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.

Paul R. Ehrlich
Paul R. Ehrlich

Ehrlich, after all, had warned of “vast famines,” with hundreds of millions of people starving to death in the 1970s. He called for “radical surgery” to excise the “cancer” of population growth. Four centuries of economic growth, he said, would soon end. (This was 1968, remember.) He estimated that the earth could carry no more than about 1.5 billion people, or about 40 percent of the 1970 population of 3.7 billion people. Years later, Ehrlich was unembarrassed by his apocalyptic tone. He wrote in 2009 that  “perhaps the most serious flaw in The Bomb was that it was much too optimistic about the future.”

As Sabin reminds us, Ehrlich has been an enormously influential figure. He testified frequently before Congress, spoke before adoring crowds on college campuses and appeared on TV programs like The Tonight Show. Virtually echoing Ehrlich, President Jimmy Carter warned that the nation faced a “permanent, very serious energy shortage” and spoke of the “material limits” of the planet. Ehrlich’s close friend and colleague John Holdren, who during the 1970s called for a “no-growth” society and declared himself “firmly in the neo-Malthusian camp,” later became President Obama’s senior advisor on science and technology.

Julian Simon
Julian Simon

Simon, for his part, labored mostly in obscurity through his career, to his unending frustration, which at times drove him to the brink of depression. He gained a measure of acclaim after winning the bet, and could be as extreme in his optimism as Ehrlich was in his belief that the world was going to hell. Yet, as Simon wrote in 1995:

On average, people throughout the world are living longer and eating better than ever before. Fewer are dying of famine than in earlier centuries. The real prices of food and other raw materials are lower….The major air and water pollutions in advanced countries have been lessening.

Every measure of material and environmental welfare in the United States and in the world has improved rather than deteriorated. All long-run trends point in exactly the opposite direction from the projections of the doomsayer.

All true, although Simon refused to give Ehrlich and his fellow environmentalists credit for any of this, not even for the decline in air and water pollution, which was largely brought about by the environmental laws of the 1970s and 1980s which Ehrlich helped to pass and Simon’s conservative allies opposed.

The bet is worth pondering as we begin a new year because the debate over the future remains unsettled. Like Simon and authors Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist) and Ramez Naam (The Infinite Resource), I am fundamentally an optimist who believes that markets, innovation and technology can get us where we need to go, so long as we get the market signals right. . (See my New Year’s post from 2011, China, cappuccino and cell phones: Reasons to cheer! I find it hard to understand what groups like the Worldwatch Institute mean when they say that we are “beyond the earth’s carrying capacity.” (If that were true, wouldn’t we be running out of all kinds of stuff already?) And yet I embrace the view of mainstream environmentalists that the threat of catastrophic climate change is perhaps the greatest risk facing humankind, as well as a glaring example of market failure. I also believe that that the runaway consumer culture of the US is not only merely causing environmental harm but making us less, rather than more, fulfilled. As they say, it’s complicated.

Sabin has much more to say about all this in The Bet, which I recommend enthusiastically. You can read Bill Gates’s review, as well as Andrew Revkin’s effort to weigh the arguments of “Cornucopians and Catastrophists.”

Happy new year, everyone!


  1. says

    The secret of managing life on the planet does seem to be family planning. Even with huge unmet demand (thank you, Catholic church), fertility has plummeted most everywhere. Of course as population declines, per capita consumption increases. I don’t know how theorists factor that in, as the world gets richer.

  2. says

    Happy new year, Marc, and thanks for writing about this subject. I hadn’t heard about this book, and am glad to know about it.

    You write, “I find it hard to understand what groups like the Worldwatch Institute mean when they say that we are “beyond the earth’s carrying capacity.” (If that were true, wouldn’t we be running out of all kinds of stuff already?)”

    We are running out of:

    Fertile soil
    Fresh water in rivers and aquifers
    Biodiversity (species extinctions are up along with the Dow)
    Arctic and glacial ice
    Inhabitable climate
    Big fish
    Fresh waters that aren’t so toxified they have no fish consumption advisories
    Air that doesn’t shorten lives

    I think we made a little progress in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s but now our population and economic growth are overwhelming that progress. By few measures is our home improving these days.

    Also, on the subject of “running out of” things, I highly recommend Chris Clugston’s book, Scarcity.

    All the best, Marc. Keep writing!

  3. says

    Dave Gardner has it right. Actually reading the Worldwatch reports is a harrowing experience. Millions of the global poor are adding to their ranks daily, and are not living healthier, longer, more fruitful lives. We are strip-mining soil and freshwater along with all the metals we need for a consumerist/industrial society. The oceans are empty of fish and full of plastic junk.

    How one can read even the latest–very conservative–global warming report and retain a flippant faith in magical markets is baffling. We have seriously disrupted the geophysical processes that make the planet compatible with us. The only glimmer of hope I see is that renewable energy technologies have fallen so dramatically in price (and a price measured in dollars, which I remain baffled as to what a dollar is a measure of).

    Nature bats last, works on geologic time scales, and she doesn’t care what we want. If you think Ehrlich is wrong, just wait a while.


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