2013, Books, Non-Fiction

The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future (2013) by Paul Sabin

This is an interesting book ostensibly about a bet between a biologist and an economist over the earth’s future, but really about the problems of extremism and the folly of prediction.

I just learned about Ehrlich and Simon’s best recently, as I was not yet born when it happened and child when it was over. I decided to read about the book more because I had read the bet was a mistake to begin with, rather than for any particular stake in this type of bet. The fact that the bet couldn’t actually prove either person right is one of the fascinating things about this story, which is mostly just a story of two smart people being overconfident and arrogant and how those behaviours in experts cause sociopolitical problems.

The book makes an interesting, somewhat compelling case that the positions and attitudes of Ehrlich and Simon and others like them were both wrong and right but that what is most important is how their views became more extreme as they grew older (despite the evidence, especially in Ehrlich’s case), and that these extreme positions have helped shape environmental discourse in the Unite States, to the detriment of US government policy. For example, I had not realized how many prominent conservatives think that “Global Warming” is just the same thing as the Malthus thing, i.e. fear-mongering out of stupidity or for political gain. That is an illuminating insight, even if Sabin never establishes a really strong connection between the Malthusian fear-mongering and, say, all climate change skepticism. (I cannot be the only one who thinks that most climate change skeptics in the 21st century are completely unaware of the “population bomb” alarmists, though they may indeed read too much stuff from skeptics who are, in part, basing that skepticism on the earlier behaviour of the “population bomb” alarmists.) Sabin walks a reasonable middle ground between these two extremes and provides a valuable reminder both that predictions are just predictions/projections based on current knowledge (and can easily be wrong) and that, just because some people are alarmists, doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.

My biggest issue with the book is Sabin’s style, which is extremely dry and a little academic. The book is extremely well-sourced but often reads as a litany of facts, rather than a narrative. Another issue with the readability of it is that most of the analysis is left for the final chapter, meaning that most of the book reads like a light biography of the protagonists mixed in with a history of US environmental policy between Nixon and Bush Jr. So it’s a big of a slog, even if the material is interesting.

Still, if you’re interested in the environment, or the “debate” over climate change, this is a worthy reminder that things aren’t black and white, and that the worst and best projections/predictions are likely the least valuable. We should not use extreme positions as are guide. We should ignore them, if we can. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.


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