Russ Roberts

Paul Sabin on Ehrlich, Simon and the Bet

EconTalk Episode with Paul Sabin
Hosted by Russ Roberts
PRINT
Brynjolfsson on the Second Mac... Calomiris and Haber on Fragile...

Paul Sabin of Yale University and author of The Bet talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his book. Sabin uses the bet between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon--a bet over whether natural resources are getting scarcer as population grows--as a lens for examining the evolution of the environmental movement and its status today. Sabin considers the successes and failures of the movement and the challenges of having nuanced public policy discussions on issues where both sides have passionate opinions.

Size:29.1 MB
Right-click or Option-click, and select "Save Link/Target As MP3.

Readings and Links related to this podcast episode

Related Readings
HIDE READINGS
About this week's guest: About ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

Highlights

Time
Podcast Episode Highlights
HIDE HIGHLIGHTS
0:33Intro. [Recording date: January 30, 2014.] Russ: The Bet is a portrait of two men, Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon, and a very interesting bet that they made. But it's more than that. It's the portrait of an era, the birth of the environmental movement and how it evolved over time. But let's start with the two men. Sketch out the arc of their lives and their careers. They were similar in certain ways but not in others, as you explained. So start with their views on population and resource scarcity, which is where they clashed. How did they differ there? Guest: Sure. Well, Paul Ehrlich is a biologist who studied butterflies and who has had a long career at Stanford U. and he is best known for his 1968 blockbuster book called The Population Bomb, which warned that over-population, population growth, was going to lead to food scarcities, famines, possibly thermo-nuclear war, spread of disease, a variety of different types of disasters. And he was brought even more to the national consciousness I guess when he was invited onto Johnny Carson's show in 1970 and became a very frequent guest on The Tonight Show. And he's a very witty, combative good debater, conversationalist; so he has been a spokesperson for a certain perspective on the dangers of over-population and the risks of environmental and even societal catastrophe. And Julian Simon is an economist, or he was. He passed away in the late 1990s. Originally he started out concerned about population growth as well, but then he came to believe that in fact population growth really should be seen as a goal of society, in the sense that more people living fruitful lives would be a sign of societal progress. And he came to feel that, based on his study of economics and the economics of population, that population growth would not lead to disaster. In fact, more people would lead to more ideas; and he was a big believer in the potential of markets to solve environmental problems. So that's a little sketch of the two men. Just an interesting backstory: They were born the same year, in 1932, and they actually grew up about 5, a few miles apart from each other in suburban New Jersey. Both men were Jewish and they had sort of a--as part of a movement of Jewish intellectuals into the academy. And so there are some very interesting parallels in their lives, more on the personal side as well. Russ: So, I was born 1954. And in the early 1970s, I was a pretty avid watcher of Johnny Carson for maybe a few months of my life. Maybe a year or two. I can't remember. I don't remember Paul Ehrlich being on there. But he was on there an enormous number of times, you said. Guest: I think it was maybe more than 20. Russ: That's extraordinary. Why do you think that was? You usually don't have biologists on the Johnny Carson show. Guest: No, you don't. And so I mean that's really one of the distinguishing characteristics of Paul Ehrlich, his wit, his conversational style, the presentation he brings to his point of view. He's a very engaging speaker and debater and discussant; and I think Johnny Carson just liked having him on there. And the other aspect was that Carson actually believed, sided with Ehrlich on the issues and thought that population growth was a very significant problem. And he wanted to have Ehrlich on to talk about population and environmental issues. Russ: Talk about the men's personalities. In certain ways they had some things in common. Guest: I think so. Both were passionate intellectuals, workaholics, really dedicated to their scholarship; although at the same time, both men also believed that they wanted to have an impact beyond the scholarly realm and sought to have an impact on public policy and public debates about the issues that they were concerned with. I write in the book about how in some ways--I started the project thinking that these two men would be so different from each other because they took such different positions on the issue of population growth and resource scarcity. But I came to think that they had a lot more in common than I'd realized at the outset. They both really took very strong positions and they were very good at articulating their perspective but not as good at incorporating dissonant voices or contrary perspectives. And so I sort of set them out as being representative in some ways of the growing polarization of discussion around environmental problems in the United States. And they both fed into that in a sense in the way that they approached the verbal combat of the public realm. Russ: Yeah. They are both extremely combative, it seemed to me, from what I know of the two of them and what I learned from your book. Later we'll get into how that continues today. But it clearly started the combativeness and the lack of curiosity about why you might be wrong, seemed to be clear in both men. They both were very self-confident. Guest: I think that's right. Russ: And usually self-confidence is a flaw unless you are right. So, we'll get to that maybe in a little bit.
6:35Russ: Let's go a little deeper on the population and resource scarcity issues. So, how did Ehrlich--Ehrlich is what some would call a 'doomsdayer'. He was extremely pessimistic about population growth and the trends that he observed at the time were going to do to human experience on the earth, not just in America but on the entire earth. What was the essence of his worries about population and resources? Guest: Ehrlich was one of a group of biologists in the post-WWII period who are studying populations of different kinds, different species--his case primarily butterflies. And they were studying the ebbs and cycles, ebbs and flows of population to relation to resources, and then projecting from what they studied from other creatures onto human populations. And so when they saw populations of butterflies for instance, crashing, falling, a decline in available resources, and then projected that onto the human population, saying that over-population would then lead to a kind of a population-overshoot, which would then be followed by a population crash or collapse. And so that was really the model that they applied to human societies. And so Ehrlich--I guess that's really the essence of it, that more people were going to lead to greater consumption and ultimately we were going to overstretch our demands on the earth's resources. Russ: On a certain level it seems undeniably true. The earth is a finite--assuming we stay on the earth, let's assume that--it's a pretty finite place. There's only a limited amount of volume to it. There's certainly it seems a limited amount of stuff, so with every passing year there is less stuff left. But Julian Simon didn't see it that way. What was his view? Guest: Right. So I think Simon--the aspect that Simon added on to this was both the element of human ingenuity and creativity that people are different from other creatures, in the sense that we have social institutions including the market that allow us to allocate resources and that encourages creativity and development and innovation. And so his belief was that scarce--it was really an economist's point of view, that scarcity leads to higher prices; higher prices lead to a call for more innovation, for more substitutions or other kinds of new developments, and that then the prices would go down. So rather than seeing sort of a linear decline going from abundance to scarcity, Simon had a more malleable model of abundance and scarcity being in dynamic relationship with each other. This really depended on what he called the ultimate resource, which was the human mind, which allowed people to come up with new kinds of resources. So, he liked to talk about that, about the creation of new resources--resources aren't finite because we can find substitutions for them, alternatives to them, or ultimately we can find other ways to create them. Russ: So in some sense this is a clash between two world views. And maybe we'll talk later about peak oil--a lot of listeners out there urge me to read about peak oil and become more familiar with the arguments, and I tend to respond with a Simonesque argument that we are always running out of oil; the 'peak' part of it isn't important; what's important is that there isn't enough to go around any time. We'd always like more of it. We'd always like to use energy in different ways--if it were cheap. It's not cheap, of course. And as it gets scarcer the price tends to rise. And as you point out, we tend to find substitutes. I've always been skeptical about the importance of peak oil, and I think the engineers and the geologists and those who are worried about resources--and in the case of Ehrlich, the biologists--have a very different way of looking at this problem relative to the economists. Both men weren't alone. A lot of other people supported Ehrlich. A lot of other economists supported Simon's view. But going back to your summary of Simon--which sounds nice: substitutes, markets work, innovation--what would Ehrlich's response have been to that? What did he say in response to the economists' confidence that human ingenuity would overcome these problems? Guest: I think that really gets to the interesting divergence of their world views. It's really about a world historical view. Because Simon would look back hundreds of years and say, look, we've continued to lower prices and to continue to innovate. Malthus was predicting we were going to run out of food hundreds of years ago, and now we are feeding billions and billions more people. And so looks back and says what happened in the past is going to continue into the future. Whereas someone like Ehrlich thinks about a linear view of history in the sense of his belief that we are coming to the end of a phase of history, fueled particularly by fossil fuels but also by other resources that humans have called upon from the planet. And that we are coming to the end of that and we are now going to run out; this abundance can't continue. And I think it's a very interesting question and kind of bet about the future, about how we should think about where we are right now. Is this the end of a long period of time of abundance that was just a one-time thing, or is this kind of an ongoing ability to continue to generate new resources? So I think Ehrlich's response, to get back to your question, would be to say: That worked in the past but it's not going to work in the future; science can't keep up with the demands; the planet can't produce as much food as is going to be needed. That we are essentially living on the capital rather than on the interest of nature's capital on the planet and that just can't be sustained. That it's been a one-time boom that is going to come to an end.
13:09Russ: Before we go on, I want to say something about Malthus. We have a nice essay on it on the site that hosts EconTalk, which is the Library of Economics and Liberty. The essay is by Morgan Rose, about how Malthus has been misunderstood. He basically argued that there was the potential for famine, disaster, because food supply would never keep up with population growth; and he's been criticized by moderns by saying he didn't foresee the explosion of productivity in the production of food. Which of course is true. But his book was mainly about why, despite the seeming likelihood of famine, it didn't happen. And his argument for that was that humans could control to some extent. There were natural limits, and human limits, on population growth that averted the disaster that might otherwise happen. But Ehrlich and his contemporaries, they didn't hedge their bets. They were adamant about how disastrous, not just the future would be, but the very near future. So, talk a little bit about some of the predictions that Ehrlich and folks on his side made in the 1960s and 1970s. Guest: Some of the predictions were about widespread famines that were going to occur. There was a book called Famine, 1975! about massive famines that were going to sweep the world by 1975. That we were going to run out of oil by the early 1980s. So it was about imminent decline. This wasn't just something that was going to happen hundreds of years from now but rather was going to happen within 5, 10, 15 years. And it was always just over the horizon. And actually what's interesting about that is that although on the one hand you could say Ehrlich was an immensely pessimistic person, on the other hand he would say, I think, that he's actually very optimistic because he believes that something can still be done about these problems. And that was why he continued to be active in the public sphere. It wasn't because he wanted to predict a disaster was going to happen and just let everyone know about it so that then he would be right that he had made the right prediction about disaster, but rather that he believed that he could still warn people in time. So I think that's an interesting element about the pessimism but optimism that Ehrlich wasn't so far pessimistic to think that it was hopeless. He actually believed that something could be done, and that was why he was motivated to speak out. Russ: Just to be clear, though, when people talk about, say, the rising price of energy in our time, they'll say something like: Growth rates are going to fall, we are going to lower our standard of living if we don't prepare for it. Economists tend to be skeptical of those kind of catastrophic--costly, I should say, not catastrophic--effects. But Ehrlich was talking about catastrophic effects. When you say a famine, he predicted millions and millions of deaths from resource shortages, correct? Guest: That's correct. And he continued to think this is going to happen, that we're going to face some kind of civilization-wide collapse. And this is on a grand scale. And he put out numbers of what he thought the sustainable population could be on the planet, which were more around the level of 1.5 billion people or a billion people, various numbers. And the idea there is that there are just way too many people to be sustained on Planet Earth, and the number is either going to be reduced by certain deliberate population control activities reducing birth rates, or there is going to be a catastrophe of death rates. Russ: There's a certain--you identify Ehrlich with Cassandra, the prophetess who was prophesying bad things happening in the future who was ignored, correct? She was ignored. Guest: Right. Russ: So in some dimension, Simon is Pollyanna. Now, I say that being a sympathizer with Simon. But it reminds me, if all goes well with EconTalk, this episode is following on an interview about an issue we've talked about a number of times on EconTalk, which is the future of employment and human well-being in the face of artificial intelligence. While most economists argue that in the past, technology has always led to higher productivity and more jobs of a different kind as substitution was made and people found ways to take advantage of the fact that they now had machines to do things for them that they used to have to do themselves, suddenly there is this fear in the economics profession that that process is not going to continue. That there's something different about artificial intelligence. And I see the same parallel with these doomsday arguments--in our time it's climate change; in Ehrlich's time it was over-population, Ehrlich and Simon. The issue is, well, in the past these substitutions or market forces turned out okay, but this time is different. This is going to be, it's like you say, it's the end of this linear process and now we are in a new era where nothing is going to bail us out of this problem. And it's interesting how hard it is to have confidence in a process. So, if you are like Simon, or like myself who tends to be optimistic about the probability of the price system to deal with these kind of things, you do have to argue that, well, it's always worked out before. Now there's a way that's a certain naive view. In a way it's not naive, because it's based on an understanding of the underlying process. How do you see that distinction? Do you think it's naive or do you think it's thoughtful? Guest: I think that's a fascinating way to put it. I think it is a real dilemma and challenge that we face in thinking about this story, because on the one hand these processes have been effective in the past in generating responses to the problems, various kinds of problems that we've faced and the need to generate more resources, generate more food. And to all appearances we've been successful in the past. And therefore we should be successful, one would think, in the future. And I think that one can have a fair amount of confidence in those processes unfolding in a similar way in the future. And so that's sort of the optimistic take. Where it gets more Pollyannaish is when one--I guess is when one takes one's level of confidence about the processes and says therefore we don't need to worry about certain kinds of problems. And I think the problem with that vantage point is that it's actually the worrying about the problems and the concern about the problems that often generates the kinds of solutions that people like Simon have celebrated. So this is something that I worry about related to the issue of climate change, where there is in many quarters a reluctance to see climate change as being a problem. And that I think is in itself sort of holding back the very kinds of market forces and powers and ingenuity that someone like Simon celebrated from being brought to bear on a problem that I think is solvable, but only if it's recognized as something that exists. So I think that there's an interesting balance there between one's pessimism and one's optimism about the future: that if you are just unduly optimistic then you may be caught off guard and not really be preparing for genuine things that may be out there. And then the other aspect of that it is making how we compare past types of issues to future types of problems. And so one concern that I have, again going to the climate issue, is when we say that climate change is the same as population growth, I think that there is a bit of a--I think that's a little erroneous in terms of how we think of those two issues. Because we are able to respond to population growth in a multitude of different ways--by generating more food and tapping a wide range of different resources and deploying all kinds of different kinds of market forces. Whereas climate change is external to the economy to a large extent, and so without some societal force to bring into the economy, there are really no market pressures that are going to be brought to bear except in the area of adaptation, where of course, if the climate changes people will adapt in a variety of ways. But not in mitigation. So, sorry to be a little long-winded-- Russ: No, no, no; that's very well said. I had a similar thought as you were talking about it, which is there is a big difference between using market forces--a better way to say it is using incentives. So, a policy change we could put in place if we were worried about climate change is a carbon tax, which would change the incentive to use carbon-based energy, say. That's not a market response, though. The market response, because as you point out it's a global phenomenon; it has huge external effects, so it's not--the market itself isn't going to mitigate the problem. What the market is going to do is mitigate the effects of the problem. Potentially. And again, that's the same debate that we are going to have or we have about this issue, which is: some of us are optimistic about the ability of humans to respond to it. And of course, if you think all wildlife is going to be knocked out and there will be mass extinctions because of climate change, the fact that we can cope with that through, say, 3-dimensional holographic experiences of fake wildlife, that's not very comforting. I don't like that. That's not appealing. If that's the nature of it, it's going to be a bleak and unsatisfying future. But it is in this area of--we don't know how severe the problem is.
23:21Russ: What fascinates me is that Ehrlich, either for personal, psychological reasons or for deep held beliefs, still thinks he's right. Guest: Well, that's correct, about the population and resources issue. I think that he does still feel that he's right. Although I think he has also shifted to a concern about climate as a new fear. But I think that is right. And it's a bit of a frustration of mine. I have this frustration with both sides of the conversation here, which is again going back to where we started at the beginning. Which is the unwillingness or reluctance to hear the other side, to listen and to try to figure out how to develop what I view as a more complex and integrated world view that takes into account both the insights of Simon and the economists into the function of the economy, and also the insights of people like Ehrlich into the way we are transforming the planet, that we are having a broad-based, wide-ranging impact on the planet. Russ: Now, both men had considerable influence on public policy and on political debate. Let's start with Ehrlich. He and the environmental movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s had some tremendous policy successes. Guest: Well, I think that's right. One could attribute it to Ehrlich, but also to a much larger number of people. And most of his policy successes, to be more precise, weren't really centered on the population growth, resource scarcity. The policy successes of the environmental movement tended to focus more on air pollution, water pollution, land management questions about how to manage the national forests, toxics[?] and things like that. So they were actually in a much more pragmatic zone of activity rather than a big, broad question about the fate of humanity. And [?] Ehrlich actually came under some criticism from some more policy-oriented people about how can you come up with ways to solve the problem of air pollution with taxes and emissions credits and things like that when someone is predicting the apocalypse is about to happen? So there is an interesting question, I think, for historians to wrestle with about how did the more extreme perspectives of someone like Ehrlich contribute to the more pragmatic policy advances that were occurring in Congress and in the state legislatures. And so I think it's an open question about how those two things were related to each other. And also then, when one thinks about the reaction to the environmental legislation of the 1970s, how much of the reaction was to the pragmatic aspects of the legislation and how much of it was to the sweeping claims that people like Ehrlich were making about imminent doom and all of that. So when one thinks about the reaction, which was the real genesis of it? Russ: Talk about the principles of Jimmy Carter and the Carter Administration, and how they were buffeted by these political winds, sometimes with some success on their part but often leading to some really unpleasant political consequences for Carter--obviously in the 1980s election. So, talk about the Carter Administration and how Ronald Reagan opposed some of those ideas. Guest: Right. So, I see Carter and Reagan in some ways lining up, not exactly, but in some ways with the Ehrlich/Simon divide. And I sort of think that's interesting, too, because Ehrlich and Simon made their bet--the actual bet they made was in 1980, right around the time when the election was happening. So, that's striking. So, Carter was a real believer in Ehrlich's point of view, the threat of scarcity. He really put energy policy, the idea that we were going to run out of oil or that we risked that at the center of his Presidency as one of the main issues that he was grappling with. And so I think that he was trying to bring that sensibility of limits and the need to make due with less, learn to live with less, into his Presidency. With mixed success, obviously, many political challenges in trying to do that. Symbolically he did it as well, wearing his sweaters and long underwear and turning down the heat in the White House. There's a funny story I tell in the book about how he turned down the air conditioning in the White House, and the summer was so hot that some of the people would put their lamps next to the thermostats in their offices to try to give the impression that it was even hotter than it was to try to get the air conditioning to turn on. But symbolically and politically he embraced the Ehrlich view. Now, I should say, though, that again, this is a President who is at the center of many conflicting political pressures, and so, Carter also was a deregulator--and early deregulator, related to some of the different aspects of the economy, appointing Alfred Kahn to be head of the civilian aeronautics administration, try to deregulate the airlines. And so it's not such a hard, fast line. Carter I guess is a complex political individual, like I say. But Reagan is interesting in response. When he announced for President, he denounced people like Ehrlich and also the authors of the study, Limits to Growth that had come out in 1972; he denounced anonymous experts who said we had to learn to live with less. On the campaign trail he responded to a report that came out at the end of the Carter Administration called "Global 2000," which predicted a wide variety of different kinds of disasters that were expected by the year 2000. And Reagan said, we don't need to worry about those things--and he kind of referenced Malthus and said we had pesticides and fertilizer and things like that, that allowed us to produce more food. So Reagan really lined up on the other side there, embracing Simon's type of views of population issues.
29:57Russ: So, let's move to the bet, the bet itself. It's quite an extraordinary moment in intellectual history, really. I don't know--there must be some precedent for it. But here are two public figures widely associated with extremely different views, and somehow they came to put their money where their mouth was. So how did that come about? Guest: It is a rare thing for that to happen. Usually people talk around each other or at each other, but to actually shake hands on a bet--they didn't actually shake hands, but to agree on the terms of a bet is unusual. So, it came about because Simon had--for much of his career, been sort of isolated, fairly marginal, worked at the U. of Illinois in Urbana. But he finally got out and published an article in Science and attacked Ehrlich and others as doomsayers. He criticized the tendency toward false bad news about the environment, about resources. Ehrlich responded, and then they continued this scholarly debate in another journal, Social Science Quarterly. And Simon finally, you know, said to Ehrlich: Put your money where your mouth is; let's make a bet. And so Ehrlich and two colleagues of his selected five metals and what they did was they selected a bundle of these five metals--you had $200 worth of each of them and they were nickel, tin, tungsten, chromium and copper. And the idea was they would wait for 10 years to see whether the prices of those metals had gone up or down, and the loser would pay the difference. So, say the bundle is worth $1000 in 1980 and if they'd gone up and doubled in price on average, then Simon would have had to pay Ehrlich $1000 in 1990; and if they had dropped to an average of $500 then Ehrlich and his group would owe Simon $500. So that was the essence of the bet. And then they-- Russ: It was corrected for inflation. Which is important. Guest: Uh, yes. Russ: How did they agree on how to do that? Do you know? Guest: How to do what? Russ: How to correct for inflation. So, the nominal prices--they were worth $1000, they bought $1000--they bought a mythical $1000 bundle of 5 metals, $200 of each one in 1980. If every price doubled--if every one of the metals doubled--they'd be worth $2000, it would cost $2000 to buy that bundle in 1990. But they had to correct for inflation. It wasn't the nominal increase in price that they bet on. They bet on the real increase. They must have-- Guest: Right. You know, I'm not actually sure what indexing they used to make the correction. It's a detail I was unable to uncover. Russ: No problem. So what happened, in fact? Guest: Well, over the course of the decade, when it came around to setting up the prices had fallen an average of 50% across--all of them had fallen and it averaged around 50%. And Ehrlich sent Simon a check for $576.07. Russ: In an envelope with no note. Guest: In an envelope with no note. That's right. Russ: No congratulations. Guest: No. He acknowledged the loss but wasn't going to go any further than that. I think that it's interesting to understand why did that happen. Why did Ehrlich lose? Russ: And we should mention that in that decade, the world population rose from 4.5 billion to 5.3 billion. A rather significant increase, which should have, in Ehrlich's mind, pushed up the demand for these. The supply had to be getting smaller, in his mind, because there was a fixed amount of it, so they would get more expensive. That was the logic of his argument. And it didn't happen. Guest: Right. So that was the logic. More people will lead to more demand, will lead to the prices going up; and so there would be a clear relationship between population and prices. And the decade showed that that clear relationship actually wasn't so clear. That there were other things going on. So I think it's interesting to look at what some of those were. Among them were developments in copper for instance where you had substitutions, the kind of thing Simon had talked about--substitutions for copper; you had satellites, fiber optic cables; you had developments in the mines related to labor; labor strikes that had boosted prices at the end of the 1970s being resolved. You had an international tin cartel that ultimately was broken and brought the prices, came collapsing, down--it was unable to be sustained. So there are a whole variety of both market and scientific developments, substitutions, and then new sources of supply that were brought on line. So all those things came into play. And it's important also to note here that they had made their bet at a historically high moment in commodity prices at the end of the 1970s, so it was a supremely poor time in retrospect to take Ehrlich's side in the bet. Russ: You have a fabulous chart in the book that shows the index of those 5 metals, from 1900 to 2008 or 2010. So, roughly a century of price behavior that we have data on. And I'm sure there's maybe some flaws about how that's measured--it's a challenge. But it's the best you can do, I assume. And what's fascinating about it is, as you point out, there are many decades between 1900 and 2010 where Ehrlich would have won the bet. Guest: Well, that's right. And if you were to go back and redo the bet from 1900 to 1910, 1901 to 1911, etc., so every 10-year period, Ehrlich actually would have won the bet 63% of the time. So it is another reminder, for people who favor Simon's point of view, that he wouldn't always have won this bet; and so it's a little misleading to take this one bet as a statement of a larger point. At the same time, even Ehrlich's--the 63% is a little misleading, too, because much of that increase was falling the plummeting of commodity prices after WWI and then just sort of a slow return to higher levels over the course of that time period after WWI. Russ: Yeah; there's a 60-year period, 1920-1980, where the prices of the 5 metals basically doubles. But what's striking to me--the reason I love the chart--is that Simon's view, if you wanted to caricature Simon's view, you'd say: Well, human ingenuity always makes stuff cheaper and cheaper. And if that were true, if that were the only thing that mattered, then you'd see a slow, steady decline over time for these 5 metals as we got better and better at getting them out of the ground despite the fact that their remaining amounts were getting smaller. That's not what you see. What you see is a wild, zigzagging dance with long periods of increase, steep plummets, etc., etc. But what's overwhelming, what's fascinating to me is that between 1900 and 2010 it was pretty much unchanged. Guest: Right. Russ: So after all that stuff, and after the world population--I don't know the numbers off the top of my head but by 2010 it's 7 billion, and I don't know what it was in 1900--maybe a billion, I don't know; much smaller--the world price stayed constant, roughly. That is, human ingenuity basically canceled out the fact that the remaining supply was harder and harder to get to, and was scarcer. Guest: Right. So I think that is the genesis[?] of our question about the future, the bet about whether these, which of these two competing elements will prevail going forward, or whether they will just remain some sort of level balance related to that. I think the other thing that's interesting looking at the chart of the prices rising and falling over this period is, it's just a reminder of how a bet over commodity prices is really not a very good proxy for anything. That, because there are so many factors that come to bear--whether it's labor strikes, war, market cartels that are trying to control the marketplace, a whole variety of different things that are shaping what's happening with commodity prices. So that there really isn't a linear relationship between population and the commodity prices. Which doesn't mean that population has no impact, but it also means that those two are not in lock step. They really don't work at all in lock step with each other.
39:12Russ: I want to come back to the point we talked about earlier, which is, while the future is always uncertain and you can be pessimistic about it or optimistic about it, both sides can make claims about history, arguing on their behalf. Having said that, the fundamental argument--and this may be just my bias, so I'm going to let you as a somewhat objective observer respond to this--the fundamental argument on the part of Ehrlich that human population growing against, versus a fixed amount of natural resources, that argument is simply wrong. It's logically wrong. It's easy for China and India to get more and more populous and be more and more prosperous. Now, it's possible that at some point there's going to be this--you have to argue there is some threshold effect. But there are a lot of people who argue what I would really call the simplistic version, which is: Well, the more population, the less there is for everybody. The more immigrants, that means fewer jobs for people. Or we're going to be poorer; we are going to have to share our wealth. And at the root of a lot of these views it seems to me--certainly the limits-to-growth argument--is some kind of zero-sum understanding of how prosperity is generated and shared and created. And I don't think there's anything defensible about that argument. But maybe it's my bias. Do you have any thoughts on that? Guest: Well, I think in the short term that it is wrong, in the sense that the idea that adding another 50 million people or 100 million people is going to lead to going off of a cliff that will then lead to scarcity and disaster. I think that that is mistaken. I think what's difficult about the way Ehrlich and Simon tended to argue about these issues is that they wanted to project out, as debaters, as intellectuals, into the infinite future and make claims that you never would--on Simon's part that you could have an almost infinite number of people on the planet. And I think that that gets into a much more complicated claim. I think the question about whether we are able to support the current billions of people or whether in Ehrlich's point of view that we have to reduce the population to a lower level--I argue in the book that this becomes much more of a question of values. It's about: How do we want to live on the planet and what does it take to sustain the number of people than we have, rather than kind of the either/or: Can we sustain them or not? Which is sort of the yes/no version of population growth and its relationship to resources, which I think is not the most helpful way to think about it. I think it's much more a question of: What does it take to sustain the larger number of people? And that does change our society and it changes our relationship with the planet, and it means that--and that involves our values. What kind of world do we want to live in? That's part of where I end up in the book--arguing that this is more of a question about social values about the kind of world we are trying to create and want to live in than it is about are we going to survive or are we not going to survive. Russ: How did Ehrlich and Simon's values differ? They did differ. They weren't just disagreeing about whether markets worked well or not. Guest: Well, I think that one difference had to do with how they thought about people and their role on the planet. And I think that Ehrlich has tended to have a view of humans as one of many creatures on earth and we have a claim to the resources of the earth but not the only claim, maybe. And he has a value of how to live on the planet that was one of greater balance, a harmony, or humility on the part of humans; that we would take maybe a lesser claim, that there would be more space for other creatures to be living. I think Simon's view was really about: people first. That the goal of society was to be able to support a larger number of people on the planet and that the measure of the success of society could be taken in the numbers of people who were able to live productive lives. And so he often would say that, for him, if he had to choose between the claims of nature, other creatures, and the claims of people, he would favor the claims of people. And so I think that's a very interesting question that there's not a right answer. These are ethical questions that are subject to debate and different values. Russ: I once saw Peter Raven give a speech--you mention Peter Raven in your book. When I heard him he had become the head of the St. Louis Botanical Garden, which is a lovely spot. As the Director, his views were more like Ehrlich's than Simon's. In his speech, at one point he said, if I remember him correctly, that it was immoral, or at least destructive for Americans to have more than 2 children because that third child, Americans consumed so many resources and were so wealthy that having a third child was putting pressure on the earth and on the earth's resources. And the implication, again if I'm being fair to him, was that there would be less for everyone else. And I asked him--I told him that I was from a family of 3 children and that my younger brother, who was an extraordinarily and delightful, entertaining--he could have been a criminal, I guess and then it would be a terrible argument for me to defend--but I said my younger brother is warm and loving and gives me a lot of pleasure; and I think his parents, and his friends; and he seems a fine fellow. Are you suggesting that somehow he's a net negative? Because he makes a good living in the United States? Which he does. And I don't remember what he said but I think that perspective, that there's a biological question there, does an extra American make the world a poorer place? And I think the answer is No. Some people think Yes. But there is more than that. There is this human side that some people give value to and others less so about this contribution that a person makes above and beyond his effect on the earth's carrying capacity. Guest: I think that encapsulates a real difference between Ehrlich and Simon right there. Ehrlich, a lot like Peter Raven, spoke a lot about the problem of Americans as super-consumers, that they were consuming 10, 20, maybe 50 times as much as someone born--this is 30 or 40 years ago--in India or China, so that controlling population growth in the United States would have more of an impact on lessening consumption demands than even overseas. And the one thing I would give him credit for that was at some level of taking responsibility for American consumption and not just projecting it out externally onto other countries, saying those people over there need to reduce their population. And so there was a sense of responsibility-taking for the American impact and American consumption. So I think there's something to be commended there in that. But I think there is, again, a debate there. Yeah. Simon was much more--he spoke about the idea that who is to say whether the next person is going to be a Michelangelo, an Einstein, or even just someone who was going to lead a happy, productive life. And so he favored the idea that each new life was a blessing. I think Ehrlich's view was more that the people who were alive, that they had claims; but the people who didn't yet exist or weren't being brought into existence, that we didn't have to feel that they had a claim to being brought into the world. That it was more--he would ask, How many people do we need to have a good society? What's the right number? That's again a very interesting ethical debate, and Ehrlich certainly I think contributed to shifting attitudes in the United States towards family size and how many people to bring into the world. In the 1960s and 1970s people were starting to have the idea that they would have smaller families. There were economic reasons why they were doing that, but also I think questions about how many people they thought they were entitled to bring into the world. I think that was a cultural change that took place. Russ: Coming back to my brother, who is a fine fellow-- Guest: I'm glad that your brother exists. Russ: Yeah. There may be some people who disagree, but as far as I know their number is small. Russ: What I was going to say is that I think Simon's point, which, just to make it clearer: he wasn't just making a point about resources. That my brother coming into the world made it poorer. It actually made it richer. The fact that he lives an American lifestyle or would live and has an American lifestyle isn't bad because he's producing a lot. It adds an extra brain. And that's the ultimate resource. To look at what's going on, the fact that he eats hamburgers and uses up grassland is the wrong--that doesn't tell the whole story. Guest: Right. And Ehrlich and I think many environmentalists would sort of disagree with that, Simon's vantage point there. And I think that that is part of looking at the global demand on resources and what's happening with the fisheries, what's happening in the clearing of the Amazon forest to produce beef. All the various ways in which our escalating consumption has led to tremendous pressures on the planet, with in some cases pretty devastating consequences for other species. And so I think that the Simon view that each individual coming into the United States contributing to the economy, expanding the economy, that may be true in some ways, that they are contributing and they are bringing new ideas and they are productive individuals, but at the same time the Ehrlich view, environmental view there is we have to look at what is the sum total of sustaining all these people. What is it doing to the planet? And there are lots of metrics that you could look at to say that the stresses, the strains that the planet is under right now are very substantial and there have been very significant consequences. Russ: It's a shame we can't interview the Earth and find out how she's feeling about it. How stressed she is. But, to give Ehrlich his due: there are ecosystems that are stressed by population, obviously; and Simon's response, I think, would be there's a problem of property rights. So, fisheries are despoiled and ruined because people don't own the oceans, and the challenge there is how do you find ways to overcome that, either voluntarily or through regulation, to reduce that kind of impact? In many other areas the effects are zero or even positive. So Ehrlich is certainly right that in many cases, when property rights don't exist, in particular, that human expansion is destructive in that way. And property rights are what preserve stewardship. It's a fascinating difference. Guest: Yeah. I think that's right. And Simon would certainly say, also in places where populations have grown very quickly and economies have not really been able to develop so rapidly to keep up in productivity, that he was say that the principle problem there is not one of population growth but is one that has to do with the rule of law of property rights and the ability of people to be productive, to keep what they earn and be able to invest and to build up the economy. And so, yes, certainly would be his explanation of those and of many environmental issues as well.
51:41Russ: So, I really enjoyed the book. I thought it was extremely well written. It peels back the curtain to remind us of some of the things, those of us who are old enough, to remember what happened in the 1970s and gives us some nice information about what was going on behind the scenes and intellectually. I really enjoyed the book. One thing that struck me about it is that it seemed eminently fair. But since I'm so sympathetic to Simon and unsympathetic to Ehrlich, I wonder if--maybe it's not fair. Maybe it's slanted toward Simon. Now, Simon won the bet--as you point out, we've already talked about it; there are a lot of decades he would have lost the bet. The bet itself is not inherently valuable. It's one data point. It has information but it doesn't end the discussion. And Ehrlich in the 1990s as you point out won lots of awards; was honored in many, many ways. He didn't slump off into obscurity because he lost the bet, because his predictions were all wrong. You talk about all that and you talk about it very even-handedly. Where do your sympathies lie? Where did they lie when you started the book? If you could talk about that. And why did you write this book? Guest: That's a great question. So, I come from an environmental background, in the sense that I've devoted much of my career to studying environmental questions, environmental problems; and I believe that they are serious, in terms that our relationship with other animals or creatures or how we live on the earth is part of how we define ourselves. And I think that--so I sympathize greatly with Ehrlich and his identification of many of the concerns and questions related to the pressures that we are putting on the planet. I think that--but I was looking, when I took on this project I was looking for a project that would make me think, that would challenge me. And so that was part of what I was interested in. And also was looking for trying to think through issues about how we relate our economic development and our impact on the environment, think about how those two things are related to each other. So this was a great story because the characters were so strong and dynamic, and it was a great opportunity for telling this tale. I think where I come out, and I try very hard to be balanced throughout the book and I guess what I was saying is I think we need to find a way to learn from both of these individuals. So I don't actually side entirely with one or the other. I think that the insights that Simon and the economists have had in terms of the power of markets and adaptability are ones that I think environmentalists need to take more seriously and figure out how to engage and incorporate into their thinking. At the same time, I think that scientists such as Ehrlich have identified many challenges. They have played a crucial role in society. If you think about questions related to nuclear fallout or the chlorofluorocarbons and the ozone, the way that they've identified these threats to society, that then we've been able to take action on. And I think that's also true around climate, and so I think that what we all--as opposed to these folks representing the two sides--what we all need to do is figure out how to bring these ideas together and develop a more integrated way of thinking about environmental and economic problems. Russ: Did your views get challenged, though? Did you find the experience of writing the book informative? Guest: I did. I did find it very challenging and very interesting in trying to hold it balanced. It was interesting though--because I come from a bit of an environmental background, in some ways I was probably harder on Ehrlich than I was on Simon because it's easier to kind of go back and be critical of folks who are more on your side. In some ways it's actually easier to be critical of folks on your own side or who share values with you than it is--because those are the ones who share values with you when you are trying to explain something you see. Whereas when--I think--my new project that I'm working on right now on the history of environmental law and environmental regulation is much more in the pragmatic zone of environmental laws of the 1970s and regulation and their relationship to air pollution and water pollution. And I think that's an area which in my view, that the environmental community has really contributed a tremendous amount to improving the quality of life for Americans and cleaning up the air and the water at much, much less cost than was feared by many critics of those regulations. So I think that that's another element of this story. Much of this debate between Ehrlich and Simon is at the conceptual level of the future of the planet. But when we are talking much more pragmatically about just the quality of the air that we are breathing, I think there are different conclusions that we can draw on these different perspectives and sides of the story. If that makes sense.
57:11Russ: Yeah. But I want to talk about academic life for a minute. One of the things that comes through in your book--it's a sub-theme--is trash-talking by intellectuals about each other. And Simon was much more the victim of that. And he didn't take it very well. It was very hard on him. I think a lot about this because I'm a minority viewpoint in the academic world as well. I'm a free market classical liberal, libertarian--whatever label you want to give it. And as it turns out most academics don't hold that view. So, people on "my side", people like Milton Friedman or Julian Simon, they take a lot of abuse. And you chronicle some of that. The other side--you can debate whether they are right or wrong, but they have the comfort of being sort of in the club. It's much more of a consensus that they are right; and you detail a number of debates that Simon was in where he was just savaged, and called awful names. And he got into the habit, maybe it came naturally to him, of calling them back. So, comment on that. And comment on whether you, having written what, to me, is a fairly even-handed book--how have your colleagues responded to it? Guest: Well, it's too early to give a final answer on the response to that. Although I will say that Ehrlich thought the book was too balanced. So I guess in that sense he thought I'd gone too far. Russ: Congratulations. Guest: I guess if both sides think it's too balanced then maybe I ended up in the right place. I think that--those are big, complicated questions around the politics of academia and also the broader society. I would actually make a larger statement going beyond the university, which is to say that I think that the problem that Ehrlich and Simon story represents, and I think that it's characteristic of our intellectual life in the country today, is the tendency of both sides in the polarized country to stay with their own and not listen very well to the viewpoints of the other side, and to see the genuine insights that exist in other ways of thinking about social phenomena, social problems. And that there is not much listening and there's too much talking going on, I guess; and not enough embracing of the real complexity of the problems that we face. And so I think that the group identity and the group support that both Ehrlich and Simon felt from both their sides of this argument is problematic. And we can see that--right now with the climate change discussion. It's a wide gulf between different viewpoints and a real inability to talk more pragmatically about how to address a major societal challenge. Russ: Yeah. The way that you phrase it reminds me as an economist that in general, it's much easier to get paid for talking than for listening. So it is an inherent problem in the intellectual space, that thoughtfulness-- Guest: I think that's right. Being a good listener doesn't get you on the Tonight Show. Russ: So let's close with this. You talk in the book and you are talking now about the value of nuance as opposed to, I would say, caricature. And both sides tend to--all these debates, in economics and environmental issues--they caricature their opponents. It's good for fund-raising; it's good for making you feel good about yourself and your team. Your book is in many ways a plea for something different. Do you have any optimism about that? I don't. I don't see that, I don't view this as, say, you point out, a particularly polarized time. I'm not sure it's any different than it's ever been. And in some ways your book kind of proves that. Right? The 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s--not that much learning going on from one side or the other. Whatever the issue is. What do you think about that? Guest: Well, I'm a teacher and academic so I guess I'm optimistic about the possibilities for human development and for learning. So I will remain optimistic about that. That even if it's only in a few places of opening minds to listen to each other and trying to develop more complex viewpoints that there will be opportunities for progress. And I think that there is a pragmatic middle in the United States and not sort of just ideologically but in terms of people who want to get things done and don't want to think about problems in extreme ways but are trying to figure out how to muddle through and figure out solutons. And so I think that--one way to look back at American history is to see the extreme voices that had been expressed and the difficult in conversation; and another way is to look at the way that the society has been able to evolve and adjust and adapt and address problems as they've arisen, and to muddle through. And I think that both of those things have some truth to them. So I put the book out there in an optimistic spirit and hope that people enjoy thinking about the questions that it raises.

Comments and Sharing



TWITTER: Follow Russ Roberts @EconTalker

COMMENTS (21 to date)
Scott Smaller writes:

Interesting cast. One point that I couldn't get out of my head, though, was that there's nothing wrong with people holding different viewpoints to the exclusion of others. Like division of labor, each pundit can "specialize" in a dogma and that's ok. Wealth comes from the coexistence, not homogenization, of ideas. They touched on this point. Doomsaying is part of process by which the market works to adjust allocation and find alternatives. There's nothing wrong with fear mongering on peak oil. That helps oil prices adjust and thereby avert the calamity. We know that the incentives are to polarize. One doesn't get on Carson 20 times by expounding nuance. Let's accept this is part of human nature and rejoice the abundance if provides.

BZ writes:

Econtalk has become so diverse over the years, though I still think of shows like this, namely an economics-related book and its author, as being a "normal" show and generally my favorite type.

mtipton writes:

Seems like the author tries to paint the “two sides” as dogmatic, extreme and not caring about the others point of view to pretty much
the same extent. In terms of hubris, and inflated sense of certainty in the face of complexity, you have to see that Paul Ehrlich’s position is incredibly more extreme, based on all the specific policy recommendations he made, like advocating for population controls, all the no caveat-out wrong predictions he made, also that he is a biologist diving into economic policy recommendations. Julian Simon was reacting to this extreme position being given so much attention and support, without much debate or different points of view being presented. Julian Simon was a much more humble and gentle guy when compared to Ehrlich, he was basically trying to present the economic perspective, and by doing so, basically point out that things are a bit more complicated than this guy makes it out to be, and that actually the history of humanity thus far shows the opposite relationship between population growth and resources, so far more people has meant more resources, and these are the reasons why even though common sense will tell us otherwise that has been the case, he was primarily dealing with what he considered to be relevant FACTS. This is a much softer position to take than, Ehrlich’s position of: “ I am the prophet of doom and I know for a fact that we are going to destroy the planet unless my enlightened policies are enacted, free efforts of billions of individuals won’t work in this case even though they have in the past.”

Paul Gessing writes:

Great podcast, very interesting.

I think you did miss an opportunity to challenge the author when he talked about Ehrlich and Simon and their valuing nature vs. humans. Interestingly, as you know, the human population has risen dramatically in recent years while wildlife, especially in the US, has continued to establish itself in places from which it was eradicated. I believe you had the author of that book on once as well. Anyway, I'm not convinced there is really a tradeoff overall.

Steve Sedio writes:

Those concerned with natural resources often look to government to manage them for the public good. Yet, would anyone take the bet that a government managed commodity would cost (total, not subsidized) less in the future?

The concern is the population would grow to the limit of available resources. A glitch in those resources, (combined with the positive feedback of hoarding, or war), would cause a collapse.

I do see that happening, not to the general population due to food, but in the population dependent on government supported (SSI / Medicare / Welfare / etc.)

There are several possible "glitches", limiting government income to below it's obligations.

Politicians, that have excelled at kicking the can down the road, have run out of options. They have borrowed as much as the can, interest on the debt will rise, and printing money only fuels inflation.

Special interests will replace any politician that tries to cut spending, before they reach the primaries. Tax payers can only vote for the lesser of two evils.

Tax payers won't vote for higher taxes. Even if they do, that won't raise federal income.

The poor, then the old, will lose out.

What am I missing that gives this story a happy ending?

A very disappointing discussion of the greater issues entailed in the Ehrlich / Simon bet. Russ has a poor understanding of our fossil fuel predicament, as well as the relationship between energy supplies and our ability to create and repay debt -- which contemporary finance rests on. The idea that the human race has consistently overcome problems of overshoot is both erroneous and silly. Ask the Romans, the Mesopotamians, the Maya, et cetera. The roughly 250-year-long industrial era has allowed for an exuberant expansion of population and activities. But, I would argue that it is historically anomalous, and we cannot conclude that these circumstances and conditions will persist. A collapse is, in fact, already underway, and naturally enough it is taking place in the financial system, which is the most fragile and abstract of all the major systems we depend on to run advanced economies. The collapse will proceed from finance to the other major systems, namely: agriculture, commerce, manufacturing, transportation, et cetera. Wait for it. Meanwhile, read Joseph Tainter and William Catton for a better discussion of these issues.
--James Howard Kunstler
Author of The Long Emergency, Too Much Magic, and other books

Ralph writes:

Great podcast.
I think the demonization of the doomsayers has to do not with their viewpoint, but with their insistence that public policy be crafted to meet their demands. An erronious/outlandish belief is no threat unless it becomes the basis of bad public policy.

Al Gore can make any movies and claims he chooses (and even win awards, like Leni Riefenstahl, Oliver Stone, and Michael Moore), but when blatant falsehoods become the public school curriculum and public funds are doled out to subsidize failures because of false assertions, there is a problem.

The Simon view required only that the market operate as unhindered as possible, which, by chance, occurred during that decade.

The Erlich alternative would have been government restraints similar to those we are threatened with currently, despite the lack of evidence for man-made global warming (nobody 'denies' that the climate changes, just the falsehood that man is the cause).

The wonder of 'the bet' is that they had the patience to wait a decade. If Erlich's claims had been the basis of public policy in that time period, as many wanted, he would have had a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are on the cusp of doing just that by executive fiat currently.

Note also that the Erlich/Simon exchange was, in fact, a public debate. For the last ten years we have been told "the debate is over" and one side virtually excluded from rebuttal until the internet provided an alternative venue for public debate.

Michael Byrnes writes:

Fantastic discussion.

One thing that struck me (and I was glad you touched on it in the interview) was that the bet itself was not very persuasive. As Sabin mentioned, there were many 10 year periods where Ehrlich would have won.

Losing the bet certainly did not change Ehrlich's views. One could write that off to Ehrlich's obstinacy, but in this case Simon's win was something of a fluke of timing (given that there were many similar periods in which Ehrlich would have won). As far as Ehrlich is concerned, I think his failure to "update" 40-some odd years after "Population Bomb" seems far more problematic than failing to do so after losing the bet with Simon.

And, of course, I highly doubt that Simon would have changed his views had he lost the bet. He could easily have lost and not considered the bet to be credible evidence that he was wrong. I think he was

I had always heard about this bet as some fantastic test of two opposing views - I first heard about it almost 20 years ago - but now I think that the bet itself was not a good test of anything.

Final thought: By agreeing to bet on the prices of metals, was Ehrlich sort of conceding Simon's point?

CG Dong writes:

If you compare people talking about their own ideas versus them talking about others' ideas, you can see how different responses you will get. This point is clear in the last ten minutes. Good move to pose those questions, Russ! I enjoy them very much!

Andy writes:

Another great podcast.

I especially like Russ highlighting the quantity of Ehrlich's appearances on The Tonight Show. Ehrlich and his doomsday predictions certainly got more than their 15 minutes of fame and attention (which is perhaps another limited global resource?) and we have been living with the results of all that media conditioning/programming ever since.

mtipton writes:

I second CG Dong's commendation on asking him the question of; Where the author's sympathies laid and if he learned or changed his mind about anything after researching for the book. Disclosing ideological bias is something that should be done much more with intellectuals in all public forums.

Douglas Rice writes:

"If both sides think its too balanced, maybe I ended up in the right place." Loved that quote. Gotta add this work to my list for sure!

Arnim Sauerbier writes:

It seems to me the enlightened understanding would incorporate elements of both Ehrlich and Simon's positions. Namely, that there are some resources (e.g. rainforests) that have hard limits (if you cut them all down and replace them with farmland, they are gone), while other resources are limited by economic factors (cost of extraction and processing, or recycling) which can be addressed by technological improvements.

George Reisman of Mises.org made the very important point that all things in the world become "resources" only by virtue of being transformed by man into an economically viable product. The iron on the surface of Mars may be plentiful but it is not an economic resource because there is currently no economically profitable way to mine it and bring it back to earth. But advances in technology bring more and more materials into reach for economic use. The earth itself is a huge solid mass of minerals and we have only scratched the surface in terms of mining.

Environmentalists make an equally important point that humans have a history of encroaching on "nature", eliminating habitats and even wiping out entire species. If humans decide to take the ethical stance that some amount of our planet remain "unspoiled", then government action limiting economic exploitation is necessary. If we don't care about preserving other species as a matter of policy and instead, as Reisman does, only see them for their economic value, then the market will allocate them to their highest valued ends or eliminate them.

Russ Roberts writes:

Arnim Sauerbier,

George Reisman's point is originally Julian Simon's I think. See this column by Don Boudreaux.

Bogwood writes:

No human is a net producer, that's an easy target and includes Russ's lovable brother. Brother consumes his 2400 calories as individual plus another 24000 daily exocalories as an American. So the rest of us share our ancient sunlight to support him. His own tribe should take care of him(less subsidies,more objective family planning).

Exponential growth means exponential loss of resources. Now it need not be the same exponent but you are fighting the 100-1000 times loss of energy between primary producers and humans. Remember we are guests on a microbial planet.

The issue is clearly resolved in Erlich's favor but like creationism cannot be put to rest. Try "Consequences of Oceanic Destruction"in recent Foreign Affairs.

David Zetland writes:

Russ, you need to go a little further on this:

But, to give Ehrlich his due: there are ecosystems that are stressed by population, obviously; and Simon's response, I think, would be there's a problem of property rights. So, fisheries are despoiled and ruined because people don't own the oceans, and the challenge there is how do you find ways to overcome that, either voluntarily or through regulation, to reduce that kind of impact? In many other areas the effects are zero or even positive. So Ehrlich is certainly right that in many cases, when property rights don't exist, in particular, that human expansion is destructive in that way. And property rights are what preserve stewardship. It's a fascinating difference.

Property rights are indeed the answer, but it is not possible to convert some common pool goods into private goods (e.g., fisheries with ITQs are fine). In those cases, you need to convert the goods into club goods, which implies a functioning club. That can work (a la Ostrom) or fail -- as we see with the seas, climate change, etc. The political failure/complexity of coming to agreement on those global commons means that we may do damage that Simons's ideas would be unable to prevent.

See these: http://www.env-econ.net/2008/05/was-julian-simo.html

http://www.aguanomics.com/2011/08/julian-simon-loses-bet.html

Kevin writes:

To my mind the most fascinating thing about this issue is that it is more religious than science. Ehrlich was trained as a scientist but is actually a prophet. Nothing he says has any more connection to science than a prophets predictions about the future. Simon plays the role of the scientific skeptic.

Why do I say Ehrlich is a prophet? Because neither he nor his followers have any change in behavior/beliefs when they are wrong. They grow more committed. He makes doomsday predictions that require us to repent and follow his path. That is a cultural religious position, not a scientific one. I guess his constantly being wrong makes him more a fallen prophet than a real one.

It is hard to know the future. Its easy to see some trend, make some abstractions, and plot forward and see catastrophe. It is completely reasonable that smart people want to try and warn the rest of us, but they are almost never correct so its hard to know who to listen to. Is climate science correct that the world is going to heat by a few C in the next 100 years? Maybe - science seems robust (although the fact that no model correctly predicted the great stalling of rise makes me wonder). But maybe not, and likely their prescriptions for what to do are the wrong ones or will not have the effect they imagine.

The whole story makes me want to be more and more skeptical about scientists making gloom and doom predictions, and especially policy recommendations. They are probably wrong about the future, and their policies are probably wrong as well.


Russ Roberts writes:

Bogwood,

If my brother creates a new source of energy or a more effective way to use existing energy, he is a net producer of energy. Of course energy is not the only thing I care about. Sunlight, by the way, is not zero-sum and is sustainable for a long long time. Not forever, of course. I guess that where Ehrlich has to be right.

A century of massive increases in population has not increased the price of the five metals in the bet's index. So it is a little more complicated than Ehrlich's vision. He may be right, but to build on Kevin's comment, some prophets are so far-seeing their predictions still haven't come true. The mass famine and starvation Ehrlich promised remains unfulfilled. Maybe, someday.

Timothy Shell writes:

Ehrlich was going around saying that that particular moment was historically significant, it was the Eve of Destruction, things were different this time, and we needed to take action right away.

Simon's claim was that, no, it was just another moment, another normal fluctuation.

So if you say Simon won the bet because of good timing, and hey, he would have lost some other times, then you miss a point. The bet was Simon's way of rebuking Ehrlich's specific predictions of that specific time.

Richard Fulmer writes:

Sabin seemed to believe that Ehrlich's doom saying, though unduly alarmist, was valuable because it led to action. While that may have been true, I think that in the long run "crying wolf" is counter-productive. It may well be that pumping tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is bad for the environment. It seem to me, however, that the global warming "alarmists" have so damaged their position by overstating their case, falsifying data, and shouting down contrary views, that the public at large no longer believes them. When asking taxpayers to fork over billions (perhaps trillions) of tax dollars to deal with a problem that will become manifest only in decades from now, maintaining trust is essential.

Jonathan Brown writes:

This was an interesting podcast although I surprised that Hayek did not come up. The Uses of Knowledge in Society would apply here -
Ehrlich and all of his antecedents and contemporaries and successors believe that they have the ability to ignore the knowledge of time and place - but as Hayek reminded us in that paper - they do not.

From Malthus to Ehrlich the constant discussion has been using projections to influence governmental policy (in Malthus' case it was about the poor law and at least according to some was based on faulty data).

I also think you guest underestimated Simon's flexibility. I am not sure what Professor Simon would think about the climate change debates today - but the base of his theory building was on the ultimate ingenuity of humans to think about how to solve real problems. His two books on the Ultimate Resource are a chronicle of thousands of years of history of those capabilities being applied to a wide range of problems.

I agree with Kevin that Ehrlich was a prophet - but I also believe he was a false prophet.

Comments for this podcast episode have been closed
Return to top