The Bet


The Malthusian catastrophe simplistically illu...

The Malthusian catastrophe simplistically illustrated. For Malthus, as population increases exponentially while food production can only increase linearly, a point where food supply is inadequate will at some point be reached. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development‘s Brundtland Report (1987), Our Common Future, defined sustainable development‘s path as

“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

It sounds simple. But how do we judge “the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”?  In fact, the Bruntland Report drafters believed the present was robbing the future due to our consumption (largely due to our rising population). The idea that we are spoiling the earth with our numbers and the earth/mother nature responding harshly is anything but new.

In the third century, Tertullian wrote,

“Most convincing as evidence of populousness, we men have actually become a burden to the earth, the fruits of nature hardly suffice to sustain us, there is a general pressure of scarcity giving rise to complaints, since the earth can no longer support us. Need we be astonished that plague and famine, warfare and earthquake come to be regarded as remedies, serving, as it were to trim and prune the superfluity of population.”

In the 18th century Thomas Malthus wrote,

“The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.”

In the 20th century Paul R. Ehrlich wrote,

Image credit: Amazon

“[within a decade] the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” – Ehrlich, 1968


In 2000, United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development codified a new charter to guide the transition to sustainable development. It stated:

The dominant patterns of production and consumption are causing environmental devastation, the depletion of resources, and a massive extinction of species. Communities are being undermined. The benefits of development are not shared equitably and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Injustice, poverty, ignorance, and violent conflict are widespread and the cause of great suffering. An unprecedented rise in human population has overburdened ecological and social systems. The foundations of global security are threatened. These trends are perilous—but not inevitable.
United Nations, Earth Charter, 1987

In 1980, the late Julian Simon, an economist, famously posed a bet to environmentalists that the price of any raw material would decline indefinitely. (The price of a material indicates its abundance, the more abundant it is the cheaper it is.) Ehrlich took the bet. Ronald Bailey wrote about it in his book EcoScam, “In October 1980, Ehrilch and Simon drew up a futures contract obligating Simon to sell Ehrlich the same quantities which could be purchased for $1,000 of five metals (copper, chrome, nickel, tin, and tungsten) ten years later as 1980 prices. If the combined prices rose above $1,000, Simon would pay the difference. If they fell below $1,000, Ehrlich would pay Simon. Ehrlich mailed Simon a check for $576.07 in October 1990.” The bet has now been documented in a book by Paul Sabin.

New York Times writer, John Tierney made his own bet on oil prices in 2005; “not because I knew much about Saudi oil production or the other ‘peak oil’ arguments that global production was headed downward. I was just following a rule learned from a mentor and a friend, the economist Julian L. Simon.” That rule was to have ‘skin in the game.’

As the leader of the Cornucopians, the optimists who believed there would always be abundant supplies of energy and other resources, Julian [Simon] figured that betting was the best way to make his argument. Optimism, he found, didn’t make for cover stories and front-page headlines. – John Tierny

Yes, our lives are sustainable. Despite the finite nature of everything we use. Stuff become resources when we (as a species) decide that the previous useless stuff now has value when used for energy, food, fertilizer, beauty, circuit boards, etc. And that realization occurs when we exchange ideas. Because we trade goods and services, the cross-fertilization of ideas happens as part of commerce.

As I have written before, it will be technological change (caused by trade) that makes the world more habitable for all its species, and not decisions to go without. Consider:

  • Land was freed up from agricultural production not by eating less meat, but by using machines for farming (since machines don’t need pasture).
  • It was the discovery of how to use coal, instead of wood, to power machines that saved forests, not from deciding to use less wood.
  • More land was freed up by making each acre more productive via synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, not by fasting once a week.
  • Whales were saved from extinction, not by lowering the amount of whale oil one bought, but by people buying the newer and more affordable kerosene (derived from coal) for lighting.
  • Even habitats can benefit from trade. According to Susan Hecht writing in the publication, Nature, El Salvador’s forests have increased, not shrunk, due to globalization, Salvadoreans working abroad send remittances to relatives so they no longer have to clear forests for subsistence farming.

In the 1970s, Ehrlich and Barry Commoner simply repackaged the classic Malthusian catastrophe into a formula to make it look sciency: I = P × A × T (where I = Environmental Impact, P = Population, A = Affluence, T = Technology).

Well two can play at that game: I = P × A/T.  There, it’s all sciency.

I recommend the post, “Peak Everything” by Ronald Bailey.

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Should there be a new way of living for the top one billion? – iPat edition redux

Steven Earl Salmony of the AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, commented on Dot Earth’s, “Do the Top Billion Need New Goals?

Dear Timberati,

Do you think there is any chance at all that Paul Ehrlich, despite his poor showing as prognosticator and gambler, will be shown to be one of the greatest scientists of all time?

After all Paul Ehrlich is the forerunner for recent research by Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel that appears to indicate with remarkable simplicity that human population dynamics are essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species.

Since many too many population experts remain silent about this research and blogmeisters associated with the mass media refuse to discuss the peer-reviewed evidence, perhaps you could take a look at it, make your comments, and encourage by your example others to do the same. You can find the article, Human Population Numbers as a Function of Food Supply, by Hopfenberg and Pimentel on the worldwide web or at the links below.…

Now I visited the site and came away unconvinced and with a feeling that even if it’s well-meaning, it hates humans.

I replied:
Dear Steve,


Paul Ehrlich will be no more right than Tertullian was 1810 years ago, no more right than was Malthus 212 years ago, no more right than was Forrester 38 years ago, no more right than was et. al.

Again, to quote Macauly, “On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”

This ain’t my first rodeo.

I am NOT saying that feeding the 9.2 billion people that will inhabit this earth in 2075 will be a snap. Certainly not, especially if governments and greens try to keep agriculture in the mid 20th century. Yet it can be done as Norman Borlaug wrote a year or two before his death [ed note: here I’m incorrect, the quote is from 2002 and Borlaug died in 2009], “While challenging, the prospects are good that the world’s farmers will be able to provide a better diet at lower prices to more people in the future.” By the way, after the population peak, the UN (and other demographers) projects world population to fall.

Here’s the human race‘s track record so far:

“The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going rapidly upwards for 200 years and erratically upwards for 10,000 years before that: years of lifespan, mouthfuls of clean water, lungfuls of clean air, hours of privacy, means of travelling faster than you can run, ways of communicating farther than you can shout. This generation of human beings has access to more calories, watts, lumen-hours, square feet, gigabytes, megahertz, light years, nanometres, bushels per acre, miles per gallon, food miles, air miles and, of course, cash than any that went before.” (The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley)

This, not despite free trade, but because of free trade.

However, according to the slide show, food production increase = population growth, or put another way, “If you feed them, they will come.” I disagree. While true for most animals, as ecologists are wont to point out the boom/bust nature of animal populations and food supply, it’s not true for humans. The number of children per woman links much better to infant mortality (arguably, if you want to lower birth rate you would feed people better not feed them less). So, the healthier (and more urbanized and wealthier) we become, the fewer babies women produce. (See graphs: and Note Mauritius and Botswana) packages Malthus’s theory as Powerpoint. I fundamentally find the solution morally repugnant. It’s wildly misanthropic in its neo-Malthusian demand that we not increase food production because that will fuel a population explosion.

And, as you well know, population growth is plummeting. Not one country has a higher birth rate now than it had in 1960.

“Most environmentalists still haven’t gotten the word,” writes Stewart Brand (of Whole Earth Catalog fame), “On every part of every continent and in every culture (even Mormon), birth rates are headed down. They reach replacement level and keep dropping.”

Again, I am not saying things will magically become better. I am saying that increasing the wealth of all and placing resources in the places where we (the top one billion) get the best bang for the buck makes sense to me.

What should we top one billion commit to? (List from the Copenhagen Consensus Center)

1 Micronutrient supplements for children (vitamin A and zinc) to combat malnutrition
2 Enact the Doha development agenda to promote free trade
3 Micronutrient fortification (iron and salt iodization) to combat malnutrition
4 Expand immunization coverage for children
5 Biofortification to combat malnutrition
6 Deworming and other nutrition programs at school to combat malnutrition and improve Education
7 Lowering the price of schooling
8 Increase and improve girl’s schooling
9 Community-based nutrition promotion to combat malnutrition
10 Provide support for women’s reproductive role

You and I may not be able to reach an understanding with this one. This may be a case of what Easterbrook terms, “The collective refusal to believe that life is getting better.” For me, not only is the glass half-full, there’s evidence that everyone will have more to drink soon.


I doubt that I can change Dr Salmony’s mind. After all, he believes enough in the inevitability of the population implosion, (where humanity runs out of food and other resources causing a dramatic drop in numbers. Billions will perish) that he heads a campaign and now is in competition to get attention and funds.

I do hope to change the minds of some who visit Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog. Instead of contributing to, what to my mind is a misanthropic endeavor, that they consider one or all of these three charities: FARM-Africa, International Policy Network, AgBioWorld Foundation

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