The Battle of Two Hedgehogs

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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 …

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