This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Betting on the Planet--and Simon Won (or Did He?)

In one of the most famous wagers of all time, Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon bet on the price of several precious metals back in 1980. Ehrlich contended that population growth would put pressure on resources that would raise prices, whereas Simon contended that the threat of scarcity would lead to the substitution of other resources and so prices would not rise. As it turned out, over the ten years of the bet, those particular metals fell in value, rather than rising, despite the rise in population. Ehrlich paid up, as described at the time by John Tierney of the New York Times. The bet has made the news again this month with the publication of new book about it by Paul Sabin of Yale University. Sabin has an Op-Ed piece in yesterday's New York Times, and was also featured yesterday on BookTV, which has the following intro to the hour-long interview:
More than 30 years ago, economist Julian Simon made a bet with biologist Paul Ehrlich on the future prices of five metals, asserting that technological change and a booming market would keep the country prosperous. But Ehrlich predicted that rising populations would lead to overconsumption, taxed resources and famine. Paul Sabin analyzes this bet and argues that the opposing perspectives of the bettors - faith in free markets versus fear of environmental exploitation - are at the heart of the battle over climate change that continues today. He discusses the history of these opposing sides and the current status of the debate with Associated Press Energy & Environment Reporter Dina Cappiello.
If Paul Ehrlich is paying any attention to this, I suspect that he is yelling at the TV wondering why the subject almost never is turned back to population growth. History suggests that Simon was very lucky (and to his credit Simon admitted it at the time) about the timing of precious metals prices, and Ehrlich should never have gone along with such a narrowly circumscribed wager. Population growth is creating scarcity and scientifically demonstrable environmental damage, yet the discussion about population growth always seems to slip into the shadows and people just want to debate the merits of one or another environmental issue. A classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees.

1 comment:

  1. The Ehrlich-Simon bet

    The gambling that occurred between a scientist and an economist was idiotic. Even though the scientist has been proven to be correct in many respects, the scientist lost the bet. Perversions of science such as those by economists have served to distract, mislead and set back the science of human population dynamics and overpopulation for too long. Similarly, a widely shared and consensually validated, preter-natural demographic transition theory (DTT) promulgated by demographers served a common purpose. This theoretical perversion of science ignored, avoided and denied apparently unforeseen and admittedly unwelcome research related to the diminishing prospects for future human wellbeing and environmental health on a planet with the size, composition and ecology of a finite and frangible planet like Earth.

    On our watch many too many people listen to and act upon what the economists and demographers say because their pseudoscience is politically convenient, economically expedient, legally rationalized, socially accepted, religiously tolerated and culturally syntonic. Their fabrications and optical delusions have acquired the imprimatur of science at least in large part because too many people with scientific knowledge refuse to stand up and speak out in affirmation of the best available scientific evidence. Too many scientists will not speak truth, according to the lights and science they possess, to those with the great wealth and power.

    All that is actively and wrongheadedly being done by those who are few in number to massively extirpate global biodiversity, to recklessly dissipate finite resources, to relentlessly degrade the environment and to threaten the future of children everywhere is bad enough. The elective mutism perpetrated by so many knowledgeable people is even worse. The masters of the universe along with their sycophants and minions, all of whom act as if "greed is good" and money rules the world, are but a few; those with 'feet of clay' are many. Thank you to everyone here and elsewhere with feet of clay for speaking out as if you are a million voices. By so doing we educate one another to what science discloses to all of us about the placement of the human species within the order of living things on Earth and the way the blessed world we inhabit works. Otherwise, the silence of so many and the greedmongering of so few kill the world.