Does Doom Loom?

Even such doomsayers as Paul Ehrlich and Garrett Hardin now agree that man's history has been one of increasing availability of resources (as measured by falling prices), together with an improving standard of material living (as measured by life expectancy and the quantity of consumer goods). But, they say, this benign trend will not continue in the future. Rather, they make such statements as "the age of cheap energy is over" and we have entered an age of scarcity following on the age of affluence. " They even predict life expectancy to fall.

There is no way to prove with the force of deductive logic that we are not at a turning point in history now; it is indeed possible that, starting in our time, these very long-term trends will indeed reverse. But is it likely that this is so?

The doomsayers ' arguments for the turning-point hypothesis are of two kinds, empirical and deductive. The empirical argument-whether the argument was made in 1970, 1975, or now (and probably the same argument was made in 1300, 1600, and many other times)-is that the last few years have shown increasing prices (relative to wages) in some raw materials. But when we look at the long-term trends, we see that frequent temporary price upturns are followed by resumption of the long downward trend. These historical series indicate that reliance on just a few years' data usually leads to disastrously wrong long-run predictions.

The doomsayers' theoretical, or deductive, argument begins with the supposed "finiteness" of all resources, especially energy, and a consequent reduction in the stock of resources as some are used up. In my book The Ultimate Resource (Princeton, 1981), I argue at length that the underlying concept of finitude is fatally flawed as a foundation for scientific reasoning and forecast.

Rejection of the doomsayers' arguments, however, still leaves us in limbo; for although the doomsayers have no solid reason to believe that we are now at a turning point, the historical series of falling prices is not conclusive proof that these benign trends will continue. Nonetheless, experience is a powerful guide to the future, and this has been the main argument of those who have argued that-absent strong theoretical reasons to the contrary-things will continue to get better.

Moreover, historical experience is buttressed by the observation that people respond to newly arisen or soon-expected problems by developing solutions that leave us better off than we began. Still, many long-run trends do reverse-the number of horses in the United States, for example. So it behooves us to seek a deeper understanding.

In my view, we can improve our understanding by going beyond the trends in particular resource prices and quantities per person to examine the larger trend of which these particular trends are a part. And the greatest and most important trend is the world becoming ever more livable for human beings. We see signs of this in increased life expectancies, our improved knowledge of nature, and the subduing of the elements with respect to our own safety and comfort.

But though this larger trend buttresses the particular resource trends, it still provides no causal explanation of the phenomenon we seek to understand. Evolutionary thinking, however, and (more specifically in economics) the sort of analysis suggested by Austrian School economist Friedrich Hayek, offers an explanation of the observed long-term trend. And that explanation in turn provides the basis for a grounded forecast of a continuation of the great long-term trend (of the world becoming ever more livable for people). Hayek suggests that, as there has been an evolutionary selection for survival among those societies that have existed in the past, mankind has evolved rules and patterns of living that are consistent with survival and growth rather than with decline and extinction.

Hayek assumes that these particular rules and living patterns have had something to do with the societies' chances for survival. For example, he reasons that patterns yielding higher fertility and more healthful and productive living have led to groups' natural increase and hence survival-and therefore, where conditions are not too different from those conditions that held in the past, inherited patterns constitute a machinery for continued survival and growth.

This is consistent with a biological view of humankind as having evolved a genetic pattern that (under historical conditions) points toward survival. But Hayek presupposes no such genetic evolution, in part because its time span is so great that we cannot understand it as well as we can understand the evolution of cultural rules. It may be illuminating, however, to view mankind's biological nature as part of the long evolutionary chain dating from the simplest plants and animals, a history of increasing complexity of construction and greater capacity to deal actively with the environment.

Let us apply Hayek's general analysis to natural resources. All sorts of natural resources have been a part of man's history ever since the beginning. If humankind had not developed patterns of behavior and association that increased rather than decreased the amounts of resources available to us, we would not still be here. If, as mankind's numbers increased (or even as they remained nearly stationary), its behavior had led to diminished supplies of plants and animals, less flint for tools, and disappearing wood for fires and construction, I would not be here writing these pages, and you would not be reading them.

What then, are the key patterns of culture that maintained and increased human life? It is interesting and important that we try to learn what they are. Certainly the evolved cultural patterns include voluntary exchange among individuals, and markets that function to provide resources in increasing quantities; institutions that pass on knowledge, such as schools; libraries and legends and storytellers, all of which store knowledge; and monasteries and laboratories and research-and-development departments, which produce knowledge. Biological patterns that have evolved to aid survival include the hunger signals we get when we lack food and the attention that we focus on apparent regularities in nature when they appear before us. But ignorance of these cultural and biological patterns is not devastating for us, and such ignorance ought not be surprising, given the complexity of these patterns and the difficulty of any one person seeing much of any pattern.

The belief that our evolved history is, as I suggest, toward humans being creators rather than destroyers may be strengthened by some evidence that such evolution spontaneously occurs within most human groups, independent of one another, as a result of the conditions that humankind faces. For example, people build dwellings that shelter them from sun, rain, and snow. And the exchange mechanism evolves everywhere as a way of handling differences in people's abilities, in order to improve their capacities to construct and create new goods as well as to distribute existing goods. Chiefs of work gangs somehow assume their roles so that constructive tasks can be carried out efficiently. Communities reward creators of works in a variety of ways that they do not reward destroyers of the community works. (Warriors against other groups are not exceptions to this proposition. But perhaps it deserves mention as an exception that songs are written about such destroyers as the James Gang as well as about such creators as John Henry.) Probably everywhere mothers ooh and ah about their children's sand castles. And though I have no evidence-and feel no need to consult anthropologists on the matter-I'd bet that early tribes in dry climates gave greater honor to persons who found water than to those who polluted water sources, and greater honor to those who procured food than to those who showed considerable ability to consume food supplies.

The above illustrations are intended to show that human groups spontaneously evolve patterns of behavior-and of training people for that behavior-that, on the whole, lead people to create rather than destroy. And this supports the view that humans are, on net balance, builders rather than destroyers. The evidence is seen in the historical records and in the state of civilization and economy that our ancestors have bequeathed to us, one that contains more created works than the civilization and economy they were bequeathed.

In short, humankind has evolved into creators and problem-solvers to an extent that people's constructive behavior has outweighed their destructive behavior, as evidenced by our increasing life expectancy and richness of consumption. And in recent centuries and decades, this positive net balance has been increasing rather than decreasing.

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