TCS Daily

The World's Greatest Natural Resource

By James Freeman - June 5, 2000 12:00 AM

An article of faith among environmentalists is that population growth leads inevitably to disaster for man and nature. And slogging through Memorial Day traffic or strolling along a crowded shoreline, it's easy to think that the world is overpopulated. But a growing number of people adds to our quality of life in ways that we often take for granted. Yes, you can blame our increasing population for the fact that it takes longer to pull out of your driveway, but you also have to give credit for the things that an abundance of people has given us. The evidence from the past century strongly suggests that - if they are allowed to grow up in freedom -- babies make us richer and healthier.

In 1900, there were just 76 million people in the United States. They didn't have too much suburban sprawl in the good old days, but they did have a lot of infant mortality. Average life expectancy at birth was a mere 47 years. Rush-hour traffic was less of a hassle then, but infectious diseases were a real pain, killing 700 people each year for every 100,000 U.S. citizens.

When the Census 2000 figures are counted, they'll likely show that the U.S.A. has about 275 million people. By any measurement, that would seem to be a population explosion -- an increase of more than 250% in one century. So you might have expected a disaster from this "population bomb" - mass starvation or some sort of devastating plague. Actually, the USA enjoyed the greatest century of human progress in the history of the world.

While our population was skyrocketing, average life expectancy increased from 47 to 77 years. Infant mortality dropped by 90% and the rate of mothers dying during childbirth dropped by 99%. Deaths from infectious disease fell from 700 to 50 per 100,000 population. Incomes, household wealth, home ownership and automobile ownership increased dramatically.

And despite predictions of environmental doom, there are no limits to growth in sight. Even today, less than 3% of America's land is covered by our roads, buildings and homes. Worried about contributing to global warming? Don't be. The U.S. is a net consumer of carbon dioxide. Scientists call the US a "carbon sink," because we consume more greenhouse gas than we emit. How is that possible? Well, our abundant and free people figured out how to be very efficient with our land. So we have more acres of CO2-consuming forest today than we did in 1920.

In many parts of the world, the population has grown even faster than in the U.S., and the countries that have allowed people to live in freedom have benefited greatly. As the late University of Maryland economics professor Julian Simon reminds us, population increase does not represent a threat; it represents a triumph. In a 1996 paper he co-wrote with Sheldon Richman, Simon puts it this way: "Starting in the 1950s, well after World War II, length of life in the poor countries leaped upward by perhaps 15 or even 20 years because of advances in agriculture, sanitation and medicine. The decrease in the death rate is the root cause of today's large world population. It represents humanity's victory over death."

As any scientist knows, correlation does not prove causation. So I can't say for certain that if you have a baby, it will definitely make us all richer and happier. I'm just saying that's the way to bet. And the reason is simple. When two people have a child, they give us more of what is undoubtedly the world's greatest natural resource: the human mind.

People talk about valuable natural resources like oil, but that's just sticky black goo without the intelligence to harness it for fuel. Coal is just rock in the ground until someone figures out how to use it to create electricity. Human intelligence has turned sand, a seemingly worthless commodity, into computer chips capable of infinite amounts of work. That's why we'll never starve or run out of energy, as long as people are free to create better, more efficient ways to provide food and shelter.

So go ahead and blame some of our problems on the abundance of people. But be grateful that Vint Cerf's parents decided to have a child, so that he could one day help to create the Internet. Thank your lucky stars that Dr. Craig Venter's folks chose to have a family, so he could grow up to map the human genome and open the doors to the treatment of countless diseases. You can also thank Donna Dubinsky's folks, who by giving the world another mouth to feed, also gave a liberating technology - the Palm Pilot - to millions of grateful consumers.

In truth, it's not just about a handful of exceptional achievers. Think of the millions of people who have allowed you to enjoy a smoother ride, a tastier latte, a more accurate diagnosis or a more compelling novel. People represent the most precious resource of all - so go ahead and make more of this stuff!

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