The Bet: Our Gamble for Earth's Future | Paul Sabin | Talks at Google

CHRIS: It’s my distinct pleasure to welcome Professor Paul Sabin who is an environmental and energy historian at Yale It’s my distinct pleasure to welcome him to Google so please join me in giving him a round of applause [APPLAUSE] PAUL SABIN: Thanks, Chris And thanks for having me here at Google Americans love history, but I think in this business and technology setting, it’s worth asking what history is good for And I want to emphasize a couple of things in starting out around that One is just the way that history can help us to appreciate complexity and the uncertainty of the past and also the way in which it can help us to develop a way that we can cultivate empathy for the people whose lives we’re studying and whose decisions and choices we’re trying to understand I think these two different kinds of understanding can help us cultivate our listening, can foster a critical sense of humility, and also they can raise questions for us to ask about the future More generally, I think that history can offer a sense of context and perspective that’s necessary for the challenging social choices that I believe we have to make in charting our future on the planet Now, science and technology and economics obviously all have a critical role to play in this future But I think that they don’t have all the answers And they don’t necessarily even prepare us to know what questions to ask So that’s where I think history can play a critical role So I want to circle back to these themes at the close of my talk, to talk a little bit about the interesting and complex ways in which the story that I’m going to share today has been interpreted and the way people have reacted to– and let me just say I guess as a hint that listening and humility are not the keywords that come to mind in thinking about that interpretation So today I want to tell you a story based on my recent book, “The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future.” And my goal is really to provide you with some perspective on the growing partisanship that has come to engulf our debate over environmental issues in the United States And this is really to help us also think more about risks of environmental catastrophe and resource scarcity on the one hand and also the promise of technological innovation and human ingenuity and progress, human advancement into the future So this is a story about sharply disagreeing viewpoints But as I’ll say at the end, I think the challenge for us really is to try to find ways to reconcile these different viewpoints and learn from them Now, we weren’t always as divided as we are today Just this week, you had the Senate Democrats pulling an all nighter to talk about climate issues, and on the other side, you have many Republicans who are questioning whether climate change is caused by humans or to what extent it’s changing and opposing many of the initiatives that EPA– a job-killing agency it’s been called So we weren’t always as divided as this, and I think it’s worth going back to remember some of the bipartisanship with which the environmental legislation of the 1970s was passed The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, all of these were passed with bipartisan support in Congress And Richard Nixon actually articulated this bipartisan attitude in his 1970 state of the union And I wanted to share, if I can here, a little video from him in which he talks about how a concern for the environment was something that should be beyond party and beyond faction So this is Richard Nixon talking in the 1970s state of the union [VIDEO PLAYBACK] -The great question to the ’70s is, shall we surrender to our surroundings or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water? [APPLAUSE] Restoring nature to it’s natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions It has become a common cause of all the people of this country It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later Clean air, clean water, open spaces, these should once again– [END VIDEO PLAYBACK] PAUL SABIN: So this is Nixon with a unifying message, bringing people together around the environment And he didn’t necessarily stay in this point of view for long

He became a little disillusioned with how well the environmental cause was serving him politically And he wasn’t necessarily a passionate environmentalist Here’s a picture of him walking on the beach He was trying to be Kennedy-esque walking on the beach in Southern California but with his wing tip shoes and his dress pants But still, even Nixon was bringing people together around the environment And so that was in the early 1970s, but by the 1980s, you had a gradually growing division, greater partisanship around the environment And you can see that in these League of Conservation scores by chamber and party You can see kind of a gradually opening gulf between the two parties on the votes that they were cataloging in Congress for this index So what are the explanations for this growing partisanship around the environment? There are several common explanations Some have explained it in part as the sifting out of the two parties by region and according to ideology, where the Southern Democrats moved over to the Republican Party and the northern Republicans moved over to the Democrat and kind of took their environmental affiliations with them Others have explained it as more of a business backlash, with business interests fighting regulation and pushing their political allies to contest regulatory initiatives And still others have identified a conservative intellectual revolution with think tanks and funding for public intellectuals who would then advance criticism of environmental regulation I think all of these different explanations have some truth to them And scholars have examined them in depth But at the same time, I think that these interpretations don’t say the whole story And what I want to explore today is the genuine clash that occurred between different viewpoints in the 1970s and 1980s because these interpretations really explain the growing partisanship primarily as just a political and economic development, that people are representing their political and economic interest And they tend not to look more closely at the intellectual conflicts and what I see as some of the weaknesses and flaws of the environmental movement during this period So I think that’s a mistake And in my book, “The Bet,” I revisit the rise of the environmental movement since the 1960s and the backlash and the debates that it engendered And so I approach this story through a smaller story that I think allows entry into the larger debates happening in environmental politics And this was a story about the biologist Paul Ehrlich, here on your left, author of the 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” and his antagonist Julian Simon on the right, who wrote the book “The Ultimate Resource.” And these two men made an actual bet, which is a rare thing in intellectual disagreements They came together around a bet over metal prices in 1980 And it was a simple bet over five metals, chromium, copper, tin, nickel, and tungsten It was a bundle of those metals worth a total of $1,000 And, essentially, if the prices rose, Simon would pay the difference and if the prices fell, Ehrlich and his colleagues would pay And it was going to be a 10 year bet Now, it was a simple bet about metal prices, but really the bet stood for much more It was really a proxy for their competing visions of the future On Ehrlich’s side, an apocalyptic vision that was fearful about human excess and over population And on Simon’s side, optimistic and bullish about the potential for human progress Ehrlich thought that rising metal prices would signify that population growth caused resource scarcity And that would bolster his call for government-led population control and limits on consumption Simon argued that markets and new technology would drive prices down And this would prove that society did not face resource constraints and that human welfare, in fact, was going to steadily improve And so the outcome of the small bet about metal prices would have these tremendous implications for what direction the planet and humanity was headed in It would either bolster Ehrlich’s call for limits on population growth and his warnings of an environmental calamity Or it would fuel Simon’s attack on what he called Ehrlich’s “unfounded threats of doom.” So in the book I try, in the spirit of the empathy that I talked about and the complexity, to explore these two men and their different lives and how they arrived at the positions that they took And I want to talk a little bit about that because Ehrlich and Simon actually are very interesting characters who shared much in common Actually, in some ways, that was what drove them, I think, to such sharp disagreement They both were born in 1932 to Jewish families that

were based originally in the cities, in Philadelphia and in Newark, but then moved out into the suburbs just before they each were around 10 years old And they actually grew up about three, five miles apart from each other in Maplewood, and Millburn, New Jersey Ehrlich was a child of the suburbs in the sense that he loved chasing butterflies through the fields and he was impassioned about the threat of development to the suburban landscape He became early on concerned about the danger of DDT, the pesticide being sprayed that was endangering the food sources that he wanted to feed to his butterflies He was a lover of nature At one point, he had so many aquariums and other types of collections in his bedroom that he had to move out and move up into the attic to make room for them So Ehrlich’s study of butterflies, which he’s continued as a professor up the road here at Stanford– this is the Bay Checkerspot butterfly– really provided him with a model for thinking about human population growth because he studied the rise and fall of butterfly populations in relationship to the abundance and scarcity of resources And so, in seeing that butterfly populations might grow and then they might outstrip the resources that were available and then they would crash in this tremendous collapse– and then he said this was the same thing that was going to happen to people And so he predicted the greatest cataclysm in the history of man was coming, this population collapse that would be caused by food shortages, disease outbreaks, maybe thermonuclear war And he described that the population had grown to the extent– he said we’ve had most of what he called the outbreak of population and now all that we’re waiting for is what’s going to come in the crash So kind of basically modeling onto human populations the same developments as with butterflies and other creatures And he wasn’t alone in this There were many biologists in the post World War Ii period who were thinking about animal populations in this way Ehrlich was so concerned about the threat of population growth that he came to embrace the idea of triage, that some countries might be so far gone, so headed directly towards catastrophe and unable to feed themselves that they should actually be cut off from food aid And he put countries like India in this category, saying the US should no longer send them food aid because quote, “dispassionate analysis indicates that the unbalance between food and population is hopeless.” And he argued that the optimum human worldwide population was somewhere between 600 million and 1.5 billion people, so significantly less than what even the population was then around 1968, 1970 Now, Ehrlich was a very popular, charismatic speaker with a biting wit, very entertaining Here he is speaking to students around Earth Day at Iowa State University He spoke to audiences of thousands And in 1970, he really became famous after Johnny Carson invited him onto “The Tonight Show,” became a big fan of his, loved having him on the show and had him actually more than 20 times onto “The Tonight Show” and really shared a lot of his views on population and environmental issues and gave him that platform That really brought Ehrlich to much greater fame Now, Julian Simon, as I said, also grew up in suburban New Jersey in his teenage years But his formative years were really in Newark And he was impressed in the early age the hustle and bustle of immigrant life And he loved the diversity of people and the excitement of being in the city, and he always, after he moved out into the suburbs– he regretted the loss of that community that he had felt when he had been in Newark And I think that carried through in his appreciation of cities and people and more people bringing more excitement and diversity to the world He took a slightly more circuitous path into academia Here he is as a Boy Scout as a young boy He served in the Navy for a few years also, giving him an impression of what the world was like And what he saw later would describe some of the more rundown areas of the world where his Navy ship would stop and thinking about how they had improved over time, that you didn’t just see the beautiful parts of the world but there were these other places that he had seen and saw the improvements that took place there Now, Simon early on actually shared Ehrlich’s view about the threat of population growth And he got into studying marketing and business And he was hired by I think it was the Population Council to develop marketing plans for family planning in India and in other places And so he was originally trying to figure out how to address the problem of population growth

But then he came to believe that actually population growth wasn’t a problem And in this, he sort of linked up with some other economists at the time, people like Simon Kuznets and Richard Easterlin And they had examined historical patterns of economic growth and correlated them with population growth and decided that there wasn’t actually evidence that population growth was diminishing national economic growth And you also people like the Danish agricultural economist Ester Boserup, who found that population growth actually increased innovation in agriculture and spurred saving And so rather than agriculture setting limits for population, which was the idea that there was only so much that agriculture produced She actually found that it was sort of the reverse It was the density and the demand of population that set limits on agriculture and that the forms of agriculture were determined, in part, by population size and density and that it would stimulate new kinds of agricultural practices Now in 1980, Simon broke out into the public arena with a article in “Science” in which he attacked Ehrlich and other doom-sayers for what he said were unfounded– the oversupply of false bad news And he soon found common cause with libertarians and conservatives and enjoyed a lot of attention as a regular contributor to op-ed pages with these kinds of arguments– that life on Earth is improving, that these myths of overpopulation “Why Do We Think Babies Create Poverty?” So these are all part of a campaign to change the way that people thought about population growth, and he then extended this as well to the problem of immigration And this is where actually– these characters, these are individual intellectuals navigating the currents of American politics– in which he sort of fell out with many American conservatives because Simon actually was quite pro-immigration, believing that immigrants were an asset to the American economy and would stimulate economic growth They took much less than they contributed And so he was an early advocate for immigration So actually there was recently the suggestion that Detroit should create a special economic zone and invite immigrants to come in who would invest to create jobs in the city This was the kind of thing that Simon was in favor of And actually just as an aside, you may never have heard of Julian Simon before today, but one of the things that he’s more known for– or you would know him for– is that he was one of the main advocates for the idea of an auction for overbooking on airlines, that you should have a market So if you have ever been bumped from a flight and gotten a free flight or some other benefit as a result, that was one of the ideas that Julian Simon was an advocate for So if Simon sort of fell out with conservatives over his position on immigration, Ehrlich also had sort of a complicated relationship to liberals And he came under attack for being racist, being anti-immigrant, those types of questions about what was his position And actually during the 1970s, he spent a fair amount of his time trying to defend himself and to make the case that there was a rational basis for his ideas about population control and also control of immigration So these are two books that he published during the ’70s One, “The Race Bomb,” which basically said that race is, from a biological perspective, not a meaningful category And so we shouldn’t think about racial differences And “The Golden Door,” which analyzed Mexican-American relations and made the case that we shouldn’t blame Mexican immigrants but at the same time there was still a rational basis or rational reason for wanting to limit immigration So this was a lot of his efforts was trying to navigate those complicated politics Now, I wanted to give you a bit of a taste of Ehrlich and Simon If it will work, I have a little video here to share just to give you a bit of a sense of their rhetorical styles and some of their arguments So this is Ehrlich in 1971, I believe, on an Australian television show called “Monday Conference.” [VIDEO PLAYBACK] -I wonder if we could begin at the end in a way One of the things that Dr. Ehrlich is saying is that things are so bad that people should not be allowed to have as many children as they may now want What do we think of this? Does anyone have a comment on that or– -While I’m very intrigued by Dr. Ehrlich’s concern for the environment, for our future, I’m quite appalled at the “1984” style of society that he postulates in his books He would seem to cut right across inalienable human rights and demand that people be legalized to produce children He would tend to demand that we limit our families and, if people are not willing to do this by propaganda– propaganda principally aimed at the impoverished people and at the dark races–

he would introduce legal sanctions Having introduced legal sanctions, what legal penalties for those who disobey the law of the scientists, compulsory abortion or imprisonment? Well, let me first point out that you have misrepresented my views somewhat, although you have come close in other areas Like, one of the things that we have to face very clearly is the question, if we do not solve this problem by finding ways to change people’s attitudes, what kinds of sanctions might you impose that do not bear differentially on the poor or the black or the nations in the world that are underdeveloped and so on? And this is an area where the questions are very difficult And, actually, in many ways, the best answer from the point of view of democracy seems to be an across-the-board limitation of family size to two children unless the second birth is a multiple birth Now, you say these are inalienable rights A favorite sport of people is to make up inalienable rights to fit their own preconceptions I say there’s an inalienable right to have grandchildren that you’ll abrogate if you have too many children There’s an inalienable right to have clean air, not to breathe poisons There’s an inalienable right to have natural beauty, to have enough food, and so on, and so forth now there was a time when people thought it was an inalienable right to have the number of spouses that they chose to have And certainly no government could intervene on that, but I believe the Australian government intervenes on that inalienable right and restricts you to one spouse at a time and throws you probably right into jail if you don’t So I suspect that could easily happen with the number of children you have too [END VIDEO PLAYBACK] PAUL SABIN: So in addition to the marvelous sideburns that he is displaying here, I think there are another couple of interesting elements of this You can see here the rhetoric We have to take action now or disaster will come later And sort of a grandiose vision of that– you’re going to abrogate your right to have grandchildren if we don’t take action now So it’s a very stark portrayal You can see, again, this issue of him trying to develop a rational basis for population control, defending against the criticism that this might be racist or inequitable and trying to create a fair way to have population control And I think another element there that you can see here is just the sharp rhetorical style, the humor, the ability to take convey the argument that is quite compelling as a presentation style Now, here Ehrlich is sporting sideburns Here is Julian Simon sporting his own flourish He liked to wear these plastic devil horns sometimes when he gave talks It was kind of a provocation of his audience You portray me as the devil with these terrible ideas that I have and so I’m going to stick it in your face by wearing these devil horns I think it was also maybe a bit of a defensive mechanism that he used to protect himself But here he is laying out his arguments for why he thinks we don’t face a threat of resource scarcity and why he thinks things are just going to keep on getting better [VIDEO PLAYBACK] -Every trend in material human welfare has been getting better rather than worse And as to the future, you ask, would I bet on it? The answer is, yes I will bet on it I make this offer to any prominent doom-sayer You pick any measure of material human welfare, you pick any place in the world, any country, you pick any year in the future, starting, say, 10 years from now so there’s time for things to happen, and I’m prepared to bet that that dimension that you pick, that aspect of human welfare you pick, will show improvement relative to now and not deterioration Now, before we go on, let me give you the theory of how this could possibly happen in a nutshell And I’ll repeat this theory later on The theory goes like this You have more people, you have higher income, and that increases the demand for resources Increased demand for resources means higher prices, either actual or expected Now that’s as far as the Malthusian theory goes, but the economy doesn’t stop there What happens is that these expected higher prices represent opportunity They represent opportunity to businesses Businesses say, aha, higher prices Greater opportunities for profit I’ll get to work and see if I can find some way to increase my supply or find substitutes or whatever It also represents opportunity for scientists, who say, here’s a chance for me to make a discovery that will help humanity, maybe even get a Nobel Prize for it So that’s the theory But one more bit So people go to work looking for ways to fill this opportunity Most of them fail They don’t find solutions to the problem, but they pay the price themselves Eventually, some people do succeed in finding solutions to these problems

And the extraordinary part is that the solutions that they find leave us better off than if the problem had not arisen in the first place [END VIDEO PLAYBACK] PAUL SABIN: So this is Simon’s response to Ehrlich And some of this is some basic economic theory, ideas about technological substitution, innovation, the spur to investment, the search for new resources You also can see, in Simon, he has some of the same rhetorical style as Ehrlich in the sense of a kind of combativeness I’ll bet you I’ll challenge you A similar aggressiveness And also a tendency towards, not just that things are generally getting better, but an extreme version of that in which every single thing is going to be getting better all across society So that’s a portrayal of Simon And now I want to turn now to what I think is an interesting element of the story So they make the bet in 1980 And that’s actually only one of the bets that’s in my book The second bet is the other bet that the nation was making in 1980 which was the choice between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election I think in interesting ways, the arguments between Ehrlich and Simon actually line up in striking ways with the division between Carter and Reagan Now, Carter really brought the Ehrlich perspective into the White House in a lot of ways He embraced the idea of conservation and limits Here he is walking, after his inauguration, walking the distance to the White House And here installing the solar panels on a roof in the White House And he talked about how, even our great nation has its recognized limits More is not necessarily better And he closely shared a lot of the key philosophical elements, I think, of the 1970s environmental sensibility He had a passion for nature as a child in Georgia He had fished and hunted in the streams And, as governor, he had protected a lot of open space and tired to coordinate regional planning to be more rational and more conserving He had a moral righteousness that Ehrlich also has, a moral righteousness about the need to address human excess and human wastefulness And he had a conviction that government planning was the proper way to respond and to address social and environmental planners And Carter actually got his start with regional planning initiatives in Georgia, and he brought this idea of planning to the White House He approached these problems as a planner So in this particular, he was focused on the problem of energy in the late 1970s And he worried about how the Americans were grossly wasting our energy resources and other materials as though their supply was infinite But we must face the prospect of changing our basic ways of living And he expressed this in similar terms to Ehrlich, saying, “this change will either be made in our own initiative in a planned or rational way So that’s Ehrlich’s idea that if you can take action now, then we can avoid problems in the future “Or changes will inevitably,” he said, “be forced on us with chaos and suffering by the inexorable laws of nature,” And so I think this aligns in a lot of ways with Ehrlich’s ideas And here, just to give you a taste of Carter’s take, this is him talking about energy in April ’77, April 1977 speech addressed to the nation on a proposed energy policy [VIDEO PLAYBACK] -The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly It’s a problem that we will not be able to solve in the next few years And it’s likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and our grandchildren We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us Two days from now, I will present to the Congress my energy proposals Its members will be my partners and they have already given me a great deal of valuable advice Many of these proposals will be unpopular Some will cause you to put up with inconveniences and to make sacrifices The most important thing about these proposals is that the alternative may be a national catastrophe Further delay can affect our strength and our power as a nation Our decision about energy will test the character of the American people and the ability of the president and the Congress to govern this nation This difficult effort will be the moral equivalent of war [END VIDEO PLAYBACK] PAUL SABIN: So this is Carter warning about national catastrophe He worried that the US was going to run out

of oil reserves in the 1980s and that disaster was right around the corner And this was sort of– the image that Carter presented to the country was one of limits, of the need for sacrifice, and the need to address this with planning And that was something that Ronald Reagan strongly objected to and came in resisting that, running for office on the promise of American greatness And he to a significant extent, I think, sang to the tune of Julian Simon The idea that resource limits weren’t real, that they wouldn’t constrain America’s future And this announcement for his candidacy for the White House– I think it’s striking how much he focused in terms of the rationale for his candidacy on the predictions that the United States faced limits and doom and constraints And I wanted to share with you this clip from his announcement of the candidacy in 1979 [VIDEO PLAYBACK] -Now there are those in our land today, however, who would have us believe that the United States, like other great civilizations of the past, has reached the zenith of its power, that we’re weak and fearful, reduced to bickering with each other and no longer possessed of the will to cope with our problems Much of this talk has come from leaders who claim that our problems are too difficult to handle We’re supposed to meekly accept their failures as the most which can humanly be done They tell us we must learn to live with less and teach our children that their lives will be less full and prosperous than ours have been, that the America of the coming years will be a place where, because of our past excesses, it will be impossible to dream and make those dreams come true I don’t believe that, and I don’t believe you do either That’s why I’m seeking the presidency I cannot and will not stand by and see this great country destroy itself Our leaders attempt to blame their failures on circumstances beyond their control, on false estimates by unknown unidentifiable experts who rewrite modern history in an attempt to convince us our high standard of living– the result of thrift and hard work– is somehow selfish extravagance which we must renounce as we join in sharing scarcity [END VIDEO PLAYBACK] PAUL SABIN: Now, Reagan doesn’t specify who these anonymous experts are, but I would argue that he’s referring to people like Paul Ehrlich and also the authors of the 1972 book “The Limits to Growth” who had run these computer models of resources and the economy and population and said that– in a similar story to Ehrlich’s– that we were going to have a population overshoot and then a collapse more or less right around now or in another decade or so in the 21st century So Reagan came in and he used this is new idea about how we didn’t face fundamental limits or scarcity as a rationale, a justification, for regulatory relief He set up a vice presidential commission on regulatory relief and instructed the Office of Management and Budget to apply new tests to try to do what David Stockman, the head of the budget office, said was a regulatory ventilation, was the language But the idea was really to try to reversal a lot of the regulations that had been passed in the ’70s And so the bipartisanship era of environmental policy was truly over at this point The environmental groups attacked Reagan and I think the partisanship that we have come to see really settled in quite fully And it centered in some ways I think on the questions that were at the heart of the Ehrlich and Simon bet which is, does the US, does the planet, face an environmental crisis? Were we running out of resources and compelled to conserve? And what were the natural limits of American growth? So in October 1990, Julian Simon, having moved to Maryland, picked up his mail and opened up and there was a sheet of metal prices in there with a check for $576.07 And there was no note, but it was clear the check was from Paul Ehrlich to settle the bet on the metals The metals fallen, on average, by around 50%, so Simon prevailing across the board And it’s interesting to think about why that turned out to be the case In part, it was the collapse of oil prices after 1979, but you also had all these different kinds of everyday market forces which were the very kinds of things that Simon and other economists had talked about, the substitution of new technologies like fiber

optic cables and satellites for copper wires, the breakup of the tin cartel, which had propped up tin prices And when it collapsed, the prices fell through the floor You had new sources of supply that were brought on because higher prices stimulated people to go out to search for new mines You had the break up of labor conflicts that had sent prices higher in the late ’70s, and then when those conflicts were resolved, prices went down So in all these different ways, you had these everyday market forces, the kinds of things that Simon had talked about But even more generally than the prices of metal– the thing to note is the worldwide population had grown by 800 million during this period, from a from 4.5 to 5.3 billion people, to date the largest increase over a decade And yet the metal prices had still fallen More broadly, in thinking about the bet– so the bet was a proxy for a larger bet, which is, what was going to be the fate of humanity? Measures of human health and human wealth also have increased over time during that time period and on up until the present time as well I don’t if any of you have ever seen Hans Roslings interesting videos about human history in four minutes He has this great video in which he explains the improvements in health and wealth over the last couple hundred years So at first glance, the results of the Ehrlich Simon bet seem to suggest a simple story line There’s a clear winner and a clear loser And the bet itself quickly became a symbolic weapon in battles between conservatives and liberals over environmental policy, saying, look, Simon won this bet so environmentalists are wrong about this and everything else And so this is the reason for opposing all different kinds of regulation And so is it a symbol of its symbolic value The Competitive Enterprise Institute, for instance, today awards a Julian Simon award for someone who is contributing to our appreciation of the powers of human ingenuity and innovation And the award is a leaf– I’m not sure what the main part of the leaf is made of– but the veins of the leaf are the five metals from the Ehrlich Simon bet so it’s sort of just the symbolic power of the bet itself But I think that story of Simon wins, Ehrlich loses is too simple an interpretation of this bet and of the larger clash between Ehrlich and Simon Because while measures of human welfare have improved in recent decades, the planet’s ecosystems are also under more stress than ever before You have global temperatures rising, fish stocks being depleted And the quest to meet the resource demands to avoid facing scarcity have pushed us into more and more risky practices, from blowing up the mountains of Appalachia in mountaintop removal mining or going out into deep water oil drilling leading to the disastrous spill that took place in the Gulf, a whole variety of different challenges– risks that we’re taking in order to avoid the scarcity that Ehrlich like was warning of Ehrlich and his allies have insisted that the bet doesn’t prove anything He says Julian Simon is like the guy who jumps off the Empire State Building and says how great everything is as he passes the 10th floor of the building going down So Simon’s actual victory of the bet also has come under attack because economists have gone back and they have charted the prices of metals going back to 1900 And they found that actually if you were to run this bet in 1900 to 1910, 1901 to 1911, Ehrlich actually would have won more times than he would have lost So the idea that Simon’s victory between 1980 1990 symbolizes that prices of resources are always going to go down, that’s actually not borne out over the course of this history But this data, though, also, I think, is complicated because it doesn’t show either a clear rise or a clear drop over the period of time And, in fact, most of the reasons why Ehrlich would have won over this time period is the recovery from the tremendous collapse in commodity prices after World War I and then, eventually, the recovery of those prices I think what it suggests most of all is how unreliable commodity prices are as a proxy for trying to assess either the well being of humanity or the state of the planet’s ecosystems So instead of being a simple morality tale, I think that the story of Ehrlich and Simon’s bet reveals limitations on both sides of the environmental debate

And I think the stark framing that both men chose has made a productive conversation about environmental problems even more difficult And rather than choose between these competing perspectives, what I think that we need to do is to wrestle with the tensions and the uncertainties that they raise and to try to gain from the insights that come from both the economic side and also the insights of the biologists So I wanted to close with a few lessons that I think each side of this conversation might take away One of the main lessons for environmentalists from the bet, I think, is the power of human adaptability and creativity So environmentalists have often been prone to these kinds of pessimistic predictions about the terrible catastrophe there’s right around the corner if we don’t take action That has been the rhetoric of many like Ehrlich since 1960s or you could say it even goes back further to people like Malthus much earlier But I think that this clearly has not been the case in recent times And I think that the environmental community has to figure out how to wrestle with that contradiction of the disaster not having come yet And what does that mean for how we think about environmental problems? And these sweeping apocalyptic pronouncements themselves also carry risks because they make it more difficult to achieve pragmatic policy making If you’re warning of the end of civilization, it makes it very hard to come up with a pragmatic solution around emissions trading, around pollution credits, for instance, things like that And I think that the dire rhetoric also makes it very difficult for the followers of people like Ehrlich to be willing to accept compromise and to be willing to– it creates unrealistic expectations of what policies are going to accomplish in a short period of time The second inside I think for the environmental side of this debate is the way in which the debate itself– overpopulation growth and resource scarcity– has a legacy and it matters Because a lot of the skepticism towards climate change that you see today I think is fueled in part by the legacy of these past debates over resource scarcity and population growth And people say, look, Ehrlich was wrong about the predictions “The Limits of Growth,” they were wrong They said we were going to run out of all these things by all these previous dates We didn’t run out of oil in the 1980s Pollution’s gotten better rather than worse All these different ways– predictions have not come true as were expected or were predicted And so therefore we’re now going to doubt these new predictions So there’s a lack of credibility And I think that, for environmentalists to understand the people who they call climate deniers, I think it’s useful to wrestle with this history, these debates over and kind of to think a little bit more– again the empathy that I was talking about the beginning of the talk, of trying to understand why you would see such skepticism around the science And I’m not saying that’s the only reason for skepticism There are many factors going on but I believe that wrestling with this history of this debate is really– has an impact on our debate today So now for conservative followers of Julian Simon, I think there are also important lessons, one of which is just that past success is not a guarantee of future success And I think this often is not adequately appreciated, that our ability to adapt to greater numbers of people, our ability to find new energy resources, those don’t necessarily mean that we are going to be able to find solutions to the threat of climate change And so just to assume that just because we solved something in the past doesn’t mean we’re going to solve it in the future And I think that extends to the second insight which is that climate change is different from population growth These aren’t the same problems And so to say that we addressed the growth of population, we were able to meet the needs of growing population doesn’t necessarily have similar implications for climate change Climate change is a very specific problem We’re putting too much of too many chemicals in the atmosphere In my view, it’s a pollution problem Whereas population growth is a very diffuse issue There’s many different ways to feed people, to meet their energy needs, to adapt to the diffuse pressures that more people put on land and resources And those are in the marketplace because people are out there trying to consume things and they’re making demands and the marketplace responds to those demands And so the forces that Julian Simon talked about,

these market forces, can respond to population growth Whereas climate change is, by very definition, it’s outside of the marketplace or it has been today And until it is brought within the marketplace, those kinds of forces that Simon’s followers love to tout aren’t really being brought to bear on the problem And that brings me to the third insight I think that should be shared with Simon’s followers which is that you can’t solve problems unless you acknowledge them So Julian Simon in that video I shared made the case that problems rise up, we create solutions to those problems, and then we’re better off than before But that’s only if you recognize that a problem exists Because if you don’t recognize that a problem like climate change exists, then you’re not bringing any of these forces to bear on solving the problem And all of the science and technology and innovation that may very well be able to address the problem of climate change are not being brought into play And so I think that this is one of the fundamental limitations, I think, of the Simon perspective, which is that the very optimism about the future itself becomes an inhibiting the bringing about of that future because an obstacle to innovation So now I want to return to my first themes about listening and empathy and complexity and questions, the kinds of learning I think that history has to offer Because I think too often, on both sides of this debate, both sides of this debate have not been willing to listen to each other Ehrlich has bluntly stated, including recently in discussion of the bet in an interview, that there’s nothing to learn from this story other than that it’s a bad idea to make bets It was ill advised but he says that it doesn’t necessarily signify anything about what’s happening in the future And on the other hand, Simon’s followers act as if winning this 10 year bet signifies you’re always going to win the bet There will never be any problems We’re going to solve all the problems And just because we solved things in the past, no problems are going to come up that we can’t address So I think both of these positions are simplistic and wrong And that rather than embrace either Ehrlich or Simon, what we need to do is try to learn from their insights, learn from both the tremendous capacity for human adaptability and innovation, which Simon I think give us insights into, and also the fragility of the planet and the ways in which humans are transforming the planet in more and more intense ways and try to figure out how do we reconcile and incorporate these different things into a coherent vision of the future That’s really I believe what history has to offer in part is this capacity for synthesis And I think that, ultimately, neither biology nor economics have the definitive answers because, if you take the logic of these two men, humans might survive along the lines of Simon and we might even prosper economically and in our health while we also transform the planet in many of the ways that Ehrlich has predicted So one of the questions may be, then, do we want to live in a more biologically impoverished planet but more economically productive planet? So both these things could be happening at the same time So one lesson I think from my story here is that humanities course ultimately is going to be determined less by the iron laws of nature that Ehrlich liked to celebrate or the unbounded market powers that Simon embraced and more by the social and political choices that we have to make And what we’re faced with is not a question of biology or economics in looking into the future, but it’s really a social question about what kind of planet do we want to live in And that, I think, is a fundamentally an ethical question, and that’s really what I hope that we need to take away from this story is how to wrestle with that question and bring it back and take any insights from Ehrlich and Simon to address those issues So thank you very much for listening, and happy to take any questions that you might have about this about this subject [APPLAUSE] AUDIENCE: It seems a little ironic to me that one of the things that made the solution to this particular question about population actually is the source of the next problem we have The incredible increase in use of energy in the planet helped with a lot of things that made it possible to feed, clothe, and otherwise equip a larger population because energy has played a role everywhere I mean, we turn energy into food in this country And so it’s very interesting that the solution to an argument between two people about two

different points of view creates a new type of problem for which neither of their arguments actually applies all that well and yet it looks kind of similar PAUL SABIN: Right I think that’s a good point And you’re right to point energy as being the key element in a lot of ways in thinking about the future Because energy is– even we think about water as being a key issue, but energy is the key behind desalination issues, for instance, to what extent that is viable So I think you’re right So there are actually three bets in my book So one is the little bet about metal prices, the second is the bet on the Carter Reagan election, but the third bet is the bet about the future And so it’s really a grand historical question So are we coming to the end of an age, fueled in part by abundant sources of energy and our dependence on fossil fuels, which is what Ehrlich would argue– we’re coming to the end of the boom and we’re going to hit the crash and this can’t be sustained– or is this a path that we can continue into the future? And I think that there are interesting arguments on both sides of that question in terms of how– and the technology, it’s uncertain about how the technology is going to unfold in terms pf to what extent we’re going be able to move away from fossil fuels to find sufficient other energy sources to meet our needs AUDIENCE: I see the radically different views of these men and how they’ve affected our political discourse and vice versa I read the Club of Rome Report, “Limits to Growth,” and all of that and scared the hell out of me a long time ago Do you see a way that we can bring our political discourse in this country and worldwide to a more cooperative way of addressing problems rather than being diametrically opposed? Dianne Feinstein versus the senator from Oklahoma They’re never going to get together, but how can we move in that direction of cooperation, focusing on solutions? Well that’s a difficult question and is really a fundamental question of the day I mean, as a historian, one of my hopes is to contribute to that by sharing this history of the past debate in the hopes that people can find their way towards a more productive conversation and be able to listen to each other better But I think that that’s very optimistic to think that a book is going to do that My own feeling about the current state of affairs is that we’re in a specific moment in time And I really am actually optimistic that we will not be stuck in this deadlock forever My own feeling is that political sentiment and popular sentiment around the question of climate at some point will break And at that point, it will move into a pragmatic conversation around adaptation, around different kinds of policies, pros and cons of different strategies and approaches that will be more productive Not to say that it’s ever going to become easy but that it will be a more pragmatic conversation, that we won’t be stuck in this particular moment I don’t feel that the current political constellation is tenable as a permanent status quo Both the resistance to the science of climate and resistance to the ways in which it appears that the climate is changing around us and the change over generations of people and the different ideas– so I’m actually cautiously optimistic that things will change Whether it will change in time for us to make a significant impact on carbon emissions is unclear But I have optimism actually about the political debate to some extent, modest optimism Thanks so much for coming [APPLAUSE]