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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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.