[Marxism] Paul Erlich-Julian Simon debate seen in context

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jan 24 07:35:47 MST 2014

(Ehrlich was wrong in the details but right in the big picture. Julian 
Simon was the patron saint of Living Marxism.)

The Chronicle of Higher Education Review	
January 20, 2014
By Erle C. Ellis

The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth's Future
By Paul Sabin (Yale University Press)

You must place your bet. The stakes are high. On one side, catastrophe; 
we humans are rapidly overwhelming the earth's limited resources. On the 
other, utopia; human ingenuity will enable us to thrive beyond any 
natural limits.

If you view the world in this way, you're probably familiar with Paul 
Ehrlich and Julian Simon's 1980 bet on the future price of five metals. 
If not, you should be. As Paul Sabin, an associate professor of history 
and American studies at Yale University, demonstrates in The Bet (Yale), 
their wager has been at the center of decades of debate about the 
environment. The Bet tells the story of how Ehrlich and Simon helped 
divide public opinion, stalemating action on key issues like climate change.

Proposed by Simon, an economist at the University of Illinois at 
Urbana-Champaign, the wager aimed to determine, once and for all, 
whether the demands of a growing population would lead to scarcity. The 
prices of five metals would serve as a proxy for natural resources. With 
characteristic confidence, Ehrlich, at Stanford, accepted the deal, 
described by The Chronicle in 1981 as "the scholarly wager of the decade."

The Bet is a joy to read; Sabin weaves a vivid historical narrative rich 
with classic characters—Johnson, Nixon, the Club of Rome, Barry 
Commoner, Carter, Reagan. In a parable of political polarization, Sabin 
reveals how environmental concerns that largely united left and right in 
the early 1970s (Nixon founded the EPA) became political touchstones 
used to demonize and divide opponents. As conservatives increasingly 
derided environmental regulation as anathema to their core values of 
economic growth, liberals linked environmental concerns to their own 
political agenda, which is why the Simon-Ehrlich bet has been the source 
of endless argument. As a value-laden political debate—and debate it 
clearly is—there can be no end to it.

Concerns about environmental limits are ancient—an active subject for 
archaeologists and environmental historians. Yet Ehrlich and colleagues, 
including John Holdren, now director of the Office of Science and 
Technology Policy under President Obama, were among the first to depict 
such limits on a global scale. Claiming justification directly from 
science, especially population biology—his area of expertise—Ehrlich 
went to war against population growth. And war it was. Ehrlich did not 
hesitate to attack those who did not share his views, for example 
calling the governor of Arizona a "clown" and "moron" for his 
environmental views in the early 1970s. (Age hasn't tempered Ehrlich. 
Just this June, he called those smiling at a U.N. ceremony to mark a 
population of seven billion people on earth "idiots.")

Politics were always central to Ehrlich's advocacy. Here he is in 1968: 
"Any aid to an underdeveloped country which does not include population 
control aid is entirely wasted." By the 70s, Ehrlich had become a 
national figure, appearing regularly on The Tonight Show and achieving 
remarkable political successes. The rise of environmental regulation, 
including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, owes much 
to his efforts.

Simon joined the fight as an underdog. His early views on population 
differed little from Ehrlich's, but in 1970, in a self-described 
epiphany, Simon embraced population growth as an essential good for 
society. He began to glorify human ingenuity and declared no limits to 
the benefits of population growth. In 1983, in direct opposition to the 
"Global 2000" report commissioned by Jimmy Carter and published in 1980, 
Simon argued that "the world in 2000 will be less crowded (though more 
populated), less polluted, more stable ecologically, and less vulnerable 
to resource supply disruption than the world we live in now."

Simon took the fight to Ehrlich, with the bet and a popular book, The 
Ultimate Resource (1981). Simon's views found a champion in Ronald 
Reagan. By the year of the bet, the left/right divide on the environment 
had become an entrenched feature of our politics, polarizing views on 
nuclear versus solar energy, immigration, family planning, and 
regulation. Dialogue on many of these issues remains a challenge—with 
the focus more on determining sides than on balancing costs and benefits.

In 1990, Simon received a letter from Ehrlich with a check for $576.07 
covering the gap in metals price. There was no note. The triumph of 
Simon, who died in 1998, became a rallying point for conservatives. "The 
Malthusian era can be said to have ended officially," crowed one 
conservative of Simon's victory. Ehrlich was denounced by some as a 
"charlatan." Yet he would have won the bet in most decades—1980s metal 
prices were atypical. Ehrlich later claimed to have been "schnookered" 
into the bet, and he and colleagues attempted to negotiate terms with 
Simon for a new wager. This was not successful—perhaps a metaphor for 
the growing depths of the divide.

Human populations are racing toward a projected midcentury peak of nine 
to 10 billion. Nearly every indicator of human well-being has moved 
steadily upward since the 1970s. Yet what is the meaning of Simon's 
victory? Will humanity benefit from warming our planet to levels never 
before experienced by our species? Is there some good reason to acidify 
the earth's oceans with carbon emissions? Are lives improved by species 
extinctions? On the other hand, are environmental limits the best 
rationale for family planning? Must all economic and technological 
development inevitably damage the environment?

Sabin's final words illuminate: "Neither biology nor economics can 
substitute for the deeper ethical question: What kind of world do we 
desire?" The Bet is both a cautionary tale and a call to order. Sound 
decisions result not from diatribe but from dialogue. Without taking 
sides, Sabin's narrative exposes how scholarly debates can become 
societal stalemates.

By framing the future as a stark choice between hard environmental 
limits and unlimited human possibility, Ehrlich and Simon did us a 
disservice. Values, trade-offs, and compromises are at the heart of 
societal solutions. Polemics may excite and instruct, but collegial 
debate, negotiation, and respect for a diversity of perspectives are 
prerequisites for solving the perpetual problems of humans and their 

Erle C. Ellis is an associate professor of geography and environmental 
systems at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

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