Sunday, May 18, 2008

Chickens Of Environmental Skeptics Have Come Home To Roost

For almost two decades environmental skeptics, those who believe that there is no problem that cannot be solved through the application of a healthy dose of unfettered markets and technological innovation, have never tired from gloating over the Ehrlich/Simon wager.

Paul Ehrlich the author of the Population Bomb and a staunch advocate that planet earth is overpopulated and that there are limits to growth had a wager with Julian Simon who was just the opposite. He believed that science and technology will always deliver and that there is no limit to the level and intensity of human activity.

Mr. Simon argued that if the bleak view held by Mr. Ehrlich is accurate then the prices of commodities will go up from the resulting scarcity. But he does not think that will happen because human ingenuity will find substitutes to prevent that from occurring. Ultimately they agreed to keep track of the prices of five commodities; tin, copper, chromium, nickel and tungsten; over a ten year period. That was agreed upon during 1980 and by 1990 all the prices were lower than 10 years ago even in nominal terms. Paul Ehrlich wrote a check to Mr. Simon and suggested another bet but Julian Simon turned down the offer.

As is often the case Mr. Ehrlich turned out to be correct in his pessimism but his mistake was in limiting the bet to ten years only. A recent recalculation of what has transpired over the past 28 years shows very clearly that the prices of each of the five commodities in question has increased , both in real and nominal terms significantly. So yes Julian Simon won the wager over the first ten years while the caution about excessive demand and limits to growth as advocated by Paul Ehrlich is the real winner.

Overconsumption began long time ago

Another illustration that demonstrates the prescience of Paul Ehrlich can be found in the recent study released by the University of London’s’ London School of Hygiene and Tropical Disease in which they calculate that obesity is a serious contributor to Climate Change because of the additional food that needs to be consumed, the energy needed to grow the food and the additional energy required to transport obese people. Again what the authors of that study seem to have conveniently neglected is he formula developed by Paul Ehrlich and used by most serious students of environmental degradation namely that the environmental impact is very much determined by our chosen lifestyles.

Instead of discovering the detrimental impact of SUV’s, incandescent light bulbs, air travel, large homes, diets, fashion, war (just to name a few) and now obesity one at a time Paul Ehrlich admonished us more than forty years ago that what is needed in order to avoid the ecological and environmental abyss is a radical change in our life styles and not one item at a time. Will we recognize the significance of the moral imperative to act and act now or are we going to wait one more time until it is too late to act.

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