensuing two decades he continued to criticize popular fears of overpopulation and resource depletion; he assaulted with scholarly research and popular writing the theories on which those fears were built.

Mr. Simon gained notoriety on the popular level in part by besting popular Malthusian guru Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. Mr. Ehrlich had predicted that minerals would become more expensive in a decade; Mr. Simon wagered that prices would go down, and he won.

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In two large edited volumes, The Resourceful Earth (1984) and The State of Humanity (1995), Mr. Simon discussed positive long-term trends-and their underlying causes-in such matters as human life, health, standard of living, resource supplies and prices, economic and technological development, and environmental quality. One of Mr. Simon's constant themes was the necessity of economic development to enable people to afford environmental protection and recovery. WORLD correspondent Cal Beisner reports on how his experience in India brought to life Mr. Simon's theories.

I learned much from Julian Simon's writing, which fit in with my own observations. Several years ago, I attended the Oxford Conference on Christian Faith and Economics at Agra, India-city of the beautiful Taj Mahal. I, like many other conference participants, was struck by many things: hard-working, friendly, often generous people, each striving to improve life for himself and his family; thousands of charming little children working right alongside their elders in the shops, cottage industries, factories, and streets; beautiful, handwoven rugs, tapestries, and clothes; exquisite handmade pottery, some of it produced with the same mosaic techniques that mark the Taj Mahal itself. All of these signs I saw, and many others, of a society brimming with enterprise.

But in the very same place I saw other signs, the signs of poverty.

Most of the hard-working, generous people I saw in the shops and factories, pedaling the rickshaws, or eagerly selling their handmade wares were clearly poor, devastatingly so. In 1994, India's gross national product per capita was only about a tenth of Latin America's average, and less than one-eightieth that of the United States; its under-5 mortality rate was more than twice Latin America's and almost 10 times that of the United States. The average life expectancy for Indians was significantly lower than that of Americans.

With the Indians' poverty came the visible signs so familiar to anyone who spends time among the poor. Their clothing usually fit poorly, was heavily worn, often repeatedly mended, and more often in need of mending. Despite their honest efforts, they usually were not very clean. The tools of their trade were old and inefficient. Many, even most of them, lived on the streets, the better off among them in little, makeshift huts of discarded scrap metal or wood. Almost all looked prematurely aged, their teeth and hands joined by their wrinkled faces in quiet testimony to a hard life.

One of the signs of the poverty of these people, one that almost every Western environmentalist would completely misunderstand, was the lamentable state of their environment. To call it polluted, for someone accustomed to life in the West, would be the grossest understatement. Indeed, among people gathered for that conference, including Christian missionaries from all over the world, one of the most common observations was that this was the filthiest place we had ever witnessed.

Most environmentalists blindly accept Paul Ehrlich's formula that negative environmental impact varies directly in proportion to population, affluence, and technology (I = PAT). They would not understand that the wretched environment of Agra, like that of almost all India, is directly rooted in its lack of advanced technologies and lack of wealth, the presence of which environmentalists blame for environmental degradation.

Indians do not burn dried dung and scrap wood as their chief sources of heat and cooking fuel because they prefer them to natural gas and electricity, but because their society is too poor to provide the infrastructure to produce and deliver natural gas and electricity. The people are too poor to pay for these cleaner energy sources-or the furnaces and stoves that would use them-even if they were available.


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