Environmental policy: The biggest wager

Jon Christensen unpacks the fraught story of a biologist, an economist, and the polarization of US environmental policy.

In 1980, economist Julian Simon challenged biologist Paul Ehrlich to bet on the future price of a basket of raw materials then worth US$1,000. Ehrlich and two of his colleagues chose five metals crucial to the economy at the time: chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten. Ehrlich bet that prices would rise because of increasing scarcity and demand. Simon bet that they would not. The loser would pay the difference in price after a decade. Simon was at greater risk: prices could have risen indefinitely. But Ehrlich lost: in October 1990, he sent Simon a check for $576.07. End of story, right?

For instance, Ehrlich famously predicted in his 1968 book The Population Bomb (Ballantine Books) that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the coming years. A year later he said, “By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people … If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” By contrast, Simon viewed the population explosion as “a triumph for mankind”. Humanity, Simon believed, was “the ultimate resource”. He held that human enterprise would continue to solve emerging problems and improve life on Earth, and as resource supplies diminished, prices would rise, driving discovery of more reserves or the creation of substitutes.

In The Bet, Sabin traces these competing ideas through the energy crisis of the late 1970s, attempts at US immigration reform in the 1980s and the stand-off over climate change in the 1990s. He sees echoes of the conflict embodied in Simon and Ehrlich's wager in Jimmy Carter's loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election, the environmental movement's ongoing lack of a unifying leader, and even the paralysing political divide over climate change in the United States today. Ultimately, the bet is used to explain the whole messy evolution of US environmental politics from the early 1970s, when Republican Richard Nixon was an environmental champion, to today, when Republican environmentalists are an endangered species.

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