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September 02, 2013

Reviewing the Simon - Ehrlich Bet

There is a new book that reviews The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and our gamble over Earth's future.

Ehrlich's population bomb was first dropped in the pages of New Scientist on 14 December 1967. His article, entitled "Paying the Piper", began: "The battle to feed humanity is over... Sometime between 1970 and 1985 the world will undergo vast famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death." Human numbers, he said, would double in a generation and we had no chance of feeding everyone.

Simon, says Sabin, declared that there were "no limits to growth". Ehrlich might be right that more people meant more mouths to feed, argued Simon, but they also delivered "more hands to work and brains to think". As the title of his 600-page riposte to Ehrlich implied, humans were The Ultimate Resource.




Simon said he would bet that $1000 worth of five metals – chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten, then all in increasingly short supply – would fall in value during the 1980s. Ehrlich accepted the bet, saying prices were bound to rise. Whoever won would compensate the other for the change in price.

A lot was riding on the outcome. It wasn't just metal prices; two views of Earth's future were going head to head. There was an inescapable political context, too. The US president at the time, Jimmy Carter, was an ardent environmentalist who pushed US funding for population control programmes. But the man who beat him in the presidential election later that year, Ronald Reagan, was a free-marketeer, anti-environmentalist and passionate opponent of Uncle Sam paying for family planning services.



Simon came out the victor. Over the decade, world population had grown by 800 million, and the global economy boomed. Yet, counter-intuitively for many, the prices of the five metals had fallen by more than 50 per cent. It was, says Sabin, "the triumph of optimism".

The resource crunch that should have pushed up metal prices turned out, as Simon predicted, to be an illusion. Innovation and market forces ensured that plastics, fibre optics, ceramics and aluminium supplanted the wager's chosen metals. In October 1990, Ehrlich mailed a cheque to Simon for $576.07. Tellingly, Sabin says, Ehrlich did not even include a note, still less admit he was wrong. Instead he publicly compared Simon to the man who jumps off the Empire State Building and shouts halfway down that everything is going fine.

Source - New Scientist


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