In 1980, the biologist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon made a famous decade-long bet. Ehrlich had written a bestseller titled The Population Bomb and become a celebrated advocate of population control to prevent global famine and disaster. Simon, an up-and-coming market-oriented business professor, believed that we don't need to fear the depletion of global resources, since human ingenuity will keep finding new ways to find, fabricate, or redefine them.
After the two began butting heads in public, Simon challenged Ehrlich to a $1,000 wager: Ehrlich could pick any mix of raw materials; if the inflation-adjusted price rose in 10 years, Ehrlich would win; if it fell, Simon would win.
Ehrlich bit. He consulted some friends and assembled a portfolio of chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten that was supposed to represent some key finite resources whose prices might reflect the impact of population pressures.
Ten years later, he sent Simon a check -- no doubt gritting his teeth as he sealed the envelope.
The Simon-Ehrlich wager tapped into an intellectual debate about growth and limits that stretches as far back as the 18th-century thinker Thomas Malthus and that continues, despite the conclusion of the bet itself, to this day. In his new book The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth's Future, Yale historian Paul Sabin retells this story in the context of the rise of environmentalism in the U.S., the changing fortunes of green ideas in an age dominated by free market thinking, and the urgent alarms sounded by climate scientists. It's a deft and thorough account of a debate that continues to split the American public and its leaders.
We talked with Sabin recently by phone.
Q. How'd you come to write this book?
A. I was interested in the rise of the environmental movement in the 1970s. I was trying to understand its relationship to some of the broader political conflicts in the nation. And I figured that enough time had passed that we could look back and assess the major successes and some of the limitations of the earlier environmental politics. I was also looking for a topic that would challenge me and had some strong and engaging characters -- a good story.
Spoiler alert, but I think everyone knows that the economist Julian Simon won their bet. That raises interesting questions: Why did he win? What does it mean? How should we think about the clash of issues between these men?