Mike Beversluis

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Speaking of bets

In a recent post about John P. Holdren's confirmation as Obama's science adviser, John Tierney links to this article about Julian Simon and Paul Erlich's famous bet about the future scarcity of natural resources. This topic keeps coming up with political arguments I've been having, so there it is for future reference. Here's a brief excerpt:

Betting on the Planet
Published: December 2, 1990

In 1980 an ecologist and an economist chose a refreshingly unacademic way to resolve their differences. They bet $1,000. Specifically, the bet was over the future price of five metals, but at stake was much more -- a view of the planet's ultimate limits, a vision of humanity's destiny. It was a bet between the Cassandra and the Dr. Pangloss of our era.

They lead two intellectual schools -- sometimes called the Malthusians and the Cornucopians, sometimes simply the doomsters and the boomsters -- that use the latest in computer-generated graphs and foundation-generated funds to debate whether the world is getting better or going to the dogs. The argument has generally been as fruitless as it is old, since the two sides never seem to be looking at the same part of the world at the same time. Dr. Pangloss sees farm silos brimming with record harvests; Cassandra sees topsoil eroding and pesticide seeping into ground water. Dr. Pangloss sees people living longer; Cassandra sees rain forests being decimated. But in 1980 these opponents managed to agree on one way to chart and test the global future. They promised to abide by the results exactly 10 years later -- in October 1990 -- and to pay up out of their own pockets.

Long story short, Simon won the bet in 1990, and if it had been made again, he would have won again in 2000. And, for what it's worth, John Holdren was one of the scientists consulted by Ehrlich to pick out the scare resources.

Anyway, just about everyone else finds Erlich's Malthusian arguments convincing, and yet they are somehow always wrong. (YET, my political opponents are shouting) Ironically, Simon is a positive, happy-go-lucky Cassandra.

The apocalyptic impulse is deep rooted, probably because it is so egocentric. Our society is shallow and decadent, and so of course the arctic ice-caps will melt and send tidal waves roaring through Manhattan, where they'll chase Jake Gyllenhaal around. And it's not just the greens and the cults with funny hair cuts - consider the Terminator movies, where demonic robot gods throw us into an everlasting nuclear fire to punish us for our sins (of making them, I guess), or The Matrix, or The Lord of the Ring series - same deal, really.

The egocentric part is to think that my time, right now, must be the last age, as I am the pinnacle (or nadir, which is a lot cooler, a la that twit Oscar Wilde) of human existence. I think the universe is more sanguine.

Labels: ,


  • Generally speaking, one of the reasons against Malthus' prediction is that as we humans are better off, then we beget less children, so that after a while the population should more or less balance off against a fixed availability of natural resources. But I guess that Mike's position does not limit itself to such mild arguments.

    By Blogger John Travolta Sardus, at 25 February, 2009 06:27  

  • Hey - it is true, that rich, well-educated people have way fewer children than the replacement level, but this has a negative effect.

    Look at Japan, where there was no baby boom, the economy has been stagnant for the last 15+ years, which exactly correlates with their demographic trend towards a much older society. Or look at Italy too - same deal there, no?

    I would have thought that an aging society would be a boon to the younger workers, as they must support the growing elderly population, but it seems that the opposite happens, because no one buys as much and does as much once they get older. Their consumption goes way down, and the economy stagnates with them. And the innovation and productivity gains which support real economic growth fall as well, because they are disproportionally invented and implemented by younger people.

    Yes, I am "radically" anti-Malthusian, but that doesn't mean that I think we ignore the poor or the environment. Just that I don't see people as a plague upon the earth that would be better off if they were unborn (or removed as necessary, as is usually the way these prescriptions end up).

    By Blogger Mike Beversluis, at 25 February, 2009 08:53  

  • In fact this is one of the things that confuse me a bit (I do not have enough knowledge to be confused even more). More or less we all understand that sustained technological progress is linked to the accumulation of capital: but does it also require an *increase* of the GDP?

    By Blogger John Travolta Sardus, at 25 February, 2009 16:06  

  • Well, more efficient workers could work less time to produce the same amount of goods, whatever they might be, and so you could make GPD per capita constant. In effect, you are spending more resources (human work time) on leisure, but then the GPD would still increase as the population increased.

    I suspect what you want is a steady state solution, but it seems like across the world people have dramatically reduced their reproduction rate well below the 2.1 child per couple, so instead of equilibrium, we will have a total decline along with a demographic aging. These trends will be further accelerated as young people leave these areas, and the cities become abandoned, at which point they will be repopulated by poorer immigrants who still reproduce.

    That's pretty much Western Europe, right?

    By Blogger Mike Beversluis, at 26 February, 2009 13:24  

  • In fact the growth in Italy is due to the fact that there are new immigrants in Italy and that immigrants have more children than Italians do; Italian women have on the average 1.4 children.
    But you know what? When the immigrants will be better off they too will have less children.

    But apart this defense of my point of view there is at least one point on which you raise valid argument: that if the population gets older there is a risk that innovation slows down. And yes, it may be the case of Italy; according to my experience, besides, the consideration a young person receives is much higher in the US than in Italy: for example how much responsibility one could be entrusted with at a given young age - much higher in the US than in Italy.

    On the other hand take into account that the amount of room that is available in the US is much more than in Western Europe - population density in Italy for example is about 6 times higher than in the US. Let us just imagine for a moment a US with 1.8 billion inhabitants: could every feature of life there be the same as with 300 million?

    By Blogger John Travolta Sardus, at 26 February, 2009 17:53  

  • Immigrants and third world citizens already are having less children - so, while birth rates in third world countries are still much higher than in the West, they have also been falling since the 60's.

    I can't quite imagine what a 1.8 billion population US would be like, although that population would result in a population density a little higher than what is found in NY state right now, and a little less than in Maryland; Neither of which is particularly crowded in either their cities or rather large rural areas.

    But my argument is that if the US were to grow to that size, say in ~220 years at our current growth rate, then the technological and economic development during that time would not only support that population, but result in a much higher standard of living.

    In any case, the US population growth is also falling, and the population is projected to peak at much fewer than 1.8 billion.

    So, my claim is much stronger than saying that the dire consequences Malthus predicted from rising populations is wrong; The declining birth rates won't prevent disaster, they're going to cause problems (not necessarily disaster, though). That said, I do think there is some natural limit, but that we are and will continue to be below it given the likely technological advances.

    By Blogger Mike Beversluis, at 26 February, 2009 20:09  

Post a Comment

<< Home