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,

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“[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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Comparing organic farming to conventional. Is one better for the environment?

Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, estimated we could feed four billion people if we used organic farming. The earth now is home to seven billion people and will probably go to nine billion before leveling off and declining, according to the United Nations. Organic farming means 50% of our world population would die horrible deaths. Who should decide who lives?

Alternatively, we could double our farmland and cultivate over 80% of our earth’s land. Goodbye, rainforests.

Yes, there is another alternative, to lower population growth, but that is already occurring. The answer is not less food but more food and wealth to have that trend continue. (See this animated chart at 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 [his words]), birth rates are headed down. They reach replacement level and keep dropping.”

Why is it that organic farming cannot support as many people that conventional farming can? It turns out that pesticides and fertilizers both cut down on losses to pests and boost growth of the plants. Fossil fuels allow conventional farming to use less land than organic methods. “By spending not much energy to make fertilizer and run machinery — and trivial amounts of energy to ship the stuff we grow from the places it grows best,” writes Stephen Budiansky, a former editor of the scientific journal, Nature.

Organic farming is less efficient than conventional farming; as a result, the earth suffers. Without pesticides and fertilizers boosting yields, we have to press more land into production, land that was forested before being pressed into agricultural use.

Converting land to agricultural use is the prime cause of deforestation, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) . Let me repeat that because it bears repeating.

Converting land to agricultural use is the prime cause of deforestation.

Conventional farming needs fewer acres. There is real environmental degradation in organic agriculture because it requires an average of 30% more than conventional agriculture.

“We have spared and conserved hundreds of millions of acres of land that otherwise would have had to be brought into agricultural production. That’s land that protects wildlife, that adds scenic beauty.- Stephen Budiansky

That means we spare wetlands, grasslands, forests, and rainforests from being cleared for agriculture.English: Organic farming

The earth cannot afford organic. We cannot afford organic. The ineluctable tradeoff comes down to land for agriculture versus land for wildlife. We should always pick nature and habitat over ‘natural’ food and terroir. Agriculture, whether organic or conventional fragments and diminishes habitat, displaces wildlife, and uses toxic pesticides (yes, organic farmers use “natural” pesticides).

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7 Billion Reasons to be Thankful

Last month, the world welcomed the birth of Danica Camacho of the Philippines.[i] The United Nations chose her to represent the arrival of the seven billionth person on Earth. And, even though the UN picked Halloween, this event is more in keeping with Thanksgiving.

Danica has inherited a better world than her mother.

She has been born into a healthier, wealthier, safer, and better-educated world. A world her grandparents and great-grandparents never dreamed of. Today’s average Filipino is twice as rich and lives 18 more years than the average Filipino of 1961.[ii][iii] Today’s average Filipino mother has nearly four fewer births than a 1961 mother.

Please note that I am not saying that she has it good. Danica certainly does not have it as good as an American baby; the average American’s income is nearly 15 to 30 times greater than an average Filipino’s (depending on the method used to compare incomes).

I am saying baby Danica was born into a world whose people (compared with 1961) are richer, healthier, happier, with a lower birth rate and exceedingly better off than 100 years ago.

Little Danica will probably be healthier than her mother due to increased availability of vaccinations, sanitary facilities, and clean water. She will have 70 percent less chance of contracting malaria than someone had only twenty-five years ago.

Danica will probably live in a city; today, more than half our planet’s population lives in an urban area. According to the United Nations Population Fund, cities “can deliver education, health care and other services” efficiently, due to compactness and that can relieve stress on natural habitats.[iv]

She will probably own a cell phone, since 80 percent of Filipinos already do.[v] In her developing country, Danica will be able to use her phone to find the best places to market her goods or services and where to find the best prices for what she needs. “Data services such as mobile-phone-based agricultural advice, health care and money transfer could provide enormous economic and developmental benefits,” wrote Tom Standage in The Economist.[vi]

She will probably go to school and be literate. “More than four-fifths of the world’s population can now read and write,” wrote Charles Kenney in Foreign Policy magazine, “And progress in education has been particularly rapid for women, one sign of growing gender equity.”[vii]

In fact, the world she entered is better than just six years ago and, given our current trend, extreme poverty (defined as less than a 1985 dollar a day), could be gone by 2035.[viii] A report issued by the Brookings Institution estimated “that between 2005 and 2010, the total number of poor people around the world fell by nearly half a billion people, from over 1.3 billion in 2005 to under 900 million in 2010.”[ix]

While you may scoff that far too many still live in soul-crushing poverty, the world is better. Better, by definition, is better. Instead of the world’s poor losing ground to being poorer, sicker, less well off, they are healthier, wealthier, and more prosperous than even ten years before.

That trend marks a first in our world’s history and we should give thanks this Thanksgiving season. Of course politicians and the high priests of Green theology can reverse the trend with calls to burn carbohydrates (biofuels often made from food) instead of hydrocarbons (oil and gas) for energy; thus driving up the price of food for those least able to pay for such claptrap. “I’m sorry about taking food out of your mouth, but we need to curb global warming for your own good.”

Let us give thanks for a world moving, for now, in the right direction. Although no one would argue the world is perfect, the strides made are striking. Have a happy Thanksgiving.

Note: Many of the numbers used in this article came from the World Bank. And others from, the brainchild of Swedish doctor Hans Rosling. Gapminder exhibits trends by having circles (representing countries) move in relation to two variables over time. It has some ready-to-go graphs, such as “The Wealth & Health of Nations,” that will whet your appetite for more.


[i] As world welcomes ‘7 billionth baby,’ UN says empowering women is key to stability ( )

[ii] In 1961, the average income per person (GDP per head) in the Philippines was around $1623 per person per year and the average life expectancy was 54 years (6.95 children/woman). Today, the average GDP per head has nearly doubled to $3204 (that is adjusted for inflation) and average lifespan is 72 years (3.03 babies/woman). In 1961 the average rate of birth per 1000 was 44. In 2011, it is around 25. And, 1961 was way better than 1911 where the Filipino GDP per head was $980 with average life expectancy of 31 years (5.94 children per woman). (Source: Gapminder desktop and

[iii] According to the world bank little Danica’s lifespan average is 71.5 years which is identical to the world average for a female born today (

[iv] UNFPA Urbanization: A Majority in Cities: Population & Development ( (accessed 11/4/2011)

[vi] Mobile marvels | The Economist, ( )

[vii] Kenney, C. Opening Gambit: Best. Decade. Ever. Foreign Policy Magazine, ( )

[viii] Ridley, M. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, p 15, 2010, HarperCollins (

[ix] Chandy, Laurence, G Gertz, Poverty in Numbers: The Changing State of Global Poverty from 2005 to 2015, Brookings Institution. 2011 (

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