Last year saw the mainstreaming of a Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (Vhemt). According to its American founder who goes by Les U. Knight, “I’ve seen more and more articles about people choosing to remain child-free or to not add more to their existing family than ever.” He is right. In recent years, articles embracing the benefits of human extinction included The New Yorker magazine’s “The Case for Not Being Born,” NBC News’ “Science proves kids are bad for Earth. Morality suggests we stop having them” and The New York Times polemic “Would Human Extinction Be a Tragedy?” A CNN report on the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services findings noted that “we must act now, consuming less, polluting less, having fewer children.” But are people really that bad for the planet?
In 2018, we co-authored a study titled, The Simon Abundance Index: A New Way to Measure Availability of Resources. In that paper we looked at the prices of 50 basic commodities between 1980 and 2017. Counterintuitively, we found that resources have become more, not less, abundant. Our calculations confirmed the insights of the University of Maryland economist Julian Simon who observed in his 1981 book The Ultimate Resource that humans are intelligent beings, capable of innovating their way out of shortages through greater efficiency, increased supply and the development of substitutes. To arrive at our conclusions, we came up with four new concepts: Time Price Toolkit (i.e., time price, abundance multiplier, percentage change in abundance, compound annual growth rate in abundance and years to double abundance), Price Elasticity of Population, Simon Abundance Framework and Simon Abundance Index.
Time Price Toolkit:
The time price denotes the amount of time that a person has to work in order to earn enough money to buy something. To calculate the time price, the nominal money price is divided by nominal hourly income. (We got the former from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the latter by combining the World Bank’s GDP figures with Conference Board’s estimate of annual hours worked.) The average time price of 50 commodities fell by 74.2 percent. That means that for the same length of time that a person needed to work to earn enough money to buy one unit in our basket of 50 commodities in 1980, he or she could buy 3.87 units in 2019. In other words, the average person saw his or her level of abundance rise by 287.4 percent. That amounts to a compound annual growth rate of 3.63 percent and implies a doubling of abundance every 19.45 years (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Time Price Toolkit (1980-2019)
Price Elasticity of Population:
The price elasticity of population (PEP) allows us to measure sensitivity of resource availability to population growth. Between 1980 and 2019, the world’s population increased from 4.458 billion to 7.677 billion or by 73.2 percent. The time price of commodities fell by 74.2 percent. As such, the time price of commodities declined by 1.014 percent for every 1 percent increase in the world’s population. Put differently, over the last 39 years, every additional human being born on our planet appears to have made resources proportionately more plentiful for the rest of us.
Simon Abundance Framework:
The Simon Abundance Framework uses the PEP values to distinguish between different degrees of resource abundance, from decreasing abundance at one end of the spectrum to superabundance at the other end. Considering that time price of commodities decreased at a faster proportional rate (-74.2 percent) than population increased (73.2 percent), we conclude that humanity is experiencing superabundance. (To learn more about the framework, please see our original paper.)
Simon Abundance Index:
The Simon Abundance Index ® 2020 uses the time price of commodities and change in global population to estimate global resource abundance. The Index 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. In 2019, the Index reached a level of 670.9. That is to say that the Earth as a whole was 570.9 percent more abundant in 2019 than it was in 1980 (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: The Simon Abundance Index (1980-2019)
Short Term Trends:
Between 2018 and 2019, the world’s population increased from 7.594 billion to 7.677 billion or 1.1 percent. Over the same period, the nominal prices of 50 commodities declined by an average of 6.65 percent and nominal gross domestic product (GDP) per hour worked increased by 3.8 percent. That means that the amount of time that a person has to work in order to earn enough money to buy one unit in our basked of 50 commodities declined by 10.07 percent. More specifically, 43 commodities (i.e., 86 percent) declined in time price, while seven commodities (i.e.,14 percent) increased in time price.
Simon’s revolutionary insights with regard to the mutually beneficial interaction between population growth and availability of natural resources, which our research confirms, may be counterintuitive, but they are real. The world’s resources are finite in the same way that the number of piano keys is finite. The instrument has only 88 notes, but those can be played in an infinite variety of ways. The same applies to our planet. The Earth’s atoms may be fixed, but the possible combinations of those atoms are infinite. What matters, then, is not the physical limits of our planet, but human freedom to experiment and reimagine the use of resources that we have. To learn more, please visit www.humanprogress.org/simonproject.
In prior reports, we used GDP per capita per hour as our denominator to calculate Time Prices. To increase precision of our findings, we now use GDP per hours worked, where total output is divided by the total number of hours worked. Our denominator is based on a sample of 42 countries, representing 86 percent of world GDP (i.e., the maximum number of countries for which we have data going back to 1980).
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