Betting on the Apocalypse
By PAUL SABIN
Published: September 7, 2013
ONE day in October 1990, the iconoclastic economist Julian L. Simon walked out to get the mail at his house in the Washington suburb of Chevy Chase, Md. In a small envelope sent from Palo Alto, Calif., he found a sheet of metal prices, along with a check for $576.07 from the biologist Paul R. Ehrlich. There was no note.
Ten years earlier, Mr. Simon and Mr. Ehrlich, joined by two scientific colleagues, had made a wager on the future prices of five metals: chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten. The bet — in which the loser would pay the change in price of a $1,000 bundle of the five metals — was a test of their competing theories of coming prosperity or doom. ...
Paul Sabin is an associate professor of American history at Yale and the author of “The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future.”
Understanding that Simon wanted to bet again, Ehrlich and climatologist Stephen Schneider counter-offered, challenging Simon to bet on 15 current trends, betting $1000 that each will get worse (as in the previous wager) over a ten-year future period.
The trends they bet would continue to worsen were:
The three years 2002–2004 will on average be warmer than 1992–1994.
There will be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2004 than in 1994.
There will be more nitrous oxide in the atmosphere in 2004 than 1994.
The concentration of ozone in the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) will be greater than in 1994.
Emissions of the air pollutant sulfur dioxide in Asia will be significantly greater in 2004 than in 1994.
There will be less fertile cropland per person in 2004 than in 1994.
There will be less agricultural soil per person in 2004 than 1994.
There will be on average less rice and wheat grown per person in 2002–2004 than in 1992–1994.
In developing nations there will be less firewood available per person in 2004 than in 1994.
The remaining area of virgin tropical moist forests will be significantly smaller in 2004 than in 1994.
The oceanic fishery harvest per person will continue its downward trend and thus in 2004 will be smaller than in 1994.
There will be fewer plant and animal species still extant in 2004 than in 1994.
More people will die of AIDS in 2004 than in 1994.
Between 1994 and 2004, sperm cell counts of human males will continue to decline and reproductive disorders will continue to increase.
The gap in wealth between the richest 10% of humanity and the poorest 10% will be greater in 2004 than in 1994.
Simon refused to bet on this.
The proposed bet on ocean fisheries, for example, reflects a better awareness on Ehrlich's part of the benefits of property rights. Egg ranchers don't kill off all the chickens that lay the tasty eggs because they own the chickens. But nobody owns mid-ocean fish until they're caught (Garrett Hardin's tragedy of the commons), so the lack of property rights encourage overfishing and poaching right now, rather than long-term stewardship. It's not an insoluble problem, but it is a difficult one.
In general, people like to wonder about grandiose overall questions: Prosperity or Doom???
But, I'm more interested in thinking about policies ceteris paribus. Moore's Law, for example, has covered up for a lot of bad policy decisions, but the relevant question is, given Moore's Law, how much better would things be if Stupid Policy X hadn't been implemented?