In an era of environmental doom and gloom, a recent book offers an optimistic take on the human future.
Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet, by Marian L. Tupy and Gale L. Pooley (Cato Institute, 580 pp., $34.95)
Given the quasi-religious fervor of environmentalism today, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that climate change-inspired anti-natalism—the commitment not to have children—is a growing phenomenon. Whether rooted in concern that the earth cannot sustain the current population or in fear of extreme weather, this trend is sufficiently widespread that it is “impacting fertility rates quicker than any preceding trend in the field of fertility decline,” Morgan Stanley analysts noted in a recent letter to investors. Celebrities from Miley Cyrus to Seth Rogan have publicly endorsed this commitment, and YouTube channels and podcasts dedicated to convincing others to join the movement attract audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands. As Cyrus explained to Elle magazine, “We’re getting handed a piece-of-shit planet, and I refuse to hand that down to my child. Until I feel like my kid would live on an earth with fish in the water, I’m not bringing in another person to deal with that.”
Concern about the earth’s ability to sustain a growing population is not new, of course. During the Industrial Revolution, the English cleric Thomas Malthus argued for “preventative checks” on population growth because the planet could only sustain so many human beings. More recently, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich made waves with his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, which warns that overpopulation would imminently exhaust our resources, leading to population collapse.
The economist Julian Simon famously challenged Ehrlich to a wager on this point. He bet that human ingenuity and innovation would make natural resources more plentiful, not less. Accepting the challenge, Ehrlich and a team chose five metals on which to wager over a ten-year period: chrome, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. Sure enough, by autumn 1990, the prices of each had fallen by 36 percent—indicating that they had become more abundant—and Ehrlich sent Simon a check for $576.07.
What would the wager look like if it had been extended another three decades? Amid the growing environmental alarmism of recent years, scholars Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley revisited the Simon-Ehrlich wager with this question in mind. They also extended their inquiry to include an expanded list of resources over a much longer period and looked at both the individual and country level. Their analysis yielded a clear conclusion: the real prices of basic commodities have not only been falling but also have been falling at a faster rate than the population has been growing. We are living, in other words, in a period of “superabundance.”
The latter term is, not coincidentally, the main title of Tupy and Pooley’s new book, an optimistic, life-affirming account of the progress that the combined forces of human ingenuity and markets have created—especially for the world’s poorest.
At the center of Superabundance is the argument that human beings are not a drain on resources—they are, instead, the most valuable resource. Humans have come up with countless ways to live more efficiently and support more human life. A large population is key to this innovation: more people mean more ideas and larger markets to try out those ideas. This dynamic is fostered by the division of labor and development of human capital, possible only in sufficiently large populations.
Tupy and Pooley see the price of a resource as more important than its quantity. Quantity is imperfectly known and is thus an inadequate measure of abundance; we know much more today, for example, about where to find and extract fossil fuels than we did even a few decades ago. By contrast, price reflects not only current supply but also beliefs about future supply: a price decline suggests belief that a good is abundant and will remain so.
As their ultimate unit to measure prices across time and countries, Tupy and Pooley use time prices—the amount of labor, measured over time, that it takes to acquire a good. As Adam Smith taught, “the real price of everything is the toil and trouble of acquiring it.” The use of time prices avoids the difficulties of comparing nominal costs over time and place, like how to measure inflation or how to account for the benefits of innovation.
Some examples of their findings: the time price of 50 basic commodities, including uranium, pulpwood, and natural gas, fell by an average 71.6 percent during the period 1980–2018. For American blue-collar and unskilled workers, the average time prices for basic commodities fell by more than 96 percent and 93 percent, respectively, between 1900 and 2018. Purchasing a pound of sugar required nearly three hours of factory work in 1850; in 2021, it required only 35 seconds. An air conditioning unit cost more than 200 hours of blue-collar work in 1952; in 2019, it cost just 5.5 hours.
The authors’ analysis is an important reminder of the benefits of modernity. Most of human history consisted of subsistence living. The widespread experience of leisure time is a product of the market economy combined with a liberal political order. Leisure is essential for the higher forms of human possibility: the creation and enjoyment of art, music, and literature, and the pursuit of knowledge.
An ample human population, free thought and expression, and the feedback loops that markets provide are essential for innovation. So beneath the book’s optimism lies a warning about current trends that threaten these essential ingredients. One doesn’t have to look far for evidence to justify these concerns.
If only the book’s deployment of its arguments were as strong as the arguments themselves. Superabundance is part original academic research (though not peer-reviewed), part textbook, and part sweeping narrative. It would have benefited from a more coherent style and succinct presentation. Still, Superabundance is an optimistic, life-affirming book that reminds us of how much we have to be grateful for, and of what is at stake when it comes to defending economic and political liberty. Its ultimate message: human beings and freedom are at once the scarcest resources and the essential ingredients for widespread human flourishing.
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