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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The World is Getting Richer, and That’s a Good Thing

Peter Diamandis, X-Prize founder, says the world is getting richer; and that’s a good thing for everybody, especially those living in poverty. Technology in the hands of several billion people will make those who subscribe to Paul Ehrlich‘s IPAT formula blanch. But it should mean a healthier population and a healthier planet. Take a moment and consider how blighted United States, Canada, western Europe are and then how Eden-like poorer countries such as North Korea are.

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Do these toxins make me look fat? Earth Day turns 41.

Cuyahoga River on fire

On June 22, 1969, a portion of the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland, Ohio. The late1960s were turbulent times; 1969 alone witnessed Woodstock, the Tate-LaBianca murders, and the Mi Lai massacre. The fire on the Cuyahoga River was emblematic of human-caused environmental troubles. This event and others lit a fire under the Congress and the President. The Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency and other environmental landmarks all happened under the ‘liberal’ Nixon Administration.

And, on April 22, 1970 the United States observed its first Earth Day. On that day most of the observers had taken to heart Paul R. Ehrlich’s book “The Population Bomb,” which warned, “The battle to feed all humanity is over. In the 1970s 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.” In those days, members of the environmental movement also predicted air pollution would cause another ice age through global cooling. (As Danish physicist, Neils Bohr supposedly quipped, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”)

Ehrlich and other doomsayers embraced Malthus, an eighteenth century economist who argued that the rapidly growing human population would quickly outstrip its food supply. Like Malthus, they were convinced that the world’s exponential population growth would outstrip the planet’s ability to cope. We needed to curb our population NOW or the population of humankind would collapse like the locust after they descend and voraciously remove every bit of vegetation in an area.

Not everyone thought the world would be destroyed. One man, a ‘free-market environmentalist,’ Julian Simon said the world was getting better and cleaner.

When Bjorn Lomborg, an associate professor in statistics, heard the claim, “My immediate reaction was: ‘Right-wing propaganda! It can’t be true,’ he said in an interview. “I thought it would be fun to get my students to show that he was wrong, but as we went through it, we realised that a lot of the things he said were right – and when you think about it, it’s kind of obvious. Air quality is getting better, not worse. Water quality is getting better. People are better fed, they live longer, they are not as poor or as sick as they used to be. We’ve actually managed to do a lot of good things.

“And yet we have this whole culture, and it’s much, much more than just Greenpeace,” says Lomborg, “that we’re going in the wrong direction, that things are falling apart. Everyone – politicians, journalists and certainly scientists – are telling us that things are getting worse and worse. But that is actually not the case with many – not all, but many – of those important indicators.”

Since that first Earth Day, the earth has not collapsed, and in many ways, conditions for mankind and the earth have vastly improved. Indeed the world’s population has almost doubled, yet we have not removed every whit of resource and become poorer, sicker, and hungrier. Nor did we simply maintain the status quo. No, we find that since 1970 we are doing better. Everyone is three times richer (in real terms), the percentage of people in abject poverty has dropped by over two-thirds, a greater percentage of people are better fed, the average person in a developing country eats more calories per day, the world’s forests cover 99% of what they did in 1970, and the known oil reserves have nearly doubled. The list of accomplishments goes on

Source: Maxim Pinkovskiy and Xavier Sala-i-Martin, 2010, "African poverty is falling…much faster than you think"

Four decades ago, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. While this bit of information strikes one as astonishing in its own right, it had happened at least nine times before: 1868, 1883, 1887, 1912, 1922, 1936, 1941, 1948, and in 1952. It has not happened since. Today, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has designated the Cuyahoga one of fourteen American Heritage Rivers, and portions of the river that were devoid of life in 1969 now support dozens of species. Consider the advance of other waterways: the Rhine, the Thames, and New York Harbor; they have greater amounts of dissolved oxygen and thus a greater abundance of life.

Life on earth is far from perfect, yet the human species has made strides towards a healthy planet. The world is cleaner, more livable for people and animals, safer, and more sustainable than it has ever been.

Source: USDA Food Security Assessment-special Report, 2007, US Dept of Agriculture

I will let political satirist P.J. O’Rourke have the last word.

“Things are better now than things have been since men began keeping track of things. Things are better than they were only a few years ago…(I)f you think that, in the past, there was some golden age of pleasure and plenty to which you would, if you were able, transport yourself, let me say one single word: ‘dentistry.’”

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