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The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth's Future

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Are we headed for a world of scarce resources and environmental catastrophe, or will innovation and markets yield greater prosperity

In 1980, the iconoclastic economist Julian Simon challenged celebrity biologist Paul Ehrlich to a bet. Their wager on the future prices of five metals captured the public’s imagination as a test of coming prosperity or doom. Ehrlich, author of the landmark book The Population Bomb, predicted that rising populations would cause overconsumption, resource scarcity, and famine—with apocalyptic consequences for humanity. Simon optimistically countered that human welfare would flourish thanks to flexible markets, technological change, and our collective ingenuity. Simon and Ehrlich’s debate reflected a deepening national conflict over the future of the planet. The Bet weaves the two men’s lives and ideas together with the era’s partisan political clashes over the environment and the role of government. In a lively narrative leading from the dawning environmentalism of the 1960s through the pivotal presidential contest between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and on into the 1990s, Paul Sabin shows how the fight between Ehrlich and Simon—between environmental fears and free-market confidence—helped create the gulf separating environmentalists and their critics today. Drawing insights from both sides, Sabin argues for using social values, rather than economic or biological absolutes, to guide society’s crucial choices relating to climate change, the planet’s health, and our own.

320 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2013

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About the author

Paul Sabin

3 books9 followers
Paul Sabin teaches American history at Yale University. He is the author of THE BET: PAUL EHRLICH, JULIAN SIMON AND OUR GAMBLE OVER EARTH'S FUTURE (2013), and CRUDE POLITICS: THE CALIFORNIA OIL MARKET, 1900-1940 (2005). Before joining the Yale faculty, Paul served as founding executive director of the non-profit Environmental Leadership Program. He is a graduate of Yale College and the University of California, Berkeley.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 53 reviews
Profile Image for Jeff Raymond.
3,092 reviews178 followers
February 7, 2014
Closer to a 3.5.

The Bet is a long-form book about one of my favorite economic bets in history. Paul Ehrlich, doomsday economist and author of The Population Bomb, spent a significant amount of time talking about overpopulation and its impact on resources. Simon, a little-known economist who disagreed, ended up challenging Ehrlich to a bet regarding the price of five metals a decade down the line. This quickly became one of the most famous bets in history.

The book works in that it's a solid history of the men and the era. It provides solid starting points for the beliefs and mindsets of both men, and a good deal of context for the eras themselves. It's an extremely informative take on the economic and political environments of the era, which was a welcome detail. It is also even-handed in many regards - while it's deferential to Simon (and for good reason), it doesn't act as a hagiography and gives Ehrlich a much fairer shake than a more partisan take on the story might.

The book is a miss in some regards as well, though, in that it's really overly padded with a lot of biographical information about both men that took away from the overall narrative. With as much detail thrown in, it becomes less about the bet and more about the personalities, which isn't what I was looking for as a reader. With so much extra, the book ended up being longer than it needed to be.

Overall, a solid, if not unspectacular, read. Definitely worth it for a number of the historical points, in any regard.
15 reviews6 followers
September 26, 2013
Here's my best shot at whittling down modern-day environmentalism to just six sentences:

"People ought to respect certain natural limits if we want to maintain a happy, healthy, and productive society. We can't just pollute the air endlessly or plunder the oceans freely. The good news, though, is that it's totally possible to make our modern way of life sustainable. No need to give us capitalism or economic growth. It's just that the free market alone won't get us there. We'll need regulations and other policy changes."

This might sound banal today. But that whole outlook is actually a delicate compromise between two opposing positions on resource constraints that slugged it out in the 1970s and 1980s. Paul Sabin's The Bet is all about that fight, and it's a worthwhile story to rehash.

One side, epitomized by biologist Paul Ehrlich, believed that humanity was breaking the carrying capacity of the Earth. The way to avoid mass starvation, energy shortages, and other apocalyptic meltdowns was to drastically reduce the world's population and radically constrain capitalism. This idea of "natural limits" was so influential it shaped Jimmy Carter's thinking.

The other side, led by an initially obscure economist named Julian Simon, believed that human ingenuity would always allow us to overcome those natural limits. The more people, the better. If food became scarce we'd figure out how to grow more. If oil prices surged we'd develop alternatives. Trust the markets! Simon's work helped the guiding ethos of the early years of the Reagan administration.

There's a good case to be made that Simon's side prevailed--and not because he won his famous bet with Ehrlich over the future price of commodities like copper and tin (that was more luck and good timing than anything). More to the point: The world's population soared from 3.7 billion in 1970 to 7 billion today and humanity didn't starve to death, as Ehrlich predicted. We adapted to energy constraints. Humans figured stuff out.

But Simon wasn't always right, either. The free market couldn't solve every last problem on its own. The world would have been fried had the world's governments not banded together in the 1980s to ban CFCs and avert the shredding of the ozone layer. And the tragedy of the commons isn't something to shrug at. Ask Newfoundland what happened in the 1990s after the Atlantic cod population collapsed from overfishing.

Even so, environmentalists have clearly altered their thinking and tone since Ehrlich's day--and Simon can claim some credit here. The main green groups nowadays don't tend to argue that capitalism is doomed. They don't imply that humans are a cancer on the verge of killing off the host. Environmentalists can be gloomy--particularly on climate change--but their warnings are often cast in terms of scientific probabilities and talk of "risk management." And market-based solutions like cap-and-trade or catch shares have become a key environmental tool.

So where does that all leave us today? Sadly, Sabin doesn't even try to answer big questions like, "How much should we worry about modern-day environmental concerns, like global warming?" (After all, just because Ehrlich was wrong about doomsday doesn't mean climate scientists are wrong.) There's actually a ton of fascinating research currently being done on whether there are "planetary boundaries" that humans need to respect, but Sabin doesn't even touch on this work.

Even so, The Bet's historical perspective is invaluable. It's good to remember that the modern-day environmental outlook didn't just grow out of a dispassionate reading of the evidence on our relationship with nature. It was shaped roughly over time and, for better or worse, still bears the scars of old fights and predictions gone awry.
Profile Image for Ali.
178 reviews
September 27, 2017
This book felt like a New Yorker article, which would be a good thing, except it’s a book. Interesting, but heavy on the historical facts, people, etc. Read like a history text book. Dunno why it didn’t totally click as I love history and Econ. Needed to skim the second half to make it through.
Profile Image for Riley Haas.
468 reviews9 followers
June 8, 2019
This is an interesting book ostensibly about a bet between a biologist and an economist over the earth's future, but really about the problems of extremism and the folly of prediction.
I just learned about Ehrlich and Simon's best recently, as I was not yet born when it happened and child when it was over. I decided to read about the book more because I had read the bet was a mistake to begin with, rather than for any particular stake in this type of bet. The fact that the bet couldn't actually prove either person right is one of the fascinating things about this story, which is mostly just a story of two smart people being overconfident and arrogant and how those behaviours in experts cause sociopolitical problems.
The book makes an interesting, somewhat compelling case that the positions and attitudes of Ehrlich and Simon and others like them were both wrong and right but that what is most important is how their views became more extreme as they grew older (despite the evidence, especially in Ehrlich's case), and that these extreme positions have helped shape environmental discourse in the Unite States, to the detriment of US government policy. For example, I had not realized how many prominent conservatives think that "Global Warming" is just the same thing as the Malthus thing, i.e. fear-mongering out of stupidity or for political gain. That is an illuminating insight, even if Sabin never establishes a really strong connection between the Malthusian fear-mongering and, say, all climate change skepticism. (I cannot be the only one who thinks that most climate change skeptics in the 21st century are completely unaware of the "population bomb" alarmists, though they may indeed read too much stuff from skeptics who are, in part, basing that skepticism on the earlier behaviour of the "population bomb" alarmists.) Sabin walks a reasonable middle ground between these two extremes and provides a valuable reminder both that predictions are just predictions/projections based on current knowledge (and can easily be wrong) and that, just because some people are alarmists, doesn't mean there isn't a problem.
My biggest issue with the book is Sabin's style, which is extremely dry and a little academic. The book is extremely well-sourced but often reads as a litany of facts, rather than a narrative. Another issue with the readability of it is that most of the analysis is left for the final chapter, meaning that most of the book reads like a light biography of the protagonists mixed in with a history of US environmental policy between Nixon and Bush Jr. So it's a big of a slog, even if the material is interesting.
Still, if you're interested in the environment, or the "debate" over climate change, this is a worthy reminder that things aren't black and white, and that the worst and best projections/predictions are likely the least valuable. We should not use extreme positions as are guide. We should ignore them, if we can. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Profile Image for Adam.
996 reviews195 followers
March 14, 2020
A solid political and intellectual environmental history about Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and the context of the bet they made. It focuses extensively on things like their biographies and presidential rhetoric around energy and conservation, with comparatively little interest in the substantive questions underlying their ideas. It's sometimes a bit boring and I'm not sure it would be of much general interest, but I found it quite useful. It provides a lot of context for things that I'd only heard of in fairly shallow ways otherwise.

The take overall is fairly agnostic, but in that "objective" tone Ehrlich universally comes off worse than Simon. He repeatedly makes the same oversimplistic arguments from broad, poorly parameterized ecological first principles, drawn from sources with dubious values (Malthus, eugenicists), and never updates his ideas to account for new evidence or explain why the ideas his critics offer (supported by that new evidence) don't in fact apply. It's embarassing. Simon, on the other hand, changes his views, develops a startling new perspective that is both evidence-based and humanistic, and it just feels like he's got some insight here that Ehrlich ought to have incorporated. Instead, they just yelled at each other for decades until Simon died, and now we keep yelling their arguments at each other. No progress.

The interesting part throughout for me was that Simon's arguments were slotted into the Republican side, while Ehrlich is allied with some (though far from all) Democrats. It was new for me to see any kind of intellectual validity to Republican positions even in the past, and while this certainly doesn't make me feel any more positively toward them on the whole, after hearing what Ehrlich and Carter were actually saying, and knowing how wrong they were, how poorly they represented the values at the heart of environmentalism, it's easy to sympathize with Reagan's exasperation toward them. On the other hand, the things Republicans argued for didn't really line up with Simon's positions all that well either--rabid anti-immigration, opposed to market-based environmental solutions that would unleash exactly the kind of innovation Simon made such a big deal of, clearly more interested in preserving the interests of their lobbyists than making any principled adherence to free-market environmentalism.

The conclusion, though, is interesting because Sabin finally weighs in. And he comes down against them both! He says they were both too hard-headed and extreme, Simon as utopian as Ehrlich was dystopian (which is fair I suppose), and that they actively impeded progress on pragmatic mixed solutions by drawing people to the poles of this discussion. What stuck out most to me, given the pursuit that drew me to read this book in the first place, is that Sabin never calls for a uniting theoretical framework or mentions any work anyone has done to create one. He just kind of shrugs and says these generic bromides about "figuring out how we want to live on the world, not how many ppl we can support" or looking at real data instead of big narratives. The real problem is never directly stated: how can the axioms of economics and ecology both be true and result in the world we live in? That's a problem that can only be solved by Simon and Ehrlich's successors workign together, not at odds.
May 21, 2018
Some say "history is the subject that teaches us that we do not learn from history". "The Bet" is a book that shows why it is important to know the history of the environmental movement in order to understand and avoid the mistakes that have led to the current assault on environmental institutions.

Sabin describes quite entertainingly the lives of to academics on the opposite side of the spectrum, and how their well-meaning but ultimately uncompromising and flawed approaches to advocacy have hurt the environmental movement substantially.

It shows why scaremongering and doomsday-scenario painting may result in short-term gains, but ultimately may prove counterproductive for the cause of environmentalism.

Out of scope of this book, but certainly of great interest, would have been a description of more positive approaches to environmentalism, and how they contrast with the approaches takes so far ("sustainability-fatigue").

All in all a great and entertaining book, which should be required reading for every sustainability professional.

Profile Image for Carol.
116 reviews18 followers
January 2, 2019
The debate over environmental responsibility replays again & again, seemingly on a 40 year loop.
More later.
Profile Image for Matt.
376 reviews5 followers
July 10, 2020
I found it irritating that Ehrlich (an environmentalist misanthrope) and Simon (a free-market capitalist) were presented as the only two options available. Frankly, there is no space in the future for capitalism because capitalism is what's causing all of our environmental problems, and we will at some point have to choose between it and the biosphere. Simon just isn't interesting -- the idea that human ingenuity and free markets are one and the same is silly, creativity existed long before capitalism did, and will exist long after. He was only elevated to any status because he provided a quasi-intellectual excuse for the Reaganites to plunder natural resources at the expense of future generations.

Ehrlich is more interesting, but would probably today fall under the category of "ecofascist" because he seems to think that it's only coercion from the elites that can whip the world into fixing its population problem, even though the elites are the cause of our current problems. The Limits to Growth did not just talk about population, it talked about economic growth. Economic growth is a core driver of population growth, and is a result of the current economic system. Ehrlich and his ilk came up with neutering the poor before they even considered overthrowing the current economic system -- that, they seemed to think, could be slowly reformed.

This is ass-backwards thinking, and putting the burden for environmental change on the poor is not only putting an ahistoric fix on a historic problem, it's also morally repugnant. It's also strange lumping Ehrlich in with someone like Schumacher, the anarchist economist who wrote Small is Beautiful. The two have conflicting ideologies. Ehrlich is right about a lot of things, but like a lot of STEM guys turned politicos, is clueless about history and politics, and this is what's so dangerous about his misanthropic, elitist wing of the environmental movement.

Sabin tells an interesting story around these two characters, but of the two, it's only Ehrlich that interesting, and it's his disputes with people to his left that would be far more worth recounting.
Profile Image for NCHS Library.
1,220 reviews19 followers
Want to read
October 17, 2021
Publisher's Description: "The Bet uses a legendary wager between the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich and the conservative University of Illinois economist Julian Simon to examine the roots of modern environmentalism and its relationship to broader political conflicts in the nation. Ehrlich, author of the landmark 1968 book The Population Bomb, believed that rising populations would cause overconsumption, scarcity, and disastrous famines. Simon countered that flexible markets, technological change, and human ingenuity would allow societies to adapt to changing circumstances and continue to improve human welfare. In 1980, they made a much-ballyhooed bet about the future prices of five metals that served as a proxy for their arguments about the future. The Bet weaves intellectual biographies of Ehrlich and Simon into the history of late twentieth-century environmental politics and other struggles of the era between liberals and conservatives. Humanity's larger gamble on the future still remains unresolved. By wrestling with the different sides of these arguments, The Bet encourages a more nuanced approach to environmental problems, one that acknowledges the limitations of both ecology and economics in guiding policy, and that instead emphasizes the conflicting values that underlie political choices. The Bet is structured around three bets: first, the $1000 bet that Ehrlich (and two colleagues) made with Simon over the prices of chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten; second, the bet that the United States faced in the 1980 presidential election in choosing between Carter and Reagan; and third, the larger gamble that we as a society continue to make as we make choices"
429 reviews7 followers
October 9, 2020
The author makes several good, and to me almost obvious, points that are not heard enough in public debates about environmental policy. Liberal elements falsely invoke the popular cache of science to support their positions even though their conclusions are based on value systems utterly independent of science. Conservatives too often refuse to admit in public that nature has intrinsic value for human appreciation and enjoyment. Both abuse the complexity of natural systems with liberals making unjustifiably confident and specific predictions and conservatives ignoring the potential of unintended consequences.

However, this book had too few insights and too much rote reporting of the two men's biographies. It just went on too long for the material he had. I care about how their ideas shaped public policy. I don't care how they felt or where they lived or who they were when not appearing in public.
Profile Image for Chris Bernard.
99 reviews
May 30, 2022
I reread this and was broadened by the second-time around insight. In the late 60s, my husband and I altered our own life trajectory based on Ehrlich’s population/preservation frugality with dwindling natural resources based on human greed. Sparer living amidst too much waste, too much corrupt money-handling, too little regard for living things, for love and cooperation. In the meantime, here’s Julian Simon, an implacable and equally large personality, representing the far right capitalism, screaming “..resources are endless!”
A 50-year debate, this is, from the bipartisan past with 60s, 70s and on political and environmental issues and their progression through today. So educational, and somehow entertaining as well!
Profile Image for YHC.
701 reviews6 followers
January 24, 2019
Easy to read through as a book that how Ehrlich and Simon shaped the concept of the environmental future in US.
Today, obviously we admit that the overpopulation has played the biggest role of the shortage of nature resource.
Simon's thought we need to count the natural resource of the whole universe as a whole, the problem is we can barely get out of our planet, let alone survive beyond.
No doubt that we need to leave something to our next generations before it's too late. I don't think the majority of mediocre population could really push the technology like what Simon said.
Profile Image for CL Chu.
179 reviews6 followers
October 29, 2019
Focusing largely on personalities. Why population became - and continue to be - the main focus of scientists preocuppied with 'development/growth' (and their limits/discontents) needs to be further examined in the context of 20th century intellectual histories. And probably some social studies of science approaches would be beneficial too.
12 reviews33 followers
March 28, 2018
For anyone looking to understand the public influences on US environmental policy over the last 50 years, this book offers a succinct recap. It also helped me better understand the rationale behind opponents of modern day climate change reforms. (I used to just write them off as idiots)
Profile Image for Jon Wlasiuk.
Author 1 book3 followers
June 23, 2018
The political debate about the future of the planet rests upon assumptions inherited from the last quarter of the twentieth century championed by Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon. This is a tidy history of that debate and the damage it has wrought on conforming the economy to ecology.
47 reviews
December 17, 2017
Explains why both extreme environmentalists and free-market extremists sound crazy, how we got here, and why it's so hard to make any meaningful progress.
Profile Image for Jordan Conerty.
145 reviews7 followers
November 13, 2018
A fine read if you're interested in Environmental History, particularly the conversation around population growth and responses to it that gained national attention in the 60's and 70's.
5 reviews
February 24, 2019
Even-handed treatment of the famous bet between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon. Sabin bemoans the political divide that The Bet represents but, in the end, concedes that Simon was right.
Profile Image for Paolo Benvenutto.
248 reviews
January 2, 2020
Interesante, pero me llama la atención que personas tan ilustradas pierdan la capacidad de ver su posición y la posición de su opositor en perspectiva y altura de miras...
Profile Image for William Dinneen.
100 reviews
April 10, 2022
Read this if:
1. You think climate change will kill us all by 2100
2. You think climate change is not a real issue

This book shows why the middle ground matters.
9 reviews
October 13, 2022
Great read! The debate described in the book mirrors the debates we see today.
Profile Image for Max Nova.
419 reviews160 followers
November 24, 2017
Full review and highlights at https://books.max-nova.com/the-bet

"The Bet" gave me a new framework for interpreting science/policy debates: Neo-Malthusians vs. Cornucopians. Once you see it, you can't stop seeing it everywhere you look. Sabin elegantly traces the intellectual lineage of this debate through the lens of the Ehrlich/Simon wager and does an excellent job of showing how their academic arguments influenced specific policymakers.

In one corner, we have Paul Ehrlich (of "The Population Bomb" notoriety) as our resident neo-malthusian. A Stanford population ecologist, he very passionately and very publicly proclaimed that hundreds of millions of people were going to starve to death in the 80's and 90's. As Sabin says, "Ehrlich embraced environmentalism as a secular religion."

In the other, we have the all-but-forgotten Julian Simon. A conservative economist of the Chicago school, he serves as our cornucopian by arguing that markets will allocate scarce resources and stimulate innovation to solve any population pressures.

After sniping at each other in academic papers for years, Simon challenged Ehrlich to put his money where his mouth was. Ehrlich thought resources were getting scarcer? Great - he should choose any 5 resources (he chose copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten) and in a decade, they'd see if the prices had gone up (reflecting scarcity) or down (reflecting plenty). They formalized the bet in 1980, and by 1990, every single one of the metals had gone down in (inflation-adjusted) price!

Sabin fleshes out the story with lots of historical details and sketches of the personalities involved. His treatment is even-handed and he points out issues with both Ehrlich's and Simon's approach. Sabin humanizes both of the opponents so that we can understand where they are coming from. Indeed, one of the key realizations is that a big part of the difference in perspectives was driven by values rather than by evidence. While Simon "placed human welfare at the center of his moral universe", Ehrlich thought that "humanity could not serve as the measure of all things."

Simon's victory would likely disturb many of today's environmentalists, doubly so because of his affiliation with conservative thinktanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute (originally the Charles Koch Foundation). Sabin explores the roots of Republican anti-environmental sentiment - after all, this was the party of Theodore Roosevelt and the national parks! He does an excellent job of tracing the policy debate and identifying key players.

Many of those players are still on the scene today. Yale professors Dean Speth and William Nordhaus make appearances in the book, as do Anne Gorsuch (head of EPA, mother of now Supreme Court Justice Neil) and John Holdren (Ehrlich BFF and Obama's science advisor). Carl Sagan (ironically, author of "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark") gets dragged a bit for his collaboration with Ehrlich on the ill-advised "nuclear winter" schtick. And everyone's favorite inconvenient politician Al Gore gets absolutely rocked by a frustrated Simon:
“After 25 years of the doomsayers being proven entirely wrong, their credibility and influence waxes ever greater.”
This was a tough book to swallow, although it crystalized many of my thoughts from other books in my 2017 reading theme on the "Integrity of Western Science". After "Higher Superstition", I was primed to recognize Ehrlich's attempt to turn environmentalism into a "secular religion" and his constant push for revolutionary change as archetypal of postmodern academic pseudo-science. Ehrlich gets explicitly called out in "Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes" for venturing outside his area of expertise (which, remember, was butterflies). Typical of neo-malthusians, he relied on oversimplified models and didn't account for human flexibility or the adaptability of markets. Now the trillion dollar question is... do these lessons apply to climate change as well?
Profile Image for Pete.
739 reviews52 followers
January 1, 2014
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.
Profile Image for Evan.
556 reviews10 followers
July 13, 2016
I think Sabin did a good job of maintaining neutrality toward Simon and Ehrlich throughout the novel. Additionally, he didn't really present his personal views on the topic until the final chapter. As a historian, I think he did a fairly good job of telling Simon, Erhlich and the bet's history. However, I had to force myself to keep reading. For some reason, I just found his style and writing to be like the worst of boring textbooks. I do agree with some of his final points, especially that Ehrlich, "by repeatedly crying wolf, he has played into the hands of those who consider environmentalism a lunatic movement."

Although Sabin concludes that climate change is real and that it is caused by humans and that resource scarcity will become a problem, he is a historian, not a scientist. When I think of climate change, I can't help but recall one of Charlie Munger's (berkshire hathaway) quotes, "Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives." Sabin does a great job of illustrating the incentives for anyone trying to make a career in fields impacted or impacting the discussion on climate change:
-"All told, the Ehrlichs received more than a million dollars in prize money during the 1990s"
-"By contrast...his [Simon's] salary... adjusted for inflation, his salary diminished in value, faring slightly worse than average faculty salaries during this period [1988-1997]."

If you are in a climate change related field, the incentives are clear - support the radical environmentalist movement, or find a different career. If environmentalists allowed for some discussion on the topic, instead of insisting everyone believe everything they say, more people might quit being "climate deniers."
Profile Image for NCHS Library.
1,220 reviews19 followers
October 17, 2021
Publisher's Description: "The Bet uses a legendary wager between the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich and the conservative University of Illinois economist Julian Simon to examine the roots of modern environmentalism and its relationship to broader political conflicts in the nation. Ehrlich, author of the landmark 1968 book The Population Bomb, believed that rising populations would cause overconsumption, scarcity, and disastrous famines. Simon countered that flexible markets, technological change, and human ingenuity would allow societies to adapt to changing circumstances and continue to improve human welfare. In 1980, they made a much-ballyhooed bet about the future prices of five metals that served as a proxy for their arguments about the future. The Bet weaves intellectual biographies of Ehrlich and Simon into the history of late twentieth-century environmental politics and other struggles of the era between liberals and conservatives. Humanity's larger gamble on the future still remains unresolved. By wrestling with the different sides of these arguments, The Bet encourages a more nuanced approach to environmental problems, one that acknowledges the limitations of both ecology and economics in guiding policy, and that instead emphasizes the conflicting values that underlie political choices. The Bet is structured around three bets: first, the $1000 bet that Ehrlich (and two colleagues) made with Simon over the prices of chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten; second, the bet that the United States faced in the 1980 presidential election in choosing between Carter and Reagan; and third, the larger gamble that we as a society continue to make as we make choices"
1,255 reviews
April 15, 2014
Relatively evenhanded look at the environmental debates in this country over the past 50 years. The author is Yale professor Paul Sabin, wife of abortion zombie Emily Bazelon, and his bias comes out from time to time. Nevertheless, he is willing time and again to demonstrate how free-market capitalists have been right far more over the past 50 years than Chicken Little environmentalists.

The book's namesake bet was a wager between the two gentlemen in the subtitle who waged $1000 dollars on a basket of 5 commodities in 1980. Ehrlich thought the price of the basket would go up in 10 years; Simon, the sane one, thought it would decrease. He was right, to a tune of over 50%.

I won't bore you with the rest of the details, or other "bets" won by the good guys concerning environmentalist fascism (1980 presidential election, anyone?). Just read the book. It's rare you'll find one written by a mainstream writer that takes such pains to paint anti-hysterical folks in such a good light.
4 reviews
January 24, 2015
This is nicely written book on an importgant topic: does nature put limites on economic growth? Although the actual growth debate was/is much wider, the framing of this as a debate between Ehrlich and Simon works well. It culiminates in the bet about the price increase of 10 metals/minerals. Simon won the debate, basically because he was lucky with the decade they picked.
This book is also an insightsful story about how public debates often become polarized and eventually also not very informative when both sides start exaggerating their arguments to the extent that none of them can be right. The Bet is also a story on how the passonate engagement in a fierce public debate changes your personality (for the worse).
My own position is somewhere in between the two: technology has replaxed many resource-constraints, but cannot fix everything. And some problems like climate change is very real and serious. Yet, my sympathy - both at the personal and at the sustantive level - shifted towards Simon after this book.
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