Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Just How Wrong Was The Population Bomb?

Just short of two years ago, I wrote a piece on the 50th anniversary of The Population Bomb.  The 1968 best seller was different from your typical apocalyptic stories; it was supposed to be serious science by an actual scientist Paul Ehrlich.  As I said at the time:

Doomsday prophesy sells, and doomsday from someone with a handful of letters after their name (MS, PhD etc.) sells even better.  The future didn't turn out quite as dismally as Ehrlich suggested; he famously lost a bet where he picked a "basket of commodities" and bet that these five metals would go up in price in 10 years (1980 to 1990) - they declined in price an average of 57.6% while the  population increased.  Nevertheless, he influenced a generation or two of policy makers.

Ehrlich didn't just stop with a prediction that a basket of metals would be more expensive in ten years, he said there would be mass starvation in the 1970s and humanity would die off soon thereafter.  

Ehrlich prophesied that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s (and that 65 million of them would be Americans), that already-overpopulated India was doomed, and that most probably “England will not exist in the year 2000.”

In conclusion, Ehrlich warned that “sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come,” meaning “an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”

It's hard to be much more wrong than Ehrlich.  In contrast, University of Maryland economist Julian Simon published his book The Ultimate Resource in 1981.  He argued that humans were intelligent beings, capable of innovating their way out of shortages by many alternative means.  

I think the history of the intervening years has shown that Simon was closer to right.  Despite the adamant desires of environmental alarmists, there has been no mass extinctions of humans, nor have there been “hamburger wars” for food.  People have innovated our way out of scarcities. 

Marian L. Tupy is the editor of HumanProgress.org and a senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.  Together with Brigham Young University economics professor Gale Pooley, the two of them analyzed the two time periods, 1980 and 2017 (hat tip to FEE).  

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 percent. Yet, resources have become substantially more abundant.  

It's almost as if each and every soul born in those 37 years came with some of the resources to support them.   Anybody who has witnessed (or given!) a birth or two can assure you none of the newborns come with supplies for all their needs, so that's not how it happened.  It came about by the diligent efforts of individuals around the globe creating human progress.

Ehrlich and Simon looked at inflation-adjusted prices of commodities. By our count, those fell by 36 percent. Taking that analysis a step further, we have come up with a “time-price” of commodities, which allows us to cost resources in terms of human labor. We find that relative to the average global hourly income, commodity prices fell by 64.7 percent between 1980 and 2017.

Second, the price elasticity of population (PEP) allows us to measure sensitivity of resource availability to population growth. We find that the time-price of commodities declined by 0.934 percent for every 1 percent increase in the world’s population. Put differently, over the last 37 years, every additional human being born on our planet appears to have made resources proportionately more plentiful for the rest of us.

Third, we develop the Simon Abundance Framework, which uses the PEP values to distinguish between different degrees of resource abundance, from decreasing abundance at the one end to super abundance at the other end. Considering that the time-price of commodities decreased at a faster proportional rate than population increased, we find that humanity is experiencing superabundance.

Finally, we create the Simon Abundance Index (SAI), which uses the time-price of commodities and change in global population to estimate overall resource abundance. The SAI represents the ratio of the change in population over the change in the time-price, times 100. It has a base year of 1980 and a base value of 100. Between 1980 and 2017, resource availability increased at a compounded annual growth rate of 4.32 percent. That means that the Earth was 379.6 percent more plentiful in 2017 than it was in 1980.  [Note: all bold added - SiG]

This post struck a chord with me because I've been reading Apocalypse Never by Michael Shellenberger.  Shellenberger was a celebrated environmentalist until he started saying the conventional green approach was hurting more than it helped.  For example, he started saying we couldn't possibly meet "green energy" needs without nuclear power.  In Apocalypse Never, he argues that the overreaction to climate change is causing damage, and while "climate change" might be a real problem, it's far from our biggest.  I'm only a quarter through the book and already in the first few chapters he's blown away some of the most common stories you hear, from the Amazon burning last year to plastic straws to the threats to gorillas in the Congo.  Time after time he shows how the first world's environmentalists are the problem.  I had intended to provide more detail in "book review" as I've done a few times, but I'll finish the book first. 

The myth of peak oil in one plot.  In 1980 we had only 27 years worth of oil left; 37 year later in 2017 instead of being without oil for a decade, we were down to only 46 years worth of oil left.  Say what?  One guy who has studied the Permian Basin in the Southwest US says it's totally reasonable to consider it a permanent source.  Essentially infinite.  Of course, what happened was that new techniques were developed to get oil out of the ground and that increased the amount that was recoverable.  All because the free market was allowed to function properly.



  1. Well done, SiG!

    I was a junior in high-school when Ehrlich's book came out, and we discussed it in several Science classes during the next two years.

    All the Science teachers I had dismissed it as a poorly researched scare piece that was put out by the radical environmentalist groups. I don't recall ever discussing it in any history or sociology classes with the teachers I had until I went to the local community college. There, the teachers were younger, and much more "hip", and very willing to take on "the important issues of the day".

    I guess there's "wrong", "really wrong", and "Ehrlich wrong"!

    1. ISTRC around the first or second Earf Day that there was talk about Ehrlich and how people would be fighting for food within the next 10 years. I was in high school at the time. Nobody seemed worked up about it, just a "some dood says" thing.

    2. I remember reading TPB. I became quite alarmed! Because someone might believe him.

      Aside from each prediction being so far-fetched they required lunacy to believe, none allowed for advances in technology.

  2. I dunno. Ehrlich and the greens being full of shit doesn't mean our capacity for people (on Earth, given a set level of technology) is infinite. Just because we've been dodging bullets by pulling technological miracles throughout the 20th century doesn't mean nature has to oblige us forever. Also, some of Simon's stuff seems like lying with statistics also.

    India is a hellhole, and it's mostly due to being overpopulated. Life is cheap because there are aleph-null literally starving people gunning for your precarious job.

    The US's social problems are probably partially related to a doubling of population since the 1950s, partially due to globalization putting you in direct competition with those aleph-null starving people, and partially due to deindustrialization destroying economic niches for people to have productive lives.

    How many people is too many people is dependent on your technology and infrastructure (and also on if they own any of it.) If we had a nuclear-powered civilization with vast aqueducts and reseviours, Haber-Bosch plants to nitrogenate our soil, frictionless logistics along well maintained highways, we'd be able to sustain maybe a billion or three in the US. Would we want to? (I was just about ready to lose my mind living in tiny cramped apartments in our unstable hive-cities. Look at Shenzhen and tell me that free men can exist in a world like that.) And how realistic is it to suppose things will remain that organized and well maintained? California is hell-bent on destroying the water infrastructure that terraformed their state and made their paradise possible.

    I'd rather we didn't continue exponentially growing in population. We're going to find Malthusian limits eventually, unless we can completely divorce ourselves from resource limits with effectively unlimited energy to drive chemical plants. And we're going to run into *social* Malthusian limits when the people who own the land and resources run out of uses for peasants, when the value of labor is less than the price of food because of infinite supply.


    1. Whenever I do a piece like this, I debate saying, "of course the world is finite, there's no such thing as infinite growth" but I don't because I figure my readers are smart enough to not need that disclaimer. Everyone knows that. Even the universe is finite (if the models are right).

      The thing is, the world's population isn't exponentially growing. Growth is slowing, now the slowest in 60 years, not speeding up. The people that have been preaching no population growth are now afraid that the world's population will peak and then go into continuous decline - which is what they've been advocating. The exact date of when we go over that peak and into population decline is up to whose model you like, but it's a thing. I've read the decline starts in 2050, "before 2100" and ISTRC one source said it starts by 2030.

      It has been shown for almost the last century that prosperity is the ultimate contraceptive. Families that don't think they need to have 10 kids to ensure some survive to adulthood don't have as many. A few years ago, everyone was answering, "except for the muslims," but even their birth rate is going down with prosperity.

    2. I was several paragraphs in to my response, then I reread your comment, especially the last two para. I deleted my writings since to have continued would be as mad.

  3. “Reserves” is a technical oil/economic term that means the amount of that is known to exist and that can be developed with current technology and at current prices. It is not the actual recoverable oil, nor even the known oil, both of which are greater. Fracking was a major advance in technology, and it increased “reserves” all by itself.

    As to population growth, every country outside sub-Saharan Africa has below replacement reproduction. World population should reach a maximum of about 8.5 B as soon as 2030, and it should be in decline thereafter.

  4. Add up the billions of cubic feet of oil that have been produced,,
    Now, how much shit died, got perfectly preserved in order to make that happen?
    Still belive its old plants and animals?
    Okay,, try this one,,

    Ever hear of a Blowout? What causes that? Pressures Down there greater than the hydrostatic pressure of the column of drilling fluid, which is at least brine water, and generally heavier than that..

    SOOO,, How izzit that OIl go made from dead stuff and dripped down into a high pressure zone and , rather than spreading out thu the strata, made its way into reservoirs? Why are old , abandoned well reopened?
    Gosh,, Its almost as if the Earth itself is somehow generating oil,,
    Do the math,, sit down with a pencil paper calculator and think about the tanker loads of oil,, and for how long,,
    Ask yourself how much Dead stuff had to become oil to create that volume,,
    And how much Dead stuff have ya seen that wasnt consumed by critters, and rot..

    Folks,, it doesnt add up.. Well,, Not for me it doesnt,,

    Ohh,, and screw Ehrlic,,Im bettin he believes in Globull Warming,, too..

    1. I know I've written about this before, but couldn't find it in a few searches. I've personally pretty much stopped using the term "fossil fuels" - it's not dinosaurs, or Jurassic Ferns.

      For one, there's a pretty well documented mechanism that dead stuff on the sea floor up near the Straits of Juan De Fuca gets cycled down below the sea floor near a fault, carried down, and cooked into oil.

      For another, there's an astronomer who points out hydrocarbons are found in interstellar gas clouds and says oil is everywhere. I recall an experiment where they drilled for oil in place totally incompatible with the normal places to find oil, a huge granite monolith. Not sedimentary rocks, not the usual geology. They found oil.

      This deserves a deeper (pardon the pun) blog post.

    2. Government TV show (PBS) says they find fossils in coal, and fossils of pollen grains in rocks everywhere. Do they find such fossils in oil?

  5. SiG, it sounds like you are talking of the granitic overthrust belt in the region of Wyoming. It is thought the overthrust is associated with the subduction of the Juan de fuca plate. IIRC, it is 8 to 11 miles below the surface and several thousand feet thick. (I may be under estimating the thickness).

    Anon, there is a women geologist who wrote a book about fossils in oil. She had found that the coloration of these fossils correlated to how well the oil had been 'baked' when subjected to heat and pressure. This helped to determine the quality of the crude oil. Oh how I wish I could again find the book or at least remember her name. I fear I may have disposed of the book in flensing of my library.

    1. Her field was the Santa Barbara oil leases both onshore and offshore.

    2. Rick, I belive you are thinking of Anita Harris. Here is a link to a magazine article abstract about her, and John McPhee's wonderful book about geology.

    3. Rick - the story I was thinking about was drilling for oil in a granite block in Sweden, where the granite was crushed by a meteorite impact. This was the idea of an astrophysicist, Thomas Gold, who came up with an abiogenic explanation for petroleum. His theory is that oil is a component of planets when they form. Those components get cooked in the upper levels of the mantle, then migrate upward through fissures in the rocks to the deposits we know of.

      The drilling experiment was a success. They found natural gas under that cracked granite. "The final results are in from the first major drilling operation undertaken to explore the deeper levels of the Siljan ring impact crater in Central Sweden. The results demonstrate that hydrocarbon gases from methane to pentane-as well as a light, largely saturated oil-are present deep in the granitic rock. The impact crater, generated 360 million years ago by a major meteorite, is now a circular area about 44 km across."

      From 1991: https://www.ogj.com/home/article/17238490/sweden39s-siljan-ring-well-evaluated

      No Jurassic Ferns or Critters required. I tend to think that both explanations (more than two?) may be possible and the way the hydrocarbons were formed might vary with the particular source.

      I've seen fossils in coal that a rock collector showed me. I would guess the heat and pressure that cook oil to what comes out of oil wells would eliminate fossils.

      The story about the Juan De Fuca area is being harder to find. It was that as the sea floor goes under the subduction zone, it brings sediment full of organic matter from the sea floor with it, which is put under pressure and heat (a pressure cooker). This cooking creates petroleum. ISTRC the major difference was that this took very little time compared to the "millions of years" we hear as the answer to "how long does it take oil to form?"

      I'll keep looking for that.

  6. More people means more needs, and also means more people to fill those needs. If truly innovative people are one in a million, there should be about 2,000 in the world when the population is 2 billion, and about 7,000 when the population is 7 billion. More people means more workers, more geniuses, and more effective ways to use the resources more workers can develop.

    It probably can't go on for ever, but it can obviously go on much farther.

  7. "It's almost as if each and every soul born in those 37 years came with some of the resources to support them." I used to work with an EE a long time ago who was from Puerto Rico. He used to say that there was a belief among Puerto Ricans that "every child is born with a loaf of bread under its arm".