Culture
June 2, 2014

Review: When worldviews collide

 A 1980 wager over the price of five metals was really a bet over scarcity versus abundance. Keith Kloor looks back on a  banner decade for environmentalism.

The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and our gamble over Earth’s future
Paul Sabin, Yale University Press (2013), RRP $35.75 (Hardback)

If you pay attention to climate change politics you know that the most strident voices dominate the discourse. Worse, these voices come from the polar ends of the spectrum. So those who think the world is on the verge of irreversible climate “tipping points” battle those who believe global warming is a big hoax – and scientists wonder why the public tunes out. 

What’s even more depressing is that this is a replay of a previous environmental debate that also turned ugly and divisive. To a large degree, that fractious argument was encapsulated by a long-running battle between two legendary antagonists. But really it was a clash between two very different worldviews. Such is the story of Yale historian Paul Saban’s The Bet.

Before we get to the famous wager at the heart of the book, some background. 

The 1970s was a banner decade for environmentalism. In the US, President Richard Nixon caught the wave of eco-consciousness leading up to the first Earth Day in 1970 and backed a raft of landmark environmental laws protecting the country’s air, water and endangered species. In the halls of Congress, there was unanimous bipartisan concern for the planet. Greens had clout and the world listened attentively. 

Enter stage left Paul Ehrlich, a sharp-tongued biologist from Stanford University, whose blunt personality and sweeping apocalyptic rhetoric made him one of the leading figures of the contemporary movement. He had shot to fame in 1968 with The Population Bomb, a treatise warning that overpopulation would lead to global famines, plague and possibly nuclear war. 

During the 1970s, Ehrlich churned out magazine columns and books on humanity’s looming “eco-cide”. His dark predictions were catnip for a Vietnam War-era society in tumult. (In 1969 he wrote: “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”) Ehrlich was a mainstay on college campuses and a favoured guest on Johnny Carson’s popular late night TV show.

Many in the green community also believed that industrial pollution, over-exploitation of natural resources and overpopulation was imperilling civilisation. World events, such as the 1973 Arab oil embargo, heightened ecological anxieties. Around this time, a group of scientists published a hugely influential tract (based on a computer model) called Limits to Growth, which amplified Ehrlich’s doomsday warnings. The modellers said that overconsumption and overpopulation were pushing the earth to its breaking point. A Newsweek cover story entitled “Running out of Everything” captured the Zeitgeist. The solution, according to Ehrlich and eco-minded scientists and activists, was population control and a reduction in economic growth.

Prominent mainstream economists challenged the accuracy of the Limits to Growth computer model, saying that it didn’t account for market forces or new technologies. One economist in particular went even further, arguing that human ingenuity meant there were no natural limits to the Earth’s resources. Enter stage right Julian Simon, an academic from the University of Illinois, who in the 1970s and 1980s would become Ehrlich’s greatest nemesis. The two of them locked horns in a war of words and ideas that Sabin chronicles meticulously in The Bet.

The book’s title refers to a 1980 wager over the price of five metals – chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. Ehrlich thought the prices of each would rise over the next decade, while Simon believed prices would end up lower. As University of Colorado political scientist Roger Pielke Jr noted last year in an essay, both men “believed that the bet was not really about commodities, but rather, about two competing views of the world and our role in it – they were betting on scarcity versus abundance”.

Simon won the bet on all five commodities. But he was also lucky. He would have lost if the bet had a longer duration or if it had been made in several other decades of the 20th century. Regardless, the outcome was a public relations triumph for Simon and free market conservatives who had come to see parallels between Ehrlich’s incessant claims of “eco-catastrophe” and new dire warnings about climate change.

Sabin refers to a widely quoted passage from a 1992 essay by political scientist Aaron Wildavsky: “Global warming is the mother of all environmental scares.”

A crowd gathers in New York for the first Earth Day conservation awareness celebration on 22 April, 1970. Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Since then, the evidence for human-caused climate change has become overwhelming, but the legacy of Ehrlich’s hyperbolic rhetoric and failed predictions has been hard to live down, Sabin argues. “Yet Julian Simon’s faith in human ingenuity and adaptability seemed to know no bounds,” he chides. “His utopian vision often resembled an inversion of Ehrlich’s dystopian future; both served as distractions from practical policies and actions.”

Both men would also remain cocksure and insultingly dismissive of each other. In that sense, and in their absolutist framing of the environmental debate, they were mirror images. Simon died in 1998 of a heart attack and Ehrlich is still warning of imminent eco-collapse.

Sabin’s takeaway is unstinting: “The most pernicious current reflection of Ehrlich and Simon’s clash is the ongoing political impasse over climate change. Inaccurate past claims about population growth and resource scarcity — such as Ehrlich’s forecast for massive famines due to food scarcity in the 1970s and 1980s — undermined the credibility of scientists and environmentalists advocating action on climate.” 

That doesn’t make for a legitimate excuse for continued climate denial and inaction, but as Shakespeare said, “What’s past is prologue.”

Keith Kloor is a senior editor at COSMOS magazine, based in New York.