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This page contains counter-arguments against arguments that progress is not sustainable.

The Ehrlich-Schneider bet challenge

The economist Julian Simon published an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle grumbling that while his predictions of the future had turned out accurate and Paul Ehrlich's had turned out badly, and that in particular he had won his 1980 bet with Ehrlich about the price of metals in 1990, nevertheless Ehrlich draws large audiences with his doomsday speeches, and Simon got very small audiences. Indeed Ehrlich had just got a big prize for his work on population and nuclear war.

Ehrlich and a Stanford colleague Stephen Schneider responded with an article denouncing Simon, claiming that things were getting worse, and offering him a 12 indicator take-it-or-leave-it bet. Here is an article the Chronicle science writer Charles Petit wrote about the exchange.

I want to argue that the ways in which Ehrlich and Schneider argue that the world will get worse are less important in human terms than some indicators I will mention - and which I expect to get better in the main. Simon had mentioned that he considered life expectancy as more important than any of the Ehrlich-Simon indicators, and I agree.

First I'll given the Ehrlich-Schneider indicators and then my own.

The Ehrlich-Schneider indicators

We wager $1,000 per trend that each of the following 15 continental and global scale indicators will change in the direction indicated (``get worse'') over the next decade:

1. The three years from 2002 to 2004 will on average be warmer than 1992-1994 (rapid climactic change associated with global warming could pose a major threat of increasing droughts and floods).

2. There will be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2004 than in 1994. Carbon dioxide is the most important gas driving global warming.

3. There will be more nitrous oxide in the atmosphere in 2004 than in 1994. Nitrous oxide is another greenhouse gas that is increasing because of human disruption of the nitrogen cycle.

4. The concentration of tropospheric ozone globally will be greater in 2004 than in 1994. Tropospheric ozone has important deleterious effects on human health and crop production.

5. Emissions of sulfur dioxide in Asia will be significantly greater in 2004 than in 1994. Sulfur dioxide becomes sulphuric acid in the atmosphere, the principal component of acid rain, and it is associated with direct damage to human health.

6. There will be less fetile cropland per person in 2004 than in 1994. As the population grows, some of Earth's best farmland is being paved over.

7. There will be less agricultural soil per person in 2004 than there was in 1994. About a quarter of the world's top soil has been lost since World War II, and erosion virtually everywhere far exceeds rates of soil replacement.

8. There will be on average less rice and wheat grown per person in 2002-2004 than in 1992-'94. Rice and wheat are the two most important crops consumed by people.

9. In developing nations there will be less firewood available per person in 2004 than in 1994. More than a billion people today depend on fuelwood to meet their energy needs.

10. The remaining area of tropical moist forests will be significantly smaller in 2004 than in 1994. These forests are the repositories of some of humanity's most precious living recourses, including the basis for many modern pharmaceuticals worldwide.

11. The oceanic fisheries harvest per person will continue its downward trend and thus in 2004 will be smaller than in 1994 (overfishing, ocean pollution and coastal wetlands destruction will continue to take their toll.

12. There will be fewer plant and animal species still extant in 2004 than in 1994.

Comments on the Ehrlich-Schneider indicators.

Hmm. Ehrlich seems not up to snuff. There are no predictions of mass famines as there were in his 1968 Population Bomb. Many of the Ehrlich-Schneider indicators require quantitative measures to be taken as significant, and when the word "significant" is used in the wager proposal, obviously someone has to be the judge. As agricultural productivity increases, less agricultural land is used per person fed. There is considerable unused former agricultural land in the U.S. Much cropland in New England was abandoned when railroads allowed Midwestern farming to compete in Eastern markets. The New England land could be put into production again, but it won't be used as long as agricultural surpluses keep prices low.

My indicators

  1. Life expectancy in both the rich and poor countries.

  2. Infant mortality.

  3. Days lost per year due to illness.

  4. Literacy rates, worldwide. Fraction of school age children in school. Incidence of child labor.

  5. Fraction of population with option to work no more than 40 hour week.

  6. Fraction of people's incomes spent on food. Absolute number of people judged by the FAO to be undernourished.

  7. Air pollution index of 20 biggest cities.

  8. Fraction of American beaches closed to swimming because of pollution. Fraction of closed Mediterranean beaches.

  9. Rate of population increase in very poor countries.

  10. Fraction of homes worldwide with safe water supply. With running water. With indoor toilets connected to a sewage system.

  11. Fraction with TVs.

  12. Fraction or world population with cars.

  13. Fraction of people in poor countries with available McDonalds or equivalent.

  14. Availability of air conditioning in tropical countries.

  15. Kwh of electricity consumed per capita per year.

  16. Unemployment rates in rich and poor countries.

  17. Cost of living index in rich and poor countries compared to incomes.

A few comments: As I expected, I got flak for the McDonalds and the air conditioning items. Those opposed to "mass culture" don't like McDonalds, but it sets a very high standard of low prices, efficiency, service, cleanliness and provision of opportunity for part time employment. Some American romantics said that India doesn't need air conditioning, but Indians commented that air conditioning is increasing in public facilities like movie theaters.

I am not sure all of the above will improve, but I think most of them will. More important than predictions is the proposition that these are real indicators of human welfare. Still if someone wants to bet that some of these indicators will get worse, I'm open to a concrete proposition. The Ehrlich-Simon bet of 1980 was such a concrete proposition.

1997 April Note: The links to San Francisco Chronicle articles no longer work. I'll see if they can be fixed or if the Chronicle doesn't allow this any more.

Here's a polemic arguing that people who don't have children are putting an unfair burden on the other people's children, who will have to support them in their old age.

I welcome comments, and you can send them by clicking on jmc@cs.stanford.edu

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