Wagering on the World’s Future

Published on January 15th, 2014

In 1981, two flamboyant American college professors with diametrically different worldviews made an unfortunate bet that we population and environmental activists have been living down ever since.

One was a pessimistic ecologist and the other an optimistic economist. How could it have been otherwise? When was the last time you heard of optimistic ecologists and pessimistic economists?

Probably not since Malthus two centuries ago. Indeed, it was none other than Thomas Robert Malthus, the world’s first professional economist, whose gloomy “Essay on Population” in 1798 later prompted Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle to coin the expression “the dismal science” in reference to economics. Cornucopians who believe in limitless human potential also contrived the pejoratives “Malthusian” or “neo-Malthusian” to disparage anyone who believes in any kind of limits to growth on earth.

Paul R. Ehrlich

In 1981, Stanford University biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, then and still the world’s foremost neo-Malthusian and doomsayer, was lured into a bet by an upstart business professor at the University of Illinois, Julian L. Simon, later dubbed “the doomslayer” by Wired magazine.

Whereas Population Bomb author Ehrlich claimed that humanity’s comeuppance was imminent, as a result of population overshoot, Simon believed passionately that our best days lay ahead and that bigger was always better. The prestigious journal Science had just published a paper of his entitled: “Population, Resources, Environment: An Oversupply of False Bad News.”

Julian L. Simon

Then, in a brilliant publicity stunt that reflected his belief in “putting your money where your mouth is,” Simon persuaded Ehrlich and his U.C. Berkeley colleagues John Harte and John Holdren to bet on whether the prices of five raw materials, all metals, would increase or decrease over the coming decade. Ehrlich, convinced of impending scarcity, bet that prices would rise; Simon, an acolyte of abundance, wagered they would fall. And fall they did, as Ehrlich reluctantly conceded, although insisting that Simon had lucked out. (And indeed, if the bet had occurred a decade later, or in the past decade, Simon would have been trounced.)

Yale University Press has just issued a new book about this misbegotten wager by Yale history professor Paul Sabin. It’s called The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future.

The Bet is not just about this one famous but misguided wager. More generally, it provides a balanced overview of the growing gulf separating neo-Malthusians and cornucopians in recent decades. Both sides have reinforced their rhetoric and hardened their positions. The bitter row over man’s role in global warming is the most vivid contemporary manifestation of this divide.

On the one side we have groups like the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), which describes the late Simon (who died in 1998) as:

… a pioneering researcher who demolished the Malthusian fears that modern civilization is unsustainable. He demonstrated that humans are living longer, people are better fed and healthier, resources are ever more abundant, and environmental quality is improving.

CEI even named an award for him, the Julian L. Simon Memorial Award.

On the other side we have Paul Ehrlich himself, who posted his own review of Sabin’s book. Ehrlich criticizes Sabin for bending over backward to be even-handed when the evidence clearly demonstrates that only one side is right:

Sabin seemed at pains to make the views of a professor of mail-order marketing [i.e., Simon], who believed that the only limit to the copper available to Homo sapiens is ‘the weight of the universe’ and that humanity can enjoy economic growth for ‘seven billion years,’ seem to be equivalent to those of the entire scientific community. It’s noteworthy that the truth in scientific disputes almost never lies in the middle….Earth doesn’t circle the sun in spring and summer while the sun circles Earth in the other seasons.

Ehrlich’s view that humanity’s freedom to grow is constrained by nature is broadly shared by many scientists, though certainly not all, and maybe not even most.

But this view, while given lip service by many left-of-center politicians and certain fashionable hipsters, is completely contrary to the ethos of modern industrial society. This view? There is essentially no limit to what unfettered human ingenuity and enterprise can accomplish.

Read about Bill Gates’ views on “the bet” in another piece by Leon Kolankiewicz.

You are donating to :

How much would you like to donate?
$10 $20 $30
Would you like to make regular donations? I would like to make donation(s)
How many times would you like this to recur? (including this payment) *
Name *
Last Name *
Email *
Additional Note