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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