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.

It’s a strange story, and it gets stranger still. In 1990, Simon won the bet overwhelmingly and got a check for $576 from Ehrlich (mailed without so much as an accompanying note). All five of the metals were now cheaper than they had been in 1980, some of them by more than 50 percent. But which of the two men promptly received a MacArthur “genius” grant? That’s right: Paul Ehrlich. He then won a shower of other distinguished awards, somehow retaining his status as one of the most prescient of environmental prophets.  

Ehrlich’s new book that year, The Population Explosion, declared that the tragedy he had foreseen was now coming true, and that the human race was destroying itself by excessive reproduction. It belittled the “green revolution,” the achievement of plant physiologists like Norman Borlaug, who had found ways to make food plants hardier and increase crop yields in the developing world. It declined to notice that the incidence of famines worldwide was declining.

In the 1990s, Ehrlich could well have been described by the wonderful Catholic phrase “invincible ignorance,” which is used of individuals whom circumstances have made incapable of ever learning the truth. Simon, at least, had enjoyed a little more public notice during the decade of the bet: His book The Ultimate Resource (1981) argued that each new birth adds to the world’s store of riches. Its upbeat message matched the morning-in-America mood of the Reagan administration. The Heritage Foundation began to sponsor him, while important organizations, including the National Research Council and the World Bank, recognized the merits of his approach to demography—and adjusted their forecasts accordingly. He collaborated on The Resourceful Earth (1984), a rebuttal to Global 2000. It argued that short-term crises create incentives to innovate, and that the history of the last two centuries showed a constant improvement of material standards, access to resources, health, longevity, and quality of life.

By the new millennium, a substantial body of opinion held that the world was running out of resources, breeding its way to catastrophe, and facing environmental disaster on an unprecedented scale. Another body of opinion held, at exactly the same time, that the world was constantly generating new and better resources, managing its large population capably, and cleaning up the environmental damage caused by earlier stages of industrialization. 

Paul Sabin’s excellent new book tells the whole story, linking it to larger issues in American political and intellectual life. He argues convincingly that Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon represent the two poles in this late-20th-century debate, which echoes down to the present. He shows that Ehrlich’s exaggerations, and the steady failure of his prophecies to come true, eventually led conservatives to conclude that environmental “crises” were really no more than minor annoyances. Ehrlich unwittingly helped lay the groundwork for the global-warming skepticism that is widespread on the American right today.

Sabin is good on the naïveté with which the two men entered their bet. The metals market is too volatile to act as a proxy for world trends in resources. Certain years a decade apart could even have led to an Ehrlich victory, as price spikes and plunges respond to short-term shifts in supply and demand. Simon was lucky to win as handsomely as he did, although Sabin agrees that the long-term trend in prices is indeed downward.

He also reminds us that environmentalism, at least for a while, was good politics for Republicans as well as Democrats. President Nixon and California’s Governor Reagan, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, both spoke out against pollution, waste, smog, and oil slicks, and in favor of an enhanced respect for nature. The squalor and pollution, along with the eye-stinging smog, were real. A bipartisan consensus supported the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. It also supported a flurry of congressional acts to achieve clean air and clean water, to protect endangered species and their habitats, and to discontinue the use of lead compounds in gasoline.

Sabin did not have a chance to meet Simon, who died in 1998. But he did meet Ehrlich, and to judge from the book’s photographs, socialized with him as well. Aiming for even-handedness, he kept discovering that Simon was right and Ehrlich wrong, which put him in the awkward spot of having to judge harshly a man who had become his friend. He tries to cover up his discomfort by looking for a bright side, as when he claims that “Ehrlich and other scientists helped avert genuine ecological disasters.” It would be more accurate to say that some scientists helped avert genuine ecological disasters, but that Paul Ehrlich was not one of them. 

This caveat aside, The Bet very capably explains how we got to today’s political impasse over environmental questions. It also shows how the interplay of ideas and personalities can have serious consequences when a feud goes public. 

Finally, like all good histories, it reminds us that the past is a foreign country. It takes us back to a time and place in which the prevailing orthodoxy about overpopulation, famine, and exhaustion of resources was so powerful—and its antithesis apparently so implausible—that its principal spokesman could enjoy decades of almost complete immunity to refutation.

Patrick Allitt, professor of history at Emory University, is the author, most recently, of The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History.