“Sadly, in Paul Sabin’s account, the main villain turns out to be the morally upstanding Simon who, fifteen years after his death, is blamed for creating policy logjams and fueling uncivil discourse. In the meantime, Paul Ehrlich keeps issuing ‘important warnings’ such as a recent prediction that humans might soon have to resort to cannibalism to survive the ecological apocalypse.”
The background and story of the famous bet between catastrophist biologist Paul R. Ehrlich and optimist economist Julian L. Simon was first told in some detail over twenty-five years ago by journalist John Tierney in the pages of the New York Times Magazine. The bet, ostensibly on the future prices of five commercially important metals – copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten – provided a platform upon which two opposing worldviews, that of Ehrlich’s depletionist catastrophism and Julian’s optimistic resourceship, confronted each other.
As is well known to readers of this blog, Ehrlich predicted that a growing population would rapidly deplete the world’s finite supply of valuable resources, causing their price to rise. Simon countered that, in a market economy, a shrinking supply would drive the increasing demand towards higher resource prices. In addition, it would also drive technological change towards a more efficient use of scarce resources, the discovery of new deposits, and the development of substitutes, resulting in both a stabilized supply of the resource, and a long term decrease in its price.
Although the basic outline of this story has been re-told many times since, to our knowledge no account delved significantly deeper than Tierney’s original article until the recent publication of The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future (Yale University Press, 2013) by the Yale historian and environmental studies professor Paul Sabin.
Many reviewers have praised Sabin for his professed even-handedness and willingness to acknowledge his green moral certainties are now more elusive thanks to his reading of Simon.
Vincent Geloso and I, however, are less enthusiastic about the merits of Sabin’s work. In a two-part review essay published in the latest issue of the journal New Perspectives on Political Economy we address the main flaws of Sabin’s book, namely its (surprising) lack of historical perspective, its oversimplification of Simon’s theoretical framework, and its futile quest to find a middle ground between mutually exclusive positions.
As we see it, the two scientists differed not only in their outlook but also in their methods and overall ethos. Simon let the historical record and data challenge his preconceptions and followed the evidence wherever it led him. Time and again, his position was proven to interpret and predict reality better than others as his hypotheses were supported by facts. He abided by the academic rules of conduct, never stooping to ad hominem arguments or personal attacks.
Throughout his life, he advocated personal liberty and individual agency. Despite his strong moral standing and his innovative scholarship, he received very few academic accolades. Paul Ehrlich, on the other hand, adopted early-on a theoretical framework disproved time and again by the facts.
Despite this, he continued his adherence to crude Malthusianism, never acknowledging the evidence countering his views in his work. When he engaged his critics at all, it was typically by insulting them through third parties. And while Ehrlich shouldn’t be blamed for policies adopted before he burst onto the public stage, he recommended or endorsed courses of action resulting in much human suffering.
An example of his support of a harmful policy was his role in promoting mass sterilization in the developing world as a means of population control. In spite of all this, his popular success and academic standing were, and remain, truly remarkable.
Sadly, in Sabin’s account the main villain turns out to be the morally upstanding Simon who, fifteen years after his death, is blamed for creating policy logjams and fueling uncivil discourse. In the meantime, Paul Ehrlich keeps issuing “important warnings” such as a recent prediction that humans might soon have to resort to cannibalism to survive the ecological apocalypse.
Unlike Simon, however, Ehrlich does not appear to have to be accountable for his alarmist predictions, neither to Sabin, who should be keeping score, nor to his followers. In the end, though, Sabin must know he could never have been afforded the luxury of providing dubious rationales for Paul Ehrlich’s vision at Simon’s expense if he had not been living in Julian Simon’s world.
Pierre Desrochers is Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Toronto Mississauga. His research and teaching activities focus primarily on economic development, technological innovation, entrepreneurship, international trade, business-environment and business-university interactions. His other areas of expertise include intellectual property and urban and housing policy.
His previous posts at MasterResource can be found here.