the terrible ending of the bet

The Bet is a very informative book by Paul Sabin. Sabin, an environmentalist, has nicely documented the history of the environmentalist doomsday prophets (e.g. Paul Ehrlich) and the prophets of plenty (e.g. Julian Simon). He does this through the events surrounding the famous Ehrlich-Simon bet, a bet in which Simon allowed Ehrlich to pick five commodities and they would track if those resources became more expensive over time or cheaper. Ehrlich was predicting a near apocalypse but failed to win a bet on just a price increase.

The book, written by an environmentalist, details how the prophets of plenty were correct. All the doomsday predictions about population, war, famine, and mass death were all wrong (and spectacularly wrong). Life expectancy, standard of living, and access to food has blossomed along with unprecedented growth in the population. The book also documents how Ehrlich remained unapologetic even after being shown spectacularly wrong. Ehrlich even continued to call his opponents names like “morons” and “idiots”. A careful reader gets a sense that Ehrlich (although intelligent) is extremely delusional.

Julian Simon, demonized his entire life, was correct about his premises. The book does not even show one example of him being wrong. It does criticize him for being too optimistic.

But then the book comes to a conclusion not supported by the entirety of the book: that the truth lies in the middle. Neither Simon or Ehrlich were correct, and they each made contributions. Not since I have read Nonzero have I encountered a book with a conclusion more alien from the text. Sabin writes:

Despite their respective strengths, both Ehrlich and Simon got carried away in their battle… Their unwillingness to concede anything in their often-vitriolic debate exacerbated critical weaknesses in each of their arguments.

And then the author criticizes those who use the failed wild predictions to ignore other predictions:

Julian Simon and other critics of environmentalism, however, have taken far too much comfort from extravagant and flawed predictions of scarcity and doom… His optimism paradoxically inhibited the kinds of problem-solving market and technological innovations that produced the improvements that he celebrated.

The author, it seems, has failed to read his own book. There is good reason to ignore and mock the doomsday prophets. And if he doesn’t think so, the proper response is “do you want to bet”? From Bryan Caplan:

At the same time, I don’t see the climate change bet as very interesting. Why not bet on world per-capita GDP and life expectancy in 2057 (or 2107) conditional on doing nothing new about carbon emissions. Does anyone want to bet $100 at even odds that per-capita GDP in fifty years won’t be at least 50% higher, and life expectancy 3 years longer, even if we take the do-nothing-more path?

Is the do-nothing-more path too improbable, or too hard to define? OK, then why not just make the unconditional bet that in 2057, per-capita world GDP will be at least 100% higher, and life expectancy 5 years longer? $100 at even odds? If that bet isn’t attractive too you, it doesn’t mean that doing something about climate change isn’t worthwhile, but it does mean that, all things considered, the future is pretty bright.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Economics, History, Science, Standard of Living. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to the terrible ending of the bet

  1. Interesting. What is your opinion on the Chinese rate of the length of life declining in the cities because of the environmental polution? If nothing will be done, this seems to be a degeneration of life-expectancy rate.

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