The future

9780300176483The bet between the biologist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon, which was described as  “the scholarly wager of the decade” by the Chronicle of Higher Education, was settled without drama–or graciousness. As Paul Sabin writes in The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future:

One day in October 1990, Julian Simon picked up his mail at his house in suburban Chevy Chase, Maryland. In a small envelope sent from Palo Alto, California, Simon found a sheet of metal prices along with a check from Paul Ehrlich for $576.07. There was no note.

It was a victory not just for Simon but for optimists everywhere, and so a fitting way to start the year of 2014. The two men–who did not like one another–had in 1980, at Simon’s urging, placed a $1,000 bet on the price of five metals ten years hence. Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb warning of a coming global catastrophe had made him a celebrity, as well as one of the most influential environmentalists of all time, believed that food, energy and commodities would all grow scarce, and thus more expensive over the decade. Simon, a free-market economist, had enormous faith in the power of markets, prices and innovation to solve problems. (Before the bet, Simon was best known as the inventor of the auction system used by airlines to pay passengers not to take overbooked flights.) Between 1980 and 1990, the prices of the five minerals–chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten–had fallen by an average of almost 50 percent.

Simon was lucky as well as smart. A global recession in the early 1980s depressed the prices of metals, and they never recovered. As Sabin reports in his first-rate and very readable book, economists who ran simulations of the bet during every 10-year period between 1900 and 2008 found that Ehrlich would have won the bet 63 percent of the time. Yet the history of the past 45 years, since Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, weighs heavily in favor of Simon’s worldview. Market signals, human ingenuity and technological progress have solved problems that Ehrlich said would doom us all. [click to continue...]

What’s wrong with economic growth?

Dave Gardner is a gutsy guy.  Gardner, who is 56, a former corporate filmmaker, set his career aside a few years ago to run for office in his hometown of Colorado Springs, CO, and make a documentary film called Growthbusters: Hooked on Growth that puts forth an unpopular idea–that economic growth is bad for the environment and bad for human happiness.

“I want to make it OK for people to be against growth,” Dave says, when asked why he ran for office and made the movie.

Dave and I fundamentally disagree. I think economic growth is vital, not just to lift billions of people out of poverty–global per capita income is currently about $10,700, if Wikipedia is to be believed–but because societies that are more prosperous are better able to deal with the issues of environmental and social justice that matter most to me.

Nevertheless, I would urge you to see Dave’s film (screenings are listed here, or you can buy the DVD) both because he raises a number of important questions and and because, to his credit, has managed to capture on film some of the world’s most provocative thinkers on the topic of growth–Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford professor and author of the controversial 1968 book The Population Bomb, sociologist Juliet Schor, whose books include The Overworked American, the heretical economist Herman Daly, environmental activist and author Bill McKibben, and the charismatic political economist and author Raj Patel. [click to continue...]