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The Independent Institute
Commentary

You Worry. You Shouldn’t. Part 1: Overpopulation and Resource Exhaustion


I worry too much. You do, too. And no wonder: you can’t watch the news or read a newspaper or click on a website without seeing or reading a report about something horrifying. Often, the risk as reported in the media is grossly out of proportion with the actual risk you face. Given that we have limited time and energy, there are some things people worry about that get far too much attention relative to the risks they pose. It seems like there are terrifying possibilities around every corner, and unfortunately there is an entire “industry”—government—that feeds on and fuels fear. Over the next several weeks and months, I want to consider a few things about which people spend too much time worrying. In this first installment of an occasional series, I want to consider (briefly) overpopulation and resource exhaustion. When private property rights are secure and markets are free, these shouldn’t concern us.

People have wasted enormous amounts of time and energy worrying that there are too many people and that we will eventually run out of this or that scarce resource (petroleum, for example). Indeed, every time gas prices rise you are likely to hear members of the same crew of alarmists claiming that we’re running out of fossil fuels, that we like sheep have gone astray, and that if we don’t repent, turn from our wicked ways, and (strangely) give the alarmists and their political friends power over our decisions, there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Rumors of the imminent exhaustion of this or that natural resource are greatly exaggerated. As the late, great economist Julian Simon demonstrated (both with clear economic logic and an unassailable mountain of data), there is a long-run tendency for standards of living to improve and for material scarcity to relax as a constraint rather than tighten. This rests on a very specific set of institutional foundations—specifically, secure private property rights and free markets—but in light of how people respond to incentives, we can be confident that people will find newer and ever-more ingenious ways to circumvent their constraints (asteroid mining and space elevators? Cool!).

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Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, and Assistant Professor of Economics at Samford University.
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