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Julian Simon, the problem of socio-ecological resilience and the “ultimate resource”: a reinterpretation


The article argues that the debate between “the limits to growth” movement and Julian Simon could be reconstructed and reinterpreted in the light of three pairs of models that map three distinct levels of discussion: (i) a “model of man” and (ii) a model of institutional structure and design, both encompassed by (iii) a model of --what the contemporary literature calls-- the Social-Ecological System (SES). Ultimately the “the limits to growth” problem is not so much about resources and demographics, as it is about SES and their resilience. Moreover, at a first glance, the debate between the proponents of the “the limits to growth” movement and Julian Simon seems to be about empirical data and predictive models. However, on a closer look, behind the positive analysis there is a much deeper structure, of a normative bent, which has a decisive influence on the perspective and approach one adopts regarding the proposed themes.

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  1. For instance, of the environment or animal species in relation to man, or the priority of certain human categories over others. The temptation to divide people into two distinct categories and to assign special values, privileges and responsibilities to the “chosen” – the elite – in relation to others, namely the mass – “the many” – has always been present in the history of Western thought. Karl Popper traces this tradition of thinking, which makes a clear separation between the privileged intellectual elite and the rest of ordinary people, to Plato. Moreover, he argues that the intellectual roots of totalitarianism derive from this ontological divide (Karl Popper, Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945). In an essay entitled Normative Presuppositions for Democracy (2005), James Buchanan draws a parallel between Plato’s and Adam Smith’s perspectives on the nature of equality between people. Then, it is no coincidence that Simon, who upholds the equal value of all human beings – even of the unborn – sees himself as descending from Adam Smith’s tradition: “If the reader insists on placing me in some niche, the closest niche is that of Hayek and Friedman (who disagree with each other in many important ways), and more generally, the niche of David Hume and Adam Smith (Simon, 1996, 577).”

  2. As Simon pointed out, “for think about resources and population is not subject to scientific test. Yet it profoundly affects our thinking. I believe that here lies the root of the key difference about population and resources (1996, 347).


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We would like to thank the editors and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback and to the Romanian Ministry of Education and Research, whose grant CNCS - UEFISCDI, project number PN-III-P4-ID-PCE-2020-1076, within PNCDI III, has supported our research.

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Correspondence to Paul Dragos Aligica.

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Aligica, P.D., Ciobanu, R.G. Julian Simon, the problem of socio-ecological resilience and the “ultimate resource”: a reinterpretation. Rev Austrian Econ 35, 283–301 (2022).

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  • Institutions
  • Governance
  • Social-ecological systems
  • Resilience
  • Normative theory