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#60 Around the Campfire with Uncle Dave; The Great Ehrlich-Simon Bet Myth

Whenever a little pile of bullshit is dumped by the mainstream media, other media, public “intellectuals,”lazy academics, and a swarm of lesser beings flock to the pile and add more of their own until it begins to match The Tower of Babel in height and stink.  Such a pile of bullshit is the one about The Bet between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon, which, says the bullshit, Ehrlich “lost” and thus worry about overpopulation and ongoing madcap population growth is much overdone.

Though I’ve debunked the bullshit before, such as in a chapter of Man Swarm, I need to do it again.  Wherever I go or whatever I read, when the fuss is overpopulation, I find myself up against The Tower of Bullshit.  It was brought up at my talks in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles last week.  So, let us look again at The Bet.  Please reprint this essay, please send it to your email list, and please use it to wash away the growing hill of bullshit as Herakles used the Alpheus and Peneus Rivers to clean out the foul stables of King Augeas of Elis.

The Great Bet myth Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 7.55.35 PM   Now let’s look at The Bet, which Cornucopians love to dump on those of us who worry about the Man Swarm.  Those who say population growth is nothing to worry about bring up a bet between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon, which they say Ehrlich “lost.”  This bet has become mythic and is often brought out to gainsay Ehrlich and all sad-sack “Malthusians” who warn about overpopulation and overshooting carrying capacity.  In truth, however, the bet had nothing to do with carrying capacity.  It was about whether the price of five metals would go up or down over a set time of ten years.  For the life of me, I don’t understand why Ehrlich made the bet.  I guess it was a belief that with rising population, all raw goods would become dearer and thus become worth more.  Simon, believing in the endless cleverness of Man, thought everything would become cheaper.  Again, it had nothing to do with whether or not Earth could house greater and greater swarms of ground apes.

Paul and Anne Ehrlich thoroughly debunk the bet myth in their 1996 book, Betrayal of Science and Reason.  This is a top-notch book, by the way, and should be read by all conservationists and environmentalists.  Indeed, for worthiness today, I’d say that it might be the Ehrlich’s best book.  The subtitle, How Anti-Environmental Rhetoric Threatens Our Future, tells what it is about.  Paul and Anne go through the antiscientific myths, lies, and blather from the Nature haters one by one and slay each.

Anyway, prices for three of the metals went down somewhat and two went up, so, since the bet was $200 for each, Simon owed $400 and Ehrlich owed $600.  Ehrlich and his fellows lost $200 in all.  And that is all there is to the bet.  The outcome of the bet, by the way, was mostly because of happenstance.  The prices of the five metals yo-yoed throughout the time of the bet and it was only heads or tails which were up and which were down when The Bet came to its end.

A few years later (in 1995), Julian Simon wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Every measure of material and environmental welfare in the United States and in the world has improved rather than deteriorated.  All long-run trends point in exactly the opposite direction from the projections of the doomsayers.” Simon was so sure of himself that he offered to bet on his belief.  Paul Ehrlich and climatologist Stephen Schneider took on Simon and made fifteen predictions of things getting worse, from per capita cropland decline to AIDS deaths. Simon wouldn’t take the bet.  The Ehrlich-Schneider predictions were:

  1. 2002-2004 would be warmer than 1992-1994
  2. More CO2 in 2004 than in 1994
  3. More nitrous oxide in 2004 than in 1994
  4. More ozone in lower atmosphere in 2004 than in 1994
  5. More SO2 pollution from Asia in 2004 than in 1994
  6. Less acreage of fertile cropland per person in 2004 than in 1994
  7. Less agricultural soil per person in 2004 than in 1994
  8. Less rice and wheat grown per person in 2002-4 than in 1992-4
  9. Less firewood per person in “developing” nations in 2004 than in 1994
  10. Much less acreage of virgin moist tropical forest in 2004 than in 1994
  11. Ocean fish “harvest” less per person in 2004 than in 1994
  12. Fewer plant and animal species extant in 2004 than in 1994
  13. More people will die of AIDS in 2004 than in 1994
  14. Sperm counts will continue to decrease between 1994 and 2004
  15. Gap between rich and poor will continue to grow

The Ehrlichs explain each more in Betrayal.

Whenever someone brings up the metal-price bet, the later bet should be thrown in their face.  Now, I don’t much care about many of these fifteen (I’m all for declining sperm counts), but they are geared to Simon’s “measure of material and environmental welfare.”

And so, there is much more to The Bet than either cornucopians or public intellectuals talk about.  It’s likely that those spitting out The Bet Myth don’t know the whole of it and are only parroting the fuzzy tale as they heard it from someone else who heard it from someone else and so on.  In no way, can one say that The Bet belies the woe and hurt of overpopulation and population growth.  It is an outlandish myth.  Don’t believe it.  And flush it away as Herakles did the Augean Stables.

Dave Foreman

Click here to read the original Campfire with footnotes.

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Dave Foreman

Dave Foreman is the founder of The Rewilding Institute, co-founder of The Wildlands Project and Earth First!, and author of several acclaimed books on wildlands conservation. Books: Rewilding North AmericaMan Swarm: How Overpopulation Is Killing The WIld World | Take Back Conservation …among several other Rewilding books you can find here.

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Mike M - July 7, 2014

While I have neither prepared support for this comment*, nor has sufficient psychological study been aimed toward the issue, there is a large mass of evidence, incipient and overt, pointing out that:
1. most human stresses experienced are social
2. unrelieved social stress is both physically and psychologically damaging

I’d like to add that it leads to social fragmentation. Social fragmentation is an evolved method of keeping social species in balance with habitat and ecosystems, although it has also led to increases in developing tools for violence, and itself occurs through intense negative emotional states and consequent violence. Anyone interested will explore “Dunbar’s Number” and cultural anthropology.

The comment would get a bit long with elaboration, but we strongly appear to have a cognitive social limit of about 150, after which cognitive heuristics kick in and multiply; biases are a type of heuristic.

Many indigenous groups followed seasonal changes in social interaction – from isolated nuclear family groups, to small bands to larger tribal gatherings; the latter, when lasting for any period of time longer than a festival, being subject to Dunbar’s Number sizing.

Humans have not evolved to become comfortable in larger numbers (thus you see strong concepts of “neighborhood” within any large population centers), and due to the mental heuristics with which we (and some other species we are aware of) are equipped, are unlikely to do so.

Ingrouping and outgrouping , always malleable in our species due to the development of symbolic verbal language and our related evolved ability to imagine, are the basis for all the disputes we see.
Beliefs, and fictional constructs of futures, pasts, and presents arising as partial and incomplete capacity to integrate the many beliefs we acquire, are part of the imaginative capacity which allows our minds to flow between acceptance of others and rejection under stress or the arising to prominence of conflicting beliefs.

It’s all pretty organic and neural, and totally not politics!

I want to go on, but instead, I’ll suggest you look at every social trend and activity, and everything you or anyone thinks or expresses in language as entirely social in nature.
Uncle Dave and others who have lived any significant proportion of their lives in nonsocial surroundings, can tell you that the mind thinks, responds, and operates clearly and consciously in a nonsocial fashion; social interaction or its possibility, or even the imagined possibility, profoundly slows down mental function as it interjects social evaluation into the experience of the present.

So, yeah, we are obligate social, like the wolf, and many other animals. I hope you’ll look at the wolf, for instance, and notice how its sociality is seasonal, how each individuality tolerates a certain amount of socializing, how their following their evolved nature keeps them eager for one another’s company while retaining their integrity.
And I hope you’ll notice how they very emotionally control their reproduction in response to their saturation, numbers, and fit, within their active ecosystems.

When you watch human activities and concerns, you just might begin to notice very similar and parallel pressures and responses.

[Some differences lead to different results for us. I often compare humans on Earth to bacteria in a Petri Dish: They will eat everything and defecate themselves toxically out of prominence, and even existence, but any single organism will not really notice even their relatively sudden collapse. That phenomenon – the failure to notice or change course, or care, – has in recent times been called economics; any way of looking that discounts the future, while prophetic for the species, isn’t my cuppa. It isn’t likely that humans will follow a substantially different course than bacteria. I do like to hear the howl of the wolves though, and farther south, the coyotes gabbling and singing.]

* It’s written on the fly (no editor available today, sorry), and the immense terrain involved can’t be covered short of a book. Or three.

David L. Witt - October 20, 2014

The twin third-rails of human population growth and carbon fuel addiction are the most deadly of concepts to bring up – both for the political right and the political left. The social and political implications are nearly insurmountable. At the same time, not taking action is even worse. The mainstream environmental organizations do a fine job at symptom control – save a piece of land here, a species there – but those small (and important) victories will mean what in a human-centric, hot world where wild nature is but a memory?

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