Here is the fascinating story of two men – one an environmental pessimist, the other an environmental optimist. They went head to head in a very public and sometimes very acrimonious debate in the last quarter of the 20th century.


Paul Ehrlich, professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University, was the king of environmental pessimists. He became the darling of the environmental movement. He leapt into prominence with his book, The Population Bomb (1968). It highlighted an impending crisis of having too many people on a planet with too few resources to go around. He followed this up with other books and articles that raised environmental concerns to the level of mass hysteria about a world headed to hell in a hand basket. By the 1980’s there was widespread public alarm about running out of oil, running out of forests, running out of an ozone layer, running out of food, and running out of just about everything except people competing for fewer and fewer resources. The doomsayers were stalking the land and having a field day.


Enter Julian Simon, the doomslayer - a Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland. Becoming increasing frustrated by the dirge of environmental gloom and doom, and especially by the hysteria-monger from Stanford University, Simon plunged in against the popular current that was beginning to sweep away even the United States government (Al Gore became Simon’s political whipping boy). He wrote books and articles arguing that instead of becoming worse, the environment was becoming better, that people were increasingly better off in terms of nutrition, education, leisure, health and longevity. Ehrlich castigated him for being not only stupid but dangerous. Simon copped abuse from the kind of people who want a mission more than they want the facts.


Then he did something to risk everything he stood for. In 1980 he challenged Ehrlich to a public $10,000 bet. The terms were that Ehrlich could select any basket of  resources that he could confidently say would become scarcer  over the next decade. If at the end of ten years Ehrlich’s basket of resources were more expensive due to diminishing supply, then he would win the $10,000 bet; but if the items selected by Ehrlich had become more abundant and hence cheaper, then Simon would win the wager.


Ehrlich accepted the challenge, stating that “the lure of easy money can be irresistible.” How could he lose when he got to pick any five resources that he figured were a sure thing to become scarcer? He therefore staked his bet on chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten becoming more expensive.


Alas for Ehrlich, at the end of ten years the price of those commodities had all fallen, and by an average of 40% after allowing for inflation. Truth is that no matter what Ehrlich has chosen, he could not have won. He would have lost had he staked his money on petroleum, foodstuffs, sugar, coffee, cotton, wool, minerals or phosphates. They had all become cheaper. The tide began to turn against the pessimists.