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If Julian Simon - who may be the most inspiring amalgam of erudition and optimism in academia today - didn't exist, he'd have to be invented. For without him, the marketplace of ideas would be a grimmer place.

We've been Simon fans since 1981, when he published "The Ultimate Resource" to refute zero-population-growth types who regard growing numbers of people as a problem rather the "ultimate resource" they really are.Simon, a University of Maryland professor, spoke recently at a Cato Institute forum titled "The End of the World As We Know It?" Want to feel better about the way the world is heading? Sample some of what he said:

"The plain fact is that the gloom and doom about our environment is all wrong. . . . U.S. air and water have been getting cleaner. Every agricultural economist knows that the world's people, on average, have been eating better rather than worse since at least World War II. Every resource economist knows that all natural resources have been getting more available rather than more scare, as measured by their prices. And every demographer knows that the world's death rate has been falling astonishingly.

"Life expectancy is now almost triple what it was just 200 years ago in the rich countries. And in poor countries, life expectancy has almost doubled in just the few decades since World War II. . . .

"Just about every important long-run measure of human welfare shows improvement over the decades and centuries, in the U.S. (and) in the rest of the world. There is no persuasive reason to believe that those trends will not continue indefinitely. . . .

"Consider this: 150 years ago, this planet of ours could only support about 1 billion people. Ten thousand years ago, our planet could only support 4 million people. Now we have 5.5 billion people living longer and more healthily than ever before.

"I would expect lovers of humanity to be jumping up and down, saying, `Isn't this wonderful?' Instead, people wring their hands and say, `How terrible.'

"The ultimate resource is people, especially skilled, spirited young people who are endowed with liberty - people who will exert their wills and their imaginations for their own benefit, and so inevitably will benefit not only themselves but the rest of us as well."