The 60s was a decade of social revolution and cold war: of first world prosperity and third world famine. A decade of almost poetic contradictions, which ended with the world seeing itself, for the first time, as a beautiful lonely marble of finite resources floating in an endless vacuum of space – with our one satellite, the moon, conquered and barren like the warning of a possible future.
This image, conjured up by author Paul Sabin in his scholarly and engaging book, The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future, beautifully sets the context of an academic dispute between two world-class thinkers that fundamentally changed the course of the environmental movement.
In the story, Sabin lays out how an issue as vast as the health of the planet divides along political lines: how two men, both rigorous academics, polarized the debate into optimism and pessimism, biology and economics, Democrats and Republican, scientists and skeptics.
Sabin writes lightly and with respect. He creates sympathetic portraits of two passionate intellectuals, both of whom argue logically about whether or not the world’s expanding population is good or bad for the planet. The result is a timely and well-considered explanation of how we’ve ended up in a debate about the existence and effects of climate change – and why it divides along political lines.
The eponymous bet of the title was about the prices for five metals. “But their wager stands for much, much more – our collective gamble on the future of humanity and the planet.” If that sounds like a boast, the author skillfully leads us through the story and satisfies that claim.
In 1968, Ehrlich published The Population Bomb in which he called for immediate and draconian population control. “Humans were like parasites on the environment; humanity risked extinction by destroying its host.” Simon, after investigating the numbers at length, took an economist’s perspective that “markets would successfully manage the depletion of resources by developing substitutes, moderating demand, and stimulating production.”
For a decade, their debate was carried out through academic journals, until in 1980, Simon challenged Ehrlich in Social Science Quarterly to a wager: whether or not the cost of chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten would increase in the next decade. Simon bet one thousand dollars that over 10 years they would not go up.
At the time, their bet resonated with the cultural clash occurring in the United States as a whole. It also captured the different paths Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan were taking in the 1980 election. Reagan had already denounced “estimates by unknown, unidentifiable experts who rewrite modern history … to convince us our high standard of living … is somehow selfish extravagance which we must renounce as we join in sharing scarcity.”
There are no plot spoilers in this review, but one result is plain – how the increasingly prominent debate over the cost of human progress has slipped into rhetorical ruts established in earlier debates over population growth and resource scarcity.
As environmentalists and skeptics divide over whether the planet requires our urgent attention, this book is a timely reminder of the events which established the paradigm. Perhaps world leaders can revisit “the bet” with a view to bringing consensus to the debate.
The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future is published by Yale University Press.
Author: Sheridan Jobbins is a journalist and screenwriter.
Image: Commuters queue outside a train station in Manila June 16, 2008. REUTERS/John Javellana