The Second Ehrlich-Simon Wager with Joanna Szurmak

Today’s interview features Joanna Szurmak of the University of Toronto. Our topic for today is the second proposed bet between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon. Joanna has written a paper titled “Care to Wager Again? An Appraisal of Paul Ehrlich’s Counter-Bet Offer to Julian Simon” along with coauthors Vincent Geloso and Pierre Desrochers, both former guests of this show. We mentioned the original Simon-Ehrlich bet briefly in my conversation with Steve Horwitz, but in this episode we talk about it in more detail.

Julian Simon had a cornucopian vision of development and humanity. In his view, things are getting better as we develop new ideas for improving our lives and our world. Paul Ehrlich has precisely the opposite vision. He has been predicting environmental catastrophe since the 1960s.

Julian Simon famously challenged Ehrlich to a wager. Simon challenged Ehrlich to choose any five commodities whose prices were not controlled by governments, betting that their inflation-adjusted prices would fall rather than rise. While Ehrlich was very publicly predicting the depletion of many commodities, Simon challenged him to put up or shut up. The five commodities Ehrlich chose—copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten—all fell in price between 1980 and 1990.

The subject of Joanna’s research is the counter-bet Ehrlich offered Simon in 1994. Ehrlich, along with climatologist Stephen Schneider, bet that 15 trends would worsen between 1994 and 2004:

  1. The three years 2002-2004 will on average be warmer than 1992-1994.
  2. There will be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2004 than in 1994.
  3. There will be more nitrous oxide in the atmosphere in 2004 than 1994.
  4. The concentration of ozone in the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) will be greater than in 1994.
  5. Emissions of the air pollutant sulfur dioxide in Asia will be significantly greater in 2004 than in 1994.
  6. There will be less fertile cropland per person in 2004 than in 1994.
  7. There will be less agricultural soil per person in 2004 than 1994.
  8. There will be on average less rice and wheat grown per person in 2002-2004 than in 1992-1994.
  9. In developing nations there will be less firewood available per person in 2004 than in 1994.
  10. The remaining area of virgin tropical moist forests will be significantly smaller in 2004 than in 1994.
  11. The oceanic fishery harvest per person will continue its downward trend and thus in 2004 will be smaller than in 1994.
  12. There will be fewer plant and animal species still extant in 2004 than in 1994.
  13. More people will die of AIDS in 2004 than in 1994.
  14. Between 1994 and 2004, sperm cell counts of human males will continue to decline and reproductive disorders will continue to increase.
  15. The gap in wealth between the richest 10% of humanity and the poorest 10% will be greater in 2004 than in 1994.

Simon declined the second bet because the measures were both too difficult to quantify and too disconnected from the thing Simon was actually interested in: human welfare. Simon explained it as follows:

Let me characterize their offer as follows. I predict, and this is for real, that the average performances in the next Olympics will be better than those in the last Olympics. On average, the performances have gotten better, Olympics to Olympics, for a variety of reasons. What Ehrlich and others says is that they don’t want to bet on athletic performances, they want to bet on the conditions of the track, or the weather, or the officials, or any other such indirect measure.

Joanna, Vincent, and Pierre have gone to great lengths to figure out who would have one on each of the 15 points had Simon accepted the bet. Listen to the episode to find out!

[Note: The sound quality drops about an hour into the episode. Skype failed and we had to switch to a telephone line.]

Other links:

Here is a 1998 interview with Julian Simon detailing his Cornucopian worldview.

Pierre Desrochers and Vincent Geloso wrote a detailed article on the first bet.
Download this episode.

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