The Bet

The Bet (2013) by Paul Sabin is a really fine book that looks at the different beliefs of the ecologist and author of The Population Bomb Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon and their famous bet on the price of natural resources.

Sabin is an academic at Yale who teaches environmental history. He introduces the book by describing his own environmentalism which is a very honest and clear way of clarifying his own biases.

The book then looks at Paul Ehrlich’s rise to fame as a prophet of doom. Ehrlich’s childhood, career as a butterfly biologist and his rise a ecological activist is catalogued. Ehrlich’s book ‘The Population Bomb’ and his series of dire predictions and rise to fame in the 1960s and 1970s is described with insight.

Sabin then looks at Julian Simon’s childhood and career. Interestingly both Simon and Ehrlich grew up in suburban New Jersey to upwardly mobile Jewish parents. Simon went to Harvard then obtained an MBA and then a PhD at the University of Chicago. Simon initially worked on using marketing to reduce population growth but then investigated the assumption that increased population was a problem and came to the opposite conclusion.

Next the rise of environmentalism in the 1970s is described. The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency by Richard Nixon and the passage of various other laws and the rise of Jimmy Carter and his own environmental beliefs along with the oil crisis are discussed.

The book then gets to the famous bet between Simon and Ehrlich where Simon challenged Ehrlich to pick 5 metals that he thought would rise over the next decade. Ehrlich comprehensively lost the bet after declaring that taking up the bet would be easily getting free money. The Reagan presidency and Reagan ‘s scepticism of the benefits of further environmental regulation is summarised.

Sabin also points out that while the general thrust of the Carter was toward environmentalism and Reagan toward the market that Carter deregulated the energy industry substantially and Reagan signed on to the Montreal Protocol to reduce CFCs.

Then the increasing polarization of environmental debates between pro-market optimists and environmental catastrophists is nicely described. The contribution of Bjorn Lomborg in fact checking the debate, coming out generally on Simon’s side and then being demonised by environmentalists is added to the discussion.  Despite being substantially wrong Ehrlich was far more successful in winning prizes and notoriety than Simon.

Sabin concludes the book by praising the contributions of both Ehrlich and Simon while pointing out that Ehrlich was categorically wrong. He credits Ehrlich with allowing increasing environmental regulations to be passed while crediting Simon with pointing out that the price mechanism and human ingenuity have shown Malthusians to be wrong for the past 200 years. Sabin would like to see more of a fusion between the two positions.

It’s an excellent book that both environmentalists and others will enjoy and get a lot from. Sabin has done an excellent job in writing a very readable, interesting book.


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