Review of Superabundance by Marian L. Tupy and Gale L. Pooley

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Superabundance is the kind of book that needs to be written, that needs to be read widely, and that will likely not move the needle for the people who most need to read it. “We are running out of resources” is a fundamental tenet of secular environmental religion; it is not a hypothesis open to testing and possible falsification. Many people who most need Tupy and Pooley’s message, therefore, have neither ears to hear nor eyes to see. That’s both sad and frustrating. For people who aren’t yet on a steady diet of green Kool-Aid, Superabundance brings a message of hope and deliverance, one that might make them cancel their next appointment with their “eco-anxiety” counselor.

Tupy and Pooley sit in the seat of the great Julian Simon, who countered environmentalist hysteria during his own lifetime with two simple steps: model it (isolate the important moving parts and identify their implications) and measure it (see whether or not the data support the hysteria or a different set of explanations and predictions). Simon used this to great effect in his famous bet with Paul Ehrlich and in his books like The Ultimate Resource. Tupy and Pooley add a unique twist and a much larger range of goods over a longer time scale. They conclude that we live in a world of superabundance, with many resources actually becoming more abundant relative to the population as measured by their “time price” (the amount of time one needs to work in order to purchase a unit of a good). As the population has grown, resources have actually become more abundant.

This is counterintuitive. There are not infinite atoms on planet Earth. How, then, can there be infinite resources? It seems like a simple matter of mathematics: dividing finite atoms among a larger population means that resources-per-capita have to decline. You may have even heard someone exclaim out of frustration with cornucopian economists like Simon (and Tupy and Pooley) that “you cannot have unlimited growth in a closed system.”

If atoms-per-person determined standards of living, no one in history would have had higher standards of living than Adam and Eve or our protohuman ancestors on the African savannah. But something is missing. As Simon showed decades ago, and as Tupy and Pooley show again now, it’s not a closed system. First, there’s the mundane fact that we’re constantly being bombarded with solar energy. Second, there’s the most important fact environmental pessimists ignore: ideas are unlimited. Scholars who have tried to calculate the number of different ways to combine a handful of LEGO bricks have discovered first, that it’s a very difficult computational problem and second, that the number is surprisingly large. The supposed limits to growth disappear when we think about the practically infinite number of ways we can use each, in a practically infinite number of combinations. People will never run out of ways to tell stories with LEGO bricks. They will never run out of ways to solve problems with different combinations of what we find in the natural world. Environmental pessimists will sometimes point to ecosystem collapses when (say) rabbit predators disappear. There are some very important differences between people and rabbits, though. People plan. People talk. People trade. Rabbits do none of these things, at least not with the sophistication of homo sapiens. With private property and free markets–economic liberty–we have limitless possibilities. Tupy and Pooley refute what they call the materialist superstition: “that wealth consists of things rather than thoughts, of accumulated capital rather than accumulated knowledge–that people are chiefly consumers rather than creators, mouths rather than minds.” The history of innovation and the “time prices” Tupy and Pooley calculate give the lie to the materialist superstition.

To get around the fact that there is no objective standard of value, Tupy and Pooley calculate “time prices.” As George Gilder points out in his forward:

The ultimate test and measuring stick of wealth is time. What remains scarce when all else becomes abundant is our minutes, hours, days, and years. Time is the only resource that cannot be recycled, stored, duplicated, or recovered. Money is most fundamentally tokenized time.

To update Simon’s analysis, they “calculate the hours and minutes needed to earn the money to buy goods and services” and discover that over time, people have been getting progressively more for the sweat of their brows. Even this understates the real change: work has gotten progressively more pleasant and less strenuous. Tupy and Pooley, therefore, are calculating a lower bound on growing superabundance.

Tupy and Pooley document how resources have become more abundant. They also borrow from scholars and commentators like Joel Mokyr, Deirdre McCloskey, and Matt Ridley to explain why. In short, we got the institutions right (secure private property rights, free markets, and the rule of law), and we got the ideas and rhetoric right (liberty and dignity for entrepreneurs and innovators).

They raise and answer a frustrating question: If things are getting so much better, why do people cling to the idea that they are only getting worse? Part of it is rooted in psychology. We gravitate toward bad news (“if it bleeds, it leads”), and as Bryan Caplan points out in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter, people are beset by “pessimistic bias.” This has metastasized into a grotesque secular religion with adherents embracing “anti-natalism,” the notion that it is actually immoral to reproduce, yearning for human extinction, and forsaking the blessings of children in the name of reducing their carbon footprint.

Defending free markets and innovation remains a Sisyphean task. Henry Hazlitt has pointed out that good ideas need to be re-learned every generation while bad ideas are natural, intuitive, and obvious. Perhaps the miracle is that we have made as much progress as we have, in light of intellectual and institutional headwinds. Some people will not be convinced. I don’t expect Paul Ehrlich to pick up Superabundance and realize that he has been tragically, grievously wrong for over five decades. However, open-minded students and scholars who read Superabundance will, I hope, embrace its optimistic message. When the time comes, Tupy and Pooley will be able to depart this terrestrial ball knowing they have left it a much better place than they found it, and by contributing to the defense of liberty, dignity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, they will have helped many others do the same.

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