The Malthusian death spiral that never happened

Rich Tucker Senior Writer, Heritage Foundation
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Years ago, the division of a company that dealt with hiring and firing people was called “personnel.” Now that division is “human resources,” because in any company humans are the most important resource.

So too on planet Earth. Humans, all of us, are the most important resource.

That’s a fact that’s not obvious to Paul Sabin, author of a new book called The Bet, about a civilizational wager between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon. And it’s a fact completely denied by Ehrlich, who insisted in the 1960s and has continued to insist, all evidence aside, that there are too many people on Earth and that we ought to get rid of several billion of ourselves.

Sabin’s book is built around the bet. In 1980, after years of sniping back and forth, the pro-growth Simon convinced Ehrlich to agree to wager $200 each on the future price of five different minerals. “If mineral prices went up, adjusting for inflation, Simon would pay the difference. If the prices went down, Ehrlich and his colleagues would pay the difference,” Sabin writes. The bet seemed especially good to Ehrlich since, even if all the prices went to zero (impossible), he’d lose only $1,000. Yet there would be no ceiling on how high prices could go. Simon stood to lose much more.

Yet ten years later, the prices of all five minerals had gone down.

“Despite a record increase in the world population from 4.5 billion to 5.3 billion people,” Sabin writes, “the prices of the five minerals … had fallen by an average of almost 50 percent.” Sabin takes pains to explain that Simon’s victory wasn’t certain. “When economists later ran simulations for every 10 year period between 1900 and 2008, they found that Ehrlich would have won the bet 63 percent of the time,” he writes.

But that misses the point on two levels:

  1. Simon did win.
  2. Prices dropped, as they often do. In large part because of human activity.

When tin ran short, humans discovered new reserves. Humans replaced copper wire with faster fiber-optic cables. And so forth. “Everyday market dynamics had outweighed population growth” in determining prices, Sabin writes.

Of course. And markets are made by people. More people, more trading, more markets. And, when there’s a shortage, more brains coming up with solutions: let’s use plastic for food storage instead of tin. Let’s communicate by bouncing signals off satellites rather than running them through wires. And on and on.

Sabin writes that Ehrlich came to his population ideas through biology. He studied butterflies, and had noticed that they were subject to boom-and-bust cycles. They would breed heavily when food was plentiful, then the population would crash when food became scarce. Humans, the theory went, were subject to the exact same forces of nature.

Ehrlich’s mistake is obvious: It assumes that humans are mere bystanders. Like the hapless guard in the Austin Powers movie, we’ll apparently stand helplessly, yelling “stop!” as food runs out and billions of people die.

News flash: We’re not butterflies.

Humans endlessly improve our surroundings. When it looked as if food might run short (a major concern of Ehrlich’s) we developed pesticides, fertilizers and genetic engineering to improve crop yields. Humans saw problems, humans (often through the tool of open markets) solved them.

Since Ehrlich first warned of overpopulation in the 1960s, life has become far better for most people. Arthur Brooks notes that in that time span, we’ve enjoyed an 80 percent reduction in extreme poverty — mostly because of the spread of free markets.

Sabin writes that the threat of impending nuclear war was a recurring theme for Ehrlich. Ironically, while population booms never led to a nuclear exchange, population collapses might. “Dying civilizations are the most dangerous, and Iran is dying,” notes David Goldman. So is Russia. And North Korea. All have nuclear weapons or, in the case of Iran, may soon. Another reason population control isn’t such a great idea.

Sabin concludes by relating “the bet” to the current climate change debate. “Neither biology nor economics can substitute for the deeper ethical question: What kind of world do we desire?” he asks. How about a kind where markets, not “experts” like Ehrlich, make decisions?

In the spirit of Julian Simon, we should continue to ignore ecological scares. People solve problems. If there are enough of us to do so.