Sunday, December 21, 2014

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NY1 teams with contributors from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, and Essence Magazine to review the latest books and book-related trends.

The Book Reader: 'The Bet'

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Sohrab Ahmari of The Wall Street Journal reports on newly released book titles and the world of publishing in "The Book Reader."

"World population has passed food supply."

"The famine has started." 

So wrote Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich. The year was 1968, when most American intellectuals were convinced human population levels had reached catastrophic levels. Ehrlich was their prophet, and in a series of alarming, and wildly successful, books and essays, he taught that the same laws of nature that create cycles of population boom and bust in butterflies and other insects apply to humans. Resources would soon become scarce, he predicted, and millions would die of starvation.

The economist Julian Simon disagreed. He thought humans would escape this fate thanks to technological innovation and market-based economic growth. So in 1980, Ehrlich and Julian made a bet. Each would put up $1,000 toward the cost of five metals: chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten. If in 10 years, scarcity didn't occur, and the prices of those metals went down, Ehrlich would pay Simon the difference between their 1990 and 1980 prices. If Ehrlich was right, Simon would pay. Simon turned out to be right. Humanity wasn't on the road to extinction, and Ehrlich sent Simon a check for $576.07.
It's this story that Paul Sabin recounts with absorbing detail and crisp prose in "The Bet." The book's narrative is as much about the two men as it is about their ideas. While the author's profiles of Ehrlich and Simon are fair-minded, one can't help but come away with a less than favorable impression of the doomsayer. Ehrlich was found of calling his critics "idiots" and "morons," liking to mix ad hominem attack and ludicrous prognostication. For example, he criticized the scientists behind the historic Green Revolution in agriculture as "narrow-minded colleagues who are proposing idiotic panaceas to solve the food problem." And he once said of his opponent in the bet that "If Simon disappeared from the face of the Earth, that would be great for humanity." Readers will no doubt take some satisfaction that he turned out to be so wrong. 

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