On Roger Pielke's Prometheus blog, Jonathan Gilligan had some comments about Julian Simon's message with which I disagreed. But that wasn't really relevant to the Prometheus post, so I'm putting responses here.
“When I read The Ultimate Resource II, Simon seems clearly to be saying that we don’t need to worry about running out of oil or any other natural resource because human ingenuity will provide cheap alternative energy sources to replace them, fairly painlessly.”
I mostly agreed with you up to the “fairly painlessly” part. I think Julian Simon’s argument was not that the transitions would be “fairly painless,” but that after the transitions occurred, people would actually be better off. (That there was never going to be a permanent step downward in well-being, due to a permanent lack of a resource.)
“The whole argument of Ultimate Resource II is that scarcity does not exist because resources are not finite.”
No, that can’t possibly be the “whole argument of Ultimate Resource II,” because Julian Simon was an economist, and that argument completely defies the entire premise of economics.
The whole argument of Ultimate Resource II was that the world would not run out of any resources, because resources are not finite…in any ***”useful economic definition”*** of the word:
Note that Julian Simon recognized that, for example, there are a finite number of copper atoms on earth at the present time. (That’s the mathematical definition of “finite.”) But he argued that the number of copper atoms on earth wasn’t meaningful in a “useful economic definition of the word.” A fine example of why this is so has come after his death, with the explosion of wireless communications. And in fact, wireless movement of electrical power is even being developed:
But Julian Simon never said that nothing was “scarce.” No sane economist would ever say that! He said resources were not “finite;” he didn’t say they weren’t “scarce.” Just because something isn’t “finite” doesn’t mean it isn’t “scarce.” For example, we can recycle electronics to recover the copper in them. But that doesn’t mean that the recycling is effortless (costless). If something takes time or money, it is time or money that could be spent on something else. So everything is “scarce,” although the degree of scarcity ranges tremendously (e.g. from paper to diamonds).
P.S. Note his conclusion to the article to which I linked:
" I continue to stand on the ground of non-finiteness, because I have found that leaving this ground causes more bad arguments than standing on it does. While I doubt that many people's judgment will be affected by what I write on this issue, there is little temptation to trim my sails to this wind.
There is little temptation to do that which is offensive to me - "admit" something that I do not believe is so."
Well written! He'll be missed.