The Magazine

Remember the Future?

The population bomb was ticking, and apocalypse was next in line .  .  .

Jan 27, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 19 • By PATRICK ALLITT
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Two households, both alike in dignity, 

sierra club / ballantine books

sierra club / ballantine books

In fair Verona where we lay our scene. 

Romeo and Juliet

 The Ehrlichs and Simons, like the Montagues and Capulets, were remarkably similar families: both Jewish, both two generations off the boat, both moving from poor neighborhoods to better suburbs in New Jersey despite the Great Depression, and both celebrating the birth of a son in 1932. But whereas the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet ended a feud, the drama of Paul Ehrlich’s encounter with Julian Simon started one, a feud that is still going strong today.

 

Ehrlich became a professor of biology at Stanford. He specialized in butterflies, then became interested in human population. During the postwar decades, the world’s population was rising fast. Ehrlich became convinced that it was outstripping food supplies. In The Population Bomb (1968), he wrote that a demographic catastrophe lay in the immediate future. It was, he declared, already too late to prevent the famines that would sweep not just the developing world but Western Europe and North America in the late 1970s and ’80s.

The book became a bestseller, while a series of television appearances made Ehrlich a household name. He wrote op-ed essays and spoke tirelessly on college campuses, becoming one of the most highly paid pundits of the “ecology” era (1967-75). Overpopulation, he believed, was accelerating the rate at which industrial nations were using up natural resources. Soon there would be nothing left. He agreed with the authors of The Limits to Growth (1972) that we faced a bleak future with less of everything.

Julian Simon, meanwhile, became a professor of business at the University of Illinois. In the late ’60s, he, too, worried about overpopulation; but a closer look at the issue led to a change of heart. He discovered that population growth and economic growth usually went together and that there was no evidence of food shortages. The chronic problem of American agriculture, in fact, was overproduction. Population was rising because fewer children were dying and life expectancy kept increasing. That was good news, surely. Quite apart from a decline in agonizing bereavements, said Simon, children once doomed but now destined to survive might go on to be the next Einstein or Beethoven. 

Simon also believed in the free market, whose long-term effect was to make products and raw materials not costlier and rarer but cheaper and more abundant. Occasional shortages stimulated increases in efficiency, the invention of better techniques, and the use of new materials.  

Irritated that Paul Ehrlich was making a fortune with his apocalyptic prophecies while he, Julian Simon, labored in obscurity, Simon issued a challenge in 1980: Let Ehrlich choose any five commodities and then watch their prices either rise or fall over the next decade. If the prices rose, Ehrlich would seem to be right about shortages; if the prices declined, Simon would seem to be right that things were becoming more plentiful. Ehrlich accepted the challenge and the two men agreed on $1,000 worth of five metals: copper, chromium, tungsten, nickel, and tin. They agreed that, 10 years later, the loser would mail a check to the winner for the difference above or below $1,000. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education called it “the scholarly wager of the decade,” and Ehrlich had some cause to feel confident. In the two recent oil crises of 1973 and 1979, gasoline prices had risen sharply while drivers fumed about shortages and long lines at the pump. Copper was in short supply and costlier every year. President Carter had donned a chunky sweater in the White House and ordered federal thermostats turned down to a chilly 65. Believing Ehrlich’s claim that the age of austerity was here to stay, the president had also commissioned the Global 2000 report, whose prognosis for the future was even grimmer than that of The Limits to Growth.  

On the other hand, Ehrlich might have had misgivings. How many of us, after all, can even remember the famine of 1980, when millions died of starvation in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin? If you are younger than 30, ask your parents to reminisce about those dreadful days when they were reduced to gnawing on old bones for survival. Not really! The famine Ehrlich had described as inevitable was a phantom; American farmers were furious just then that Jimmy Carter was preventing them from exporting mountains of surplus wheat to Russia.