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Pierre Desrochers: THE BET Turns 25 (Julian Simon scholar at work)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- October 6, 2015

“Ehrlich and other green activists also remained oblivious to the fact that the correlation between standards of living and pollution level is overwhelmingly in the direction of ‘richer is cleaner’.”

“Population catastrophists, however, constantly remind us of Hegel’s alleged observation that ‘If theory and facts disagree, so much the worse for the facts’.”

Pierre Desrochers, associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto-Mississauga, is a leading classical liberal scholar in the fields of economic development, technological innovation, business/environment interaction, energy policy, and food policy. An expert on the works and worldview of Julian Simon (1932–98), Desrochers has contributed a number of features at MasterResource that are listed at the end of this post.

Most recently, Professor Desrochers celebrated the 25th anniversary of THE BET, the most famous wager in the history of economics between optimist/realist Simon and neo-Malthusian doomsayer Paul Ehrlich, with two opinion-page editorials. Desrochers and Vincent Geloso are currently coauthoring a major review of Paul Saban’s book, THE BET: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future (Yale University Press: 2013). [1]

Some quotations selected by Professor Desrochers from his two recent op-ed’s follow.

No Limits to Growth.” National Post (Financial Post) (September 29, 2015) (with Vincent Geloso)

“Like many doomsayers before him, [Ehrlich] argued that in a world of finite resources, the biggest slices of pie get cut at the least-crowded table and that a reduced population would leave each individual a greater share of scarce resources. Because low hanging fruits are always picked first, resources would become more difficult to access and more expensive over time. Increased population and consumption would unavoidably result in greater environmental degradation.”

“Proponents of what is sometimes labeled ‘resourceship’ observed that a population that engages in trade will deliver greater material abundance per capita than more self-sufficient individuals and communities. (In other words, one hundred people who specialize in what they do best and trade with each other will produce and consume far more than one hundred times more what one individual would on his own.)

The more human brains, the greater the likelihood of new beneficial advances. So while the cream of mineral deposits would always be skimmed first, advancing technologies insured that profitable resources would be created out of previously valueless, perhaps even inaccessible deposits. Other things being equal, a smaller population would never achieve the standards of living delivered by a greater number of brains and producers.

And in a functioning market economy, a rise in the price of a commodity will always spontaneously motivate economic actors to look for more of it, use it more efficiently and develop substitutes.”

“Truth be told, if Simon believed that the scarcity of any given commodity could be measured by “a price that has persistently risen,” he was well aware of the cyclical nature of commodity markets and that the odds were on his side rather than certain. He would ideally have bet on better indicators of material well-being such the relative weight of any commodity in one’s budget or the price of final goods in terms of real wages.

For instance, an American worker earning the average wage in 1920 would have required approximately an hour of work each to pay for a pound of bacon, a pound of butter or a dozen oranges. His counterpart in 2015, however, only requires about a fifth of that time for each commodity. By these more sensible indicators, Ehrlich would have been soundly defeated on virtually every commodity over any time period, yet it is doubtful he would have taken Simon’s bait.”

“Ehrlich and other green activists also remained oblivious to the fact that the correlation between standards of living and pollution level is overwhelmingly in the direction of “richer is cleaner.” Suffice it to say that in 1990 the much richer United States had become increasingly wealthier and cleaner over time while centrally planned economies like the Soviet Union had stagnated or even regressed while becoming increasingly polluted. This is because what ultimately matters in terms of “sustainability” is not so much the number of people or their wealth, but the kind of institutions they live in and the technologies they use and keep on developing.”

The Simon-Ehrlich Wager 25 Years On. As the famous environmentalist bet showed, Malthusians are always wrong.” Spiked! (September 29, 2015)

“In time, the ‘Malthusian trap’ came to describe the belief that population growth is absolutely limited by finite resources; that because there is only so much to share, a smaller population will be inherently better off; that technological or social innovations can at best delay the unsustainable character of population growth; and that because of projected future ills a range of – sometimes drastic – preventive policy interventions are justified in the present….

Along the way, however, dissenting voices questioned the severity of the ‘population problem’ and made the case that free individuals were not only mouths to feed, but also arms to work and brains to develop new and better ways of doing things. The more people around, they argued, the more likely something good was going to happen. As the physicist Robert Zubrin asks, who between Louis Pasteur or Thomas Edison should not have been born in order to improve the lot of mankind? Besides, because new ideas are born out of the combination of existing ideas, processes and things, the supply of new beneficial technologies will not only never run out, but actually expand exponentially.”

“Looking back, [Simon’s] ‘astonishing offer’ was arguably the clever ploy of a serious poker player with a background in marketing and statistical analysis who sought to draw attention to a perspective then shunned by most environmentally minded academics, activists and public intellectuals. Indeed, prominent critics of overpopulation rhetoric were then mostly limited to old-fashioned Marxists who, following (mostly) Engel’s writings, believed that scientific advances would overcome natural limits; the Vatican whose doctrine opposed population control on (mostly) theological grounds; and a few free-market economists and think-tank analysts who also believed in scientific advances, but guided by the price system rather than central planning.”

“Population catastrophists, however, constantly remind us of Hegel’s alleged observation that ‘If theory and facts disagree, so much the worse for the facts’.”

[1] “Snatching the Wrong Conclusions from the Jaws of Defeat: A Resourceship Perspective on Paul Sabin’s The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future.” (in process)


Posts by/on Pierre Desrochers at MasterResource:

One Comment for “Pierre Desrochers: THE BET Turns 25 (Julian Simon scholar at work)”

  1. Ray  

    Everything Paul Ehrlich predicted has turned out to be wrong, yet the man is still respected by the environmentalist instead of being a laughing stock.


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