Paul Ehrlich Was More Than a Sore Loser in “The Bet”

There is probably no name that struck more terror in me as a kid growing up than Paul Ehrlich. He was the biologist who wrote the book that freaked me out more than any other–The Population Bomb. In a review in the WSJ, a new book details a famous bet made between the doomsayer Ehrlich and a little-known economist named Julian Simon.

Ehrlich made a regular case that we were all doomed. His book was reprinted 22 times in the first three years after its 1968 debut. He went on Johnny Carson 20 different times, and had the country convinced that in just a few short years we would all be so crowded that no one would have enough food and everything would collapse.

I remember going into my parents bed, as a little 10 year old, and asking my mom if it was true–were we really doomed? She said something pacifying but I still shuddered worrying about this.

Julian Simon had a different view, and despite Ehrlich’s fame and popularity, he remained in total opposition to the biologist. “The more he studied the subject, the more he became convinced that Mr Ehrlich’s thesis was fundamentally flawed. Ehrlich thought that the laws of nature governing insects also applied to humans. Simon believed that man’s rational powers–and the economics man constructed–made the laws of nature nearly obsolete. They made a bet in 1980 that if Ehrlich’s predictions about overpopulation and the depletion of resources were correct then over the next decade the prices of commodities would rise as they became more scarce. They both agreed to put up $1000 to purchase five commodities–chromium, copper,nickel, tin and tungsten–and in 1990, Erhlich had to mail a check for $576.07 to Simon, who turned out to be right.

With the check, the pernicious Ehrlich enclosed no note. He continued to bash his critics, including Norman Borlaug, who invented green rice that fed millions of poor people around the world. The book is “The Bet” by Paul Sabin.