Paul Sabin: “The Bet: Our Gamble for Earth’s Future”

CHRIS: It’s my distinct pleasure to welcome Professor Paul Sabin who is an environmental and energy historian at Yale. It’s my distinct pleasure to welcome him to Google so please join me in giving him

CHRIS: It’s my distinct pleasure to welcome Professor Paul Sabin who is an environmental and energy historian at Yale. It’s my distinct pleasure to welcome him to Google so please join me in giving him a round of applause. PAUL SABIN: Thanks, Chris. And thanks for having me here at Google.

Americans love history, but I think in this business and technology setting, it’s worth asking what history is good for. And I want to emphasize a couple of things in starting out around that. One is just the way that history can help us to appreciate complexity and the uncertainty of the past and also the way in which it can help us to develop a way that we can cultivate empathy for the people whose lives we’re studying and whose decisions and choices we’re trying to understand. I think these two different kinds of understanding can help us cultivate our listening, can foster a critical sense of humility, and also they can raise questions for us to ask about the future.

More generally, I think that history can offer a sense of context and perspective that’s necessary for the challenging social choices that I believe we have to make in charting our future on the planet. Now, science and technology and economics obviously all have a critical role to play in this future. But I think that they don’t have all the answers. And they don’t necessarily even prepare us to know what questions to ask. So that’s where I think history can play a critical role. So I want to circle back to these themes at the close of my talk, to talk a little bit about the interesting and complex ways in which the story that I’m going to share today has been interpreted and the way people have reacted to– and let me just say I guess as a hint that listening and humility are not the keywords that come to mind in thinking about that interpretation.

So today I want to tell you a story based on my recent book, “The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future.” And my goal is really to provide you with some perspective on the growing partisanship that has come to engulf our debate over environmental issues in the United States. And this is really to help us also think more about risks of environmental catastrophe and resource scarcity on the one hand and also the promise of technological innovation and human ingenuity and progress, human advancement into the future. So this is a story about sharply disagreeing viewpoints. But as I’ll say at the end, I think the challenge for us really is to try to find ways to reconcile these different viewpoints and learn from them. Now, we weren’t always as divided as we are today.

Just this week, you had the Senate Democrats pulling an all nighter to talk about climate issues, and on the other side, you have many Republicans who are questioning whether climate change is caused by humans or to what extent it’s changing and opposing many of the initiatives that EPA– a job-killing agency it’s been called. So we weren’t always as divided as this, and I think it’s worth going back to remember some of the bipartisanship with which the environmental legislation of the 1970s was passed. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, all of these were passed with bipartisan support in Congress. And Richard Nixon actually articulated this bipartisan attitude in his 1970 state of the union. And I wanted to share, if I can here, a little video from him in which he talks about how a concern for the environment was something that should be beyond party and beyond faction. So this is Richard Nixon talking in the 1970s state of the union.

[VIDEO PLAYBACK] -The great question to the ’70s is, shall we surrender to our surroundings or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water? [APPLAUSE] Restoring nature to it’s natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country.

It is a cause of particular concern to young Americans because they more than we will reap the grim consequences of our failure to act on programs which are needed now if we are to prevent disaster later. Clean air, clean water, open spaces, these should once again– [END VIDEO PLAYBACK] PAUL SABIN: So this is Nixon with a unifying message, bringing people together around the environment. And he didn’t necessarily stay in this point of view for long. He became a little disillusioned with how well the environmental cause was serving him politically. And he wasn’t necessarily a passionate environmentalist.

Here’s a picture of him walking on the beach. He was trying to be Kennedy-esque walking on the beach in Southern California but with his wing tip shoes and his dress pants. But still, even Nixon was bringing people together around the environment. And so that was in the early 1970s, but by the 1980s, you had a gradually growing division, greater partisanship around the environment. And you can see that in these League of Conservation scores by chamber and party.

You can see kind of a gradually opening gulf between the two parties on the votes that they were cataloging in Congress for this index. So what are the explanations for this growing partisanship around the environment? There are several common explanations. Some have explained it in part as the sifting out of the two parties by region and according to ideology, where the Southern Democrats moved over to the Republican Party and the northern Republicans moved over to the Democrat and kind of took their environmental affiliations with them. Others have explained it as more of a business backlash, with business interests fighting regulation and pushing their political allies to contest regulatory initiatives. And still others have identified a conservative intellectual revolution with think tanks and funding for public intellectuals who would then advance criticism of environmental regulation.

I think all of these different explanations have some truth to them. And scholars have examined them in depth. But at the same time, I think that these interpretations don’t say the whole story. And what I want to explore today is the genuine clash that occurred between different viewpoints in the 1970s and 1980s because these interpretations really explain the growing partisanship primarily as just a political and economic development, that people are representing their political and economic interest. And they tend not to look more closely at the intellectual conflicts and what I see as some of the weaknesses and flaws of the environmental movement during this period.

So I think that’s a mistake. And in my book, “The Bet,” I revisit the rise of the environmental movement since the 1960s and the backlash and the debates that it engendered. And so I approach this story through a smaller story that I think allows entry into the larger debates happening in environmental politics. And this was a story about the biologist Paul Ehrlich, here on your left, author of the 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” and his antagonist Julian Simon on the right, who wrote the book “The Ultimate Resource.” And these two men made an actual bet, which is a rare thing in intellectual disagreements. They came together around a bet over metal prices in 1980.

And it was a simple bet over five metals, chromium, copper, tin, nickel, and tungsten. It was a bundle of those metals worth a total of $1,000. And, essentially, if the prices rose, Simon would pay the difference and if the prices fell, Ehrlich and his colleagues would pay.

And it was going to be a 10 year bet. Now, it was a simple bet about metal prices, but really the bet stood for much more. It was really a proxy for their competing visions of the future. On Ehrlich’s side, an apocalyptic vision that was fearful about human excess and over population.

And on Simon’s side, optimistic and bullish about the potential for human progress. Ehrlich thought that rising metal prices would signify that population growth caused resource scarcity. And that would bolster his call for government-led population control and limits on consumption.

Simon argued that markets and new technology would drive prices down. And this would prove that society did not face resource constraints and that human welfare, in fact, was going to steadily improve. And so the outcome of the small bet about metal prices would have these tremendous implications for what direction the planet and humanity was headed in. It would either bolster Ehrlich’s call for limits on population growth and his warnings of an environmental calamity. Or it would fuel Simon’s attack on what he called Ehrlich’s “unfounded threats of doom.” So in the book I try, in the spirit of the empathy that I talked about and the complexity, to explore these two men and their different lives and how they arrived at the positions that they took.

And I want to talk a little bit about that because Ehrlich and Simon actually are very interesting characters who shared much in common. Actually, in some ways, that was what drove them, I think, to such sharp disagreement. They both were born in 1932 to Jewish families that were based originally in the cities, in Philadelphia and in Newark, but then moved out into the suburbs just before they each were around 10 years old. And they actually grew up about three, five miles apart from each other in Maplewood, and Millburn, New Jersey.

Ehrlich was a child of the suburbs in the sense that he loved chasing butterflies through the fields and he was impassioned about the threat of development to the suburban landscape. He became early on concerned about the danger of DDT, the pesticide being sprayed that was endangering the food sources that he wanted to feed to his butterflies. He was a lover of nature. At one point, he had so many aquariums and other types of collections in his bedroom that he had to move out and move up into the attic to make room for them. So Ehrlich’s study of butterflies, which he’s continued as a professor up the road here at Stanford– this is the Bay Checkerspot butterfly– really provided him with a model for thinking about human population growth because he studied the rise and fall of butterfly populations in relationship to the abundance and scarcity of resources.

And so, in seeing that butterfly populations might grow and then they might outstrip the resources that were available and then they would crash in this tremendous collapse– and then he said this was the same thing that was going to happen to people. And so he predicted the greatest cataclysm in the history of man was coming, this population collapse that would be caused by food shortages, disease outbreaks, maybe thermonuclear war. And he described that the population had grown to the extent– he said we’ve had most of what he called the outbreak of population and now all that we’re waiting for is what’s going to come in the crash. So kind of basically modeling onto human populations the same developments as with butterflies and other creatures. And he wasn’t alone in this.

There were many biologists in the post World War Ii period who were thinking about animal populations in this way. Ehrlich was so concerned about the threat of population growth that he came to embrace the idea of triage, that some countries might be so far gone, so headed directly towards catastrophe and unable to feed themselves that they should actually be cut off from food aid. And he put countries like India in this category, saying the US should no longer send them food aid because quote, “dispassionate analysis indicates that the unbalance between food and population is hopeless.” And he argued that the optimum human worldwide population was somewhere between 600 million and 1.5 billion people, so significantly less than what even the population was then around 1968, 1970. Now, Ehrlich was a very popular, charismatic speaker with a biting wit, very entertaining. Here he is speaking to students around Earth Day at Iowa State University.

He spoke to audiences of thousands. And in 1970, he really became famous after Johnny Carson invited him onto “The Tonight Show,” became a big fan of his, loved having him on the show and had him actually more than 20 times onto “The Tonight Show” and really shared a lot of his views on population and environmental issues and gave him that platform. That really brought Ehrlich to much greater fame. Now, Julian Simon, as I said, also grew up in suburban New Jersey in his teenage years.

But his formative years were really in Newark. And he was impressed in the early age the hustle and bustle of immigrant life. And he loved the diversity of people and the excitement of being in the city, and he always, after he moved out into the suburbs– he regretted the loss of that community that he had felt when he had been in Newark. And I think that carried through in his appreciation of cities and people and more people bringing more excitement and diversity to the world. He took a slightly more circuitous path into academia. Here he is as a Boy Scout as a young boy.

He served in the Navy for a few years also, giving him an impression of what the world was like. And what he saw later would describe some of the more rundown areas of the world where his Navy ship would stop and thinking about how they had improved over time, that you didn’t just see the beautiful parts of the world but there were these other places that he had seen and saw the improvements that took place there. Now, Simon early on actually shared Ehrlich’s view about the threat of population growth. And he got into studying marketing and business.

And he was hired by I think it was the Population Council to develop marketing plans for family planning in India and in other places. And so he was originally trying to figure out how to address the problem of population growth. But then he came to believe that actually population growth wasn’t a problem. And in this, he sort of linked up with some other economists at the time, people like Simon Kuznets and Richard Easterlin. And they had examined historical patterns of economic growth and correlated them with population growth and decided that there wasn’t actually evidence that population growth was diminishing national economic growth. And you also people like the Danish agricultural economist Ester Boserup, who found that population growth actually increased innovation in agriculture and spurred saving.

And so rather than agriculture setting limits for population, which was the idea that there was only so much that agriculture produced. She actually found that it was sort of the reverse. It was the density and the demand of population that set limits on agriculture and that the forms of agriculture were determined, in part, by population size and density and that it would stimulate new kinds of agricultural practices. Now in 1980, Simon broke out into the public arena with a article in “Science” in which he attacked Ehrlich and other doom-sayers for what he said were unfounded– the oversupply of false bad news.

And he soon found common cause with libertarians and conservatives and enjoyed a lot of attention as a regular contributor to op-ed pages with these kinds of arguments– that life on Earth is improving, that these myths of overpopulation. “Why Do We Think Babies Create Poverty?” So these are all part of a campaign to change the way that people thought about population growth, and he then extended this as well to the problem of immigration. And this is where actually– these characters, these are individual intellectuals navigating the currents of American politics– in which he sort of fell out with many American conservatives because Simon actually was quite pro-immigration, believing that immigrants were an asset to the American economy and would stimulate economic growth. They took much less than they contributed.

And so he was an early advocate for immigration. So actually there was recently the suggestion that Detroit should create a special economic zone and invite immigrants to come in who would invest to create jobs in the city. This was the kind of thing that Simon was in favor of. And actually just as an aside, you may never have heard of Julian Simon before today, but one of the things that he’s more known for– or you would know him for– is that he was one of the main advocates for the idea of an auction for overbooking on airlines, that you should have a market. So if you have ever been bumped from a flight and gotten a free flight or some other benefit as a result, that was one of the ideas that Julian Simon was an advocate for. So if Simon sort of fell out with conservatives over his position on immigration, Ehrlich also had sort of a complicated relationship to liberals.

And he came under attack for being racist, being anti-immigrant, those types of questions about what was his position. And actually during the 1970s, he spent a fair amount of his time trying to defend himself and to make the case that there was a rational basis for his ideas about population control and also control of immigration. So these are two books that he published during the ’70s. One, “The Race Bomb,” which basically said that race is, from a biological perspective, not a meaningful category. And so we shouldn’t think about racial differences. And “The Golden Door,” which analyzed Mexican-American relations and made the case that we shouldn’t blame Mexican immigrants but at the same time there was still a rational basis or rational reason for wanting to limit immigration.

So this was a lot of his efforts was trying to navigate those complicated politics. Now, I wanted to give you a bit of a taste of Ehrlich and Simon. If it will work, I have a little video here to share just to give you a bit of a sense of their rhetorical styles and some of their arguments.

So this is Ehrlich in 1971, I believe, on an Australian television show called “Monday Conference.” I wonder if we could begin at the end in a way. One of the things that Dr. Ehrlich is saying is that things are so bad that people should not be allowed to have as many children as they may now want. What do we think of this?

Does anyone have a comment on that or– -While I’m very intrigued by Dr. Ehrlich’s concern for the environment, for our future, I’m quite appalled at the “1984” style of society that he postulates in his books. He would seem to cut right across inalienable human rights and demand that people be legalized to produce children. He would tend to demand that we limit our families and, if people are not willing to do this by propaganda– propaganda principally aimed at the impoverished people and at the dark races– he would introduce legal sanctions.

Having introduced legal sanctions, what legal penalties for those who disobey the law of the scientists, compulsory abortion or imprisonment? Well, let me first point out that you have misrepresented my views somewhat, although you have come close in other areas. Like, one of the things that we have to face very clearly is the question, if we do not solve this problem by finding ways to change people’s attitudes, what kinds of sanctions might you impose that do not bear differentially on the poor or the black or the nations in the world that are underdeveloped and so on? And this is an area where the questions are very difficult. And, actually, in many ways, the best answer from the point of view of democracy seems to be an across-the-board limitation of family size to two children unless the second birth is a multiple birth.

Now, you say these are inalienable rights. A favorite sport of people is to make up inalienable rights to fit their own preconceptions. I say there’s an inalienable right to have grandchildren that you’ll abrogate if you have too many children. There’s an inalienable right to have clean air, not to breathe poisons. There’s an inalienable right to have natural beauty, to have enough food, and so on, and so forth.

There was a time when people thought it was an inalienable right to have the number of spouses that they chose to have. And certainly no government could intervene on that, but I believe the Australian government intervenes on that inalienable right and restricts you to one spouse at a time and throws you probably right into jail if you don’t. So I suspect that could easily happen with the number of children you have too. [END VIDEO PLAYBACK] PAUL SABIN: So in addition to the marvelous sideburns that he is displaying here, I think there are another couple of interesting elements of this. You can see here the rhetoric.

We have to take action now or disaster will come later. And sort of a grandiose vision of that– you’re going to abrogate your right to have grandchildren if we don’t take action now. So it’s a very stark portrayal. You can see, again, this issue of him trying to develop a rational basis for population control, defending against the criticism that this might be racist or inequitable and trying to create a fair way to have population control. And I think another element there that you can see here is just the sharp rhetorical style, the humor, the ability to take convey the argument that is quite compelling as a presentation style. Now, here Ehrlich is sporting sideburns.

Here is Julian Simon sporting his own flourish. He liked to wear these plastic devil horns sometimes when he gave talks. It was kind of a provocation of his audience. You portray me as the devil with these terrible ideas that I have and so I’m going to stick it in your face by wearing these devil horns. I think it was also maybe a bit of a defensive mechanism that he used to protect himself.

But here he is laying out his arguments for why he thinks we don’t face a threat of resource scarcity and why he thinks things are just going to keep on getting better. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] -Every trend in material human welfare has been getting better rather than worse. And as to the future, you ask, would I bet on it? The answer is, yes. I will bet on it. I make this offer to any prominent doom-sayer.

You pick any measure of material human welfare, you pick any place in the world, any country, you pick any year in the future, starting, say, 10 years from now so there’s time for things to happen, and I’m prepared to bet that that dimension that you pick, that aspect of human welfare you pick, will show improvement relative to now and not deterioration. Now, before we go on, let me give you the theory of how this could possibly happen in a nutshell. And I’ll repeat this theory later on.

The theory goes like this. You have more people, you have higher income, and that increases the demand for resources. Increased demand for resources means higher prices, either actual or expected. Now that’s as far as the Malthusian theory goes, but the economy doesn’t stop there. What happens is that these expected higher prices represent opportunity. They represent opportunity to businesses.

Businesses say, aha, higher prices. Greater opportunities for profit. I’ll get to work and see if I can find some way to increase my supply or find substitutes or whatever. It also represents opportunity for scientists, who say, here’s a chance for me to make a discovery that will help humanity, maybe even get a Nobel Prize for it. So that’s the theory.

But one more bit. So people go to work looking for ways to fill this opportunity. Most of them fail. They don’t find solutions to the problem, but they pay the price themselves.

Eventually, some people do succeed in finding solutions to these problems. And the extraordinary part is that the solutions that they find leave us better off than if the problem had not arisen in the first place. [END VIDEO PLAYBACK] PAUL SABIN: So this is Simon’s response to Ehrlich.

And some of this is some basic economic theory, ideas about technological substitution, innovation, the spur to investment, the search for new resources. You also can see, in Simon, he has some of the same rhetorical style as Ehrlich in the sense of a kind of combativeness. I’ll bet you.

I’ll challenge you. A similar aggressiveness. And also a tendency towards, not just that things are generally getting better, but an extreme version of that in which every single thing is going to be getting better all across society. So that’s a portrayal of Simon. And now I want to turn now to what I think is an interesting element of the story.

So they make the bet in 1980. And that’s actually only one of the bets that’s in my book. The second bet is the other bet that the nation was making in 1980 which was the choice between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. I think in interesting ways, the arguments between Ehrlich and Simon actually line up in striking ways with the division between Carter and Reagan.

Now, Carter really brought the Ehrlich perspective into the White House in a lot of ways. He embraced the idea of conservation and limits. Here he is walking, after his inauguration, walking the distance to the White House. And here installing the solar panels on a roof in the White House. And he talked about how, even our great nation has its recognized limits.

More is not necessarily better. And he closely shared a lot of the key philosophical elements, I think, of the 1970s environmental sensibility. He had a passion for nature as a child in Georgia. He had fished and hunted in the streams. And, as governor, he had protected a lot of open space and tired to coordinate regional planning to be more rational and more conserving. He had a moral righteousness that Ehrlich also has, a moral righteousness about the need to address human excess and human wastefulness.