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The Battle of Two Hedgehogs

David Hurn/Magnum Photos

In 1980, the ecologist Paul Ehrlich entered into a dramatic bet with the economist Julian Simon. Insisting that population growth would produce scarcity, Ehrlich wagered that the prices of five specified metals would increase over the next decade. Insisting that innovation in methods of finding, extracting, and using the metals would increase supply, Simon bet that the prices of those metals would decrease. The two meant their bet to test a larger question: Is population growth a serious problem, particularly in its effects on available resources? Ehrlich thought yes; Simon thought no; and they agreed that the bet would help to establish who was right. For over three decades, observers have seen the Ehrlich-Simon bet as raising other questions as well: Are conservatives wrong to think that technological innovation and free markets are likely to solve our problems? Are liberals wrong to emphasize the importance of conservation and limits to growth? Are environmentalists full of nonsense?

As it happened, Simon won the bet. Because of his victory, he became a conservative hero. He died in 1998, but he continues to be invoked by countless people who celebrate innovation and growth and who denounce what they see as environmentalist hysteria (not least with respect to climate change, a problem that Simon himself dismissed). Since 2001, the Competitive Enterprise Institute has awarded an annual Julian L. Simon Award, celebrating Simon’s work “debunk[ing] the alarmist predictions of eco-doomsayers like Paul Ehrlich.”

Paul Sabin, a professor of history at Yale, regards the bet as historically important. The Bet makes a convincing case that the debate between Ehrlich and Simon illuminates central issues of its era. Sabin contends that Jimmy Carter’s conservation-centered approach to energy and the environment grew partly out of ideas that Ehrlich promoted, and that Ronald Reagan’s pro-growth approach was influenced by Simon. The two different orientations are very much with us today. With their contrasting narratives of looming environmental catastrophe and techno-optimism, they define important strands of the Democratic and Republican parties and indeed of American culture.

Paul Ehrlich was (and remains) a distinguished scientist, specializing in ecology. Much of his academic work involves butterflies. In 1968, he published a runaway best seller called The Population Bomb, which had twenty-two reprintings in its first three years. The first words of the book sounded the alarm: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over…. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Ehrlich warned of “famines of unbelievable proportions” occurring by 1975 and of “hundreds of millions of people” starving to death in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1969, Ehrlich published an essay called “Eco-Catastrophe!” in which he contended that the inevitable result of the imbalance between the rate of birth and the rate of death would be the “greatest cataclysm in the history of man.” In 1970, he predicted that Americans would be subjected to water rationing by 1974 and food rationing by the end of the decade, and contended that within ten or twenty years, all marine fishing might cease because of irreversible changes in the oceans. He claimed, “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” He raised the possibility that because of DDT and other pesticides, Americans’ life expectancy might fall to forty-two by 1980.

Notwithstanding the dire nature of his warnings, Ehrlich insisted that a great deal could be done to reduce the damage. He proposed that the United States should establish a powerful Bureau of Population and Environment, which “should be set up to determine the optimum population size for the United States and devise measures to establish it.” He noted that many of his colleagues favored “some sort of compulsory birth regulation,” including “temporary sterilants to water supplies or staple food,” but he dismissed that approach as impractical, and argued instead for “financial rewards and penalties designed to discourage reproduction.”

He endorsed luxury taxes on cribs, diapers, baby bottles, and baby foods, and he urged that the bureau should seek some method “to guarantee that first-born children were males” (because some couples are more likely to have more children if their first-born is female). Soon after publication of The Population Bomb, he helped to create a new organization, called Zero Population Growth, designed to promote public awareness and to address the problem. (Sabin notes, apparently without irony, that Ehlich and his colleagues “dreamed up Zero Population Growth after a game of squash in New Haven.”)

Ehrlich became a national celebrity. He was featured on prominent television programs, and his arguments about overpopulation attracted worldwide attention. On The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, he said that it was “already too late to avoid famines that will kill millions.” He appeared on Carson’s program at least twenty times, wrote a column for the Saturday Review, and contributed regularly to both Penthouse and Playboy. In 1970 alone, he appeared on two hundred television and radio shows (and also gave one hundred public lectures).

However apocalyptic his message, Ehrlich was entertaining, extroverted. passionate, gregarious, charming, and charismatic. A friend’s first impression was that Ehrlich was “funny as hell.” Despite his distinguished academic work, he claimed that in college, he majored in “liquor and women.” He reported, “I didn’t stand up one day and say, ‘My God, I’m going to get everybody to stop [fuck]ing.’ It’s sort of one thing led to another.” He liked to joke, “What do you call people who use the rhythm method? Parents.” He publicized his own vasectomy (and even included it in his byline for a 1970 article).

In Sabin’s telling, Ehrlich’s extraordinary popularity allowed him to arrive “where he wanted to be, on center stage, with a large and interested public audience.” In Ehrlich’s own words, “The book is giving me a lot of opportunity to shoot my mouth off over the public media, and I am determined to take full advantage of it.” He argued in favor of a “relaxed lifestyle, good friends, and a happy sex life” instead of fame and profit. But he did not appear indifferent to fame, and his own rhetoric was not exactly relaxed. He knew how to make enemies, describing some of his opponents as “clowns,” “morons,” and “idiots.”

Julian Simon was an obscure, introverted, socially awkward economist at the University of Illinois, Urbana, who struggled with serious depression for more than a decade. (In his own words, “I refrained from killing myself only because I believed that my children needed me, just as all children need their father.”) Simon was certain that Ehrlich was wrong. In his view, technological solutions could prevent scarcity and famines, even with large population increases. Having once been concerned about overpopulation himself, he had a convert’s zeal.

The conversion was inspired by what he saw as a kind of epiphany, which he experienced while remembering a moving speech by a Jewish chaplain over the dead on the battlefield at Iwo Jima. In that speech, the chaplain mourned the loss of potential human talent and promise. Simon recalled, “I thought: Have I gone crazy? What business do I have trying to help arrange it that fewer human beings will be born, each one of whom might be a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an Einstein—or simply a joy to his or her family and community, and a person who will enjoy life?”

Witnessing Ehrlich’s growing fame, Simon was simultaneously aghast and envious. As Sabin writes, “Here he was, sitting and grumbling alone in his living room, while the most beloved television host in the country regarded Paul Ehrlich, as Simon later complained, with ‘a look of stupefied admiration.’” Simon seethed. “What could I do? Go talk to five people? Here was a guy reaching a vast audience, leading this juggernaut of environmentalist hysteria, and I felt utterly helpless.”

In 1970, Simon agreed to give a little talk in Urbana, under the title “Science Does Not Show There Is Over-Population.” He argued that for the human race, population growth was a triumph, not a disaster. The talk received some local attention, and he was invited to speak to somewhat larger groups, which led him to develop his view in academic articles, where he emphasized the importance and the inevitability of technological innovation.

Simon argued that such innovation would increase both efficiency and supply, and that population growth could not be said to be harmful. In fact, larger populations could increase investment and make it easier to provide infrastructure. Human beings are not butterflies, and even if their population is growing rapidly, they can avoid shortages and increase abundance through the price system, which promotes investment, discovery, and invention. (This is, in a nutshell, the economist’s response to the ecologist.) But Simon’s small voice was drowned out by prominent work coming to the opposite conclusion, including the influential book The Limits to Growth, published by the Club of Rome in 1972, which sounded a loud alarm very much like Ehrlich’s.

Simon did not give up. Describing Ehrlich’s views as “morally abhorrent,” he insisted that “there are no ultimate limits” and that resources are becoming ever more abundant. He denounced “false statements of bad news” and claims about coming eco-catastrophes that were “downright misleading.” In 1981, he attacked Ehrlich in the Social Science Quarterly, asking, “How often does a prophet have to be wrong before we no longer believe that he or she is a true prophet?” Objecting that Ehrlich had repeatedly made false predictions without facing the consequences, he proposed that the two of them bet on the prices of raw materials. If Ehrlich was right to think that population growth would lead to scarcity, prices should increase. But if Simon was right to think that technological innovation would prevent scarcity, prices would go down. Simon went so far as allow Ehrlich to select the raw materials on which he would like to bet.

Ehrlich was delighted. He said that he would accept Simon’s “astonishing offer before other greedy people jump in.” Working with like-minded scientists, he chose five metals of considerable economic importance: chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. In the 1970s, the market prices of all five had increased significantly, at least in nominal terms, and Ehrlich was confident that the trend would continue. The bet was for $200 for each of the five metals, with the winner determined by whether the price increased, adjusting for inflation. The Chronicle of Higher Education called it “the scholarly wager of the decade.” (True, there wasn’t a lot of competition for that particular honor.)

Over the next decade, Ehrlich and Simon continued their respective crusades. Ehrlich became a prominent and persistent critic of the Reagan administration. The once-obscure Simon became a national figure and a hero to the right. Appointed as a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, he moved to the University of Maryland, where he hoped “to try to sell some views on public policies.” To that end, he attacked the United Nations Fund for Population Activities as hopelessly biased, and he warned darkly that the “population lobby” was using the issue of abortion to cover its real concern, which was population control. Two articles about him appeared in The Washington Post, with the second carrying the title, “The Heretic Becomes Respectable.” He was featured on national television, appearing on The MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour and Firing Line (hosted by William F. Buckley Jr.).

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