The new Yale Environmental Humanities Initiative kicked off the Fall 2017 semester with a new website featuring environmental humanities events and news from across the university. A compilation of course listings gathered offerings from history, literature, American Studies, anthropology, religious studies, and other departments, as well as the professional schools.
Yale Environmental Humanities Initiative hosted an interdisciplinary conference featuring scholarship by Yale graduate students from eleven different programs. Panels were organized about key themes: “Imagined Environments,” “Imperial Legacies,” “Agrarian Landscapes,” and “Posthumanism and the Anthropocene.”
Yale Environmental History hosted its sixth annual environmental conference on April 22, 2017, “New Perspectives in Environmental History.” Graduate students and faculty from northeast colleges and universities presented papers and commentary on three panels: “Transnational Commodities,” “Living Empires,” and “Nature by Design.”
Published “‘Everything has a Price’: Jimmy Carter and the Struggle for Balance in Federal Regulatory Policy” (Journal of Policy History, 2016). The essay examines how President Jimmy Carter and his policy advisors sought to balance regulation to protect health and the environment with regulatory reform that would improve the efficiency of government action.
Published “Environmental Law and the End of the New Deal Order” in Law and History Review. This essay on the founding of public interest environmental law firms in the late 1960s and early 1970s situates the organizations in the context of growing liberal disillusionment with government, particularly in the context of the civil rights movement and Vietnam War. Early environmental lawsuits almost exclusively targeted government agencies such as Interior, Transportation, and TVA over their infrastructure and economic development plans. I shared the essay in late September at a stimulating conference at UC Santa Barbara, “Beyond the New Deal Order.”
The Bet has just been released in a Chinese language translation for Taiwan and Hong Kong market.
Participated in Harvard Roundtable on the future of energy history.
Spoke at the University of Colorado-Boulder on The Bet and how history can shape our thinking about present and future environmental challenges.
Yale Environmental History hosted its fifth annual environmental conference on April 18, 2015, “New Perspectives in Environmental History.” Terrific papers and commentary from graduate students and faculty from northeast colleges and universities.
Public lecture at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History on The Bet as part of the 2014-2015 John H. Ostrom Program Series “Nature’s Narrators.”
Gave public lecture on The Bet to Columbia Society of Fellows as part of their series on “Exhaustion.”
Presented the inaugural Betsy Wood Knapp ’64 Lecture in the Social Sciences to help celebrate Wellesley College’s new Knapp Center for Social Science. A wonderful opportunity to return to my hometown to talk about The Bet and how history can contribute to interdisciplinary conversation.
The Bet was released in paperback at the end of September.
Spoke at Brown University on the topic, “Making a Place for Historians in the Climate and Energy Debates.” My talk explored how our understandings of history are currently shaping the policy debate, and what lessons historians might offer regarding changing energy systems.
The Bet was the topic of an H-Net roundtable forum, with comments from Sarah Phillips, Patrick Allitt, Peter Shulman, and Keith Woodhouse, and edited by Christopher Jones.
“The Bet” named a “Great Summer Read” on the Nature Conservancy’s Science Blog.
Visited Ann Arbor to speak about The Bet as part of the Abrams Sustainability Seminar, an interesting effort to encourage teaching about sustainability across the disciplines. A tornado alert made it particularly memorable!
Enjoyed talking about The Bet at Carnegie Mellon as part of their lecture series in environmental history.
Yale Environmental History hosted its fourth northeast environmental history conference on April 12, with terrific papers from ten graduate students from nine different universities. Conference program available here.
I spoke about The Bet to audiences at Google and Facebook. The Google author talk is available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9JG02YRtOc
“Carefully researched and engaging … The Bet is remarkably evenhanded in its treatment.” Choice Review by A. R. Sanderson, University of Chicago (“Highly recommended”)
Lengthy interview with host Russ Roberts on EconTalk: audio link.
I discussed The Bet with host Robert Colangelo on Green Sense Radio Show: audio link.
Journalist Robert Levine features The Bet in a recent story in German-language Zeit Wissen on the clash between optimists and pessimists about the future of the planet: “Optimisten gegnen Pessimisten”
Review by University of Maryland, Baltimore County geographer Erle Ellis: article link (paywall).
NPR’s Planet Money organized a podcast episode around The Bet, with historical audio and a brief interview with Paul Ehrlich. Link to Planet Money episode
NPR’s Planet Money did a show on “The Bet” on Morning Edition: audio link to radio segment.
This “scholarly and engaging book… beautifully sets the context of an academic dispute between two world-class thinkers.… Sabin writes lightly and with respect . . . The result is a timely and well-considered explanation of how we’ve ended up in a debate about the existence and effects of climate change – and why it divides along political lines.” —Sheridan Jobbins, World Economic Forum Forum:Blog article link
One of the “Best Business Books of 2013.”
Article link: Bill Gates’ Top 7 Books in 2013
The Bet “provides surprising insights for anyone involved in addressing the world’s ‘wicked problems.’… I recommend The Bet to anyone wanting to understand the history of the divisive discussions we have today, especially the stalemate over climate change.”
Discussed “The Bet” with The Nature Conservancy CEO Mark Tercek. article link
Cass Sunstein examines the lessons of “The Bet” in the December 5 issue of the New York Review of Books. “The Bet makes a convincing case that the debate between Ehrlich and Simon illuminates central issues of its era … With their contrasting narratives of looming environmental catastrophe and techno-optimism, they define important strands of the Democratic and Republican parties and indeed of American culture.” “The Battle of Two Hedgehogs.” (paywall)
“My pick hit of 2013, The Bet …[is] a riveting story of the clash between two outsized and highly idiosyncratic personalities … a lucid, readable gem.” —Nick Murray, Financial Advisor magazine
One of five “Books of the Year 2013.”
Thoughtful conversation with Kevin Brown for the “History for the Future” show on Remapping Debate. audio link
Marilyn Wilkes and I discuss “The Bet” on Yale’s “MacMillan Report.” video link
I discuss “THE BET” and recent environmental politics with WNPR “Where We Live” host John Dankosky. audio link
In this letter that I found in the National Archives, Antonin Scalia, seeking appointment as Solicitor General, details his political loyalties and his experience in government and legal practice.
I enjoyed talking about “The Bet” with host Larry Rifkin on his show “Talk of the Town” on WATR 1320 AM.
How are climate change and population growth different, and what are some of the lessons from “The Bet”? I chat with David Leonhardt of the New York Times: “Lessons From a Famous Bet.”
I discussed “The Bet,” and the current polarization of environmental politics, with Lou Dobbs on Fox Business News.
I discuss “The Bet” with Time energy and environment reporter Bryan Walsh, including the implications for how we think about energy abundance and climate change: “Innovating Our Way to Energy Abundance- and Climate Change.”
In a world in flux, how do we know whether things are getting better or worse for people and for the planet? I discuss the challenge of setting terms for a bet on Earth’s future: “Want to Bet?”
I discuss “The Bet” and its implications with conservative talk show host David Boze on Kiro Radio out of Seattle. audio link
I discuss lessons from “The Bet” on “This Green Earth” with hosts Chris Cherniak and Larry Warren.
My interview with Scott Rosenberg, executive editor of Grist: “$1000 Question- Did the population bomb ever explode?”
Betting on the Apocalypse
ONE day in October 1990, the iconoclastic economist Julian L. Simon walked out to get the mail at his house in the Washington suburb of Chevy Chase, Md. In a small envelope sent from Palo Alto, Calif., he found a sheet of metal prices, along with a check for $576.07 from the biologist Paul R. Ehrlich. There was no note.
Ten years earlier, Mr. Simon and Mr. Ehrlich, joined by two scientific colleagues, had made a wager on the future prices of five metals: chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten. The bet — in which the loser would pay the change in price of a $1,000 bundle of the five metals — was a test of their competing theories of coming prosperity or doom.
For years Mr. Ehrlich, the author of the landmark 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” had warned that rising populations would cause resource scarcity, even famine, with apocalyptic consequences for humanity. Mr. Simon, who died in 1998, optimistically countered that human welfare would flourish thanks to flexible markets and our collective ingenuity.
Mr. Ehrlich believed the metal prices would rise over the decade; Mr. Simon thought the prices would stay stable or even drop. Mr. Simon won: the prices of the five metals in 1990 hovered at around 50 percent of their 1980 levels, even as the world population grew by 800 million.
Conservatives have celebrated Mr. Simon’s victory ever since, using it to denounce environmentalists for alarmism and to criticize environmental regulation. The columnist George Will recently used Mr. Simon’s triumph to illustrate how “ingenuity thwarts doomsday.” In a sign of the bet’s symbolic value, the Competitive Enterprise Institute created the Julian L. Simon Memorial Award in 2001 to celebrate his “vision of Man as the Ultimate Resource.” The award trophy: a statue of a leaf with its veins made from the five metals featured in the bet.
Environmentalists, in contrast, have tended to deny the significance of the Ehrlich-Simon bet, arguing that commodity prices illustrate little about real environmental threats. Also, they say, Mr. Simon just got lucky: indeed, when economists later ran simulations for every 10-year period between 1900 and 2008, they found that Mr. Ehrlich would have won the bet 63 percent of the time. These sweeping declarations of triumph and insignificance miss the point — and the true lessons of the bet for each side.
Environmentalists need to better understand the ways in which markets for natural resources function. There is rarely a simple linear path from abundance to scarcity.
Mr. Ehrlich’s view of looming scarcity was hardly radical in the years after the 1970s oil shocks. Many investors in the late 1970s shared his faith that rising metal prices reflected finite supply and impending shortages. The Hunt brothers, for example, famously gambled billions of their oil fortune on the rising price of silver, and then lost their shirts in 1980 when prices faltered and they failed to corner the market.
During the 1980s, macroeconomic factors, including falling oil prices and economic slowdowns, far outweighed new pressures from population growth and drove down the prices of many metals. Everyday market forces — technological change, price-driven competition and new sources of supply — also helped reduce prices. The international tin cartel collapsed under pressure from new Brazilian mines. Aluminum, plastic, fiber-optic cables and satellites began to replace copper, even as copper production soared in response to 1970s highs; by 1985, the copper industry struggled to create demand.
This dynamic relationship between scarcity and abundance matters for public policy. Exaggerated fears of resource scarcity can lead to stifling price controls, panicked efforts to limit production or consumption, and public investment strategies predicated on high prices that turn out to be ephemeral.
The same thing is true in business. Solyndra, the now-bankrupt solar-panel company, failed in part because its model depended on the price of polysilicon, used by its competitors, remaining high. When prices instead collapsed, so did its competitive strategy and the company.
YET if environmentalists need to better account for human creativity and adaptability, conservatives, in turn, should better understand the limited nature of Mr. Simon’s victory.
Setting aside the vagaries of market forces, can we continue to increase resource production and adapt to unprecedented environmental changes like global warming? Our past experience should give us some hope, but that hope should be greatly tempered by the realization that climate change is an unprecedented threat, and we really might not keep pace.
Mr. Simon liked to argue that new problems prompt solutions that ultimately leave people better off than before. But we cannot surmount our challenges if we simply deny that they exist.
Instead of using science as a resource for human betterment, conservatives who reject the evidence of human-caused global warming prevent the very creative problem-solving that Mr. Simon advocated. And if environmentalists like Mr. Ehrlich hadn’t urged action back in the 1970s, would all that creativity have been channeled into the cleaner air and water that we enjoy today?
We face choices about our future direction. As Mr. Ehrlich and many other environmental scientists have documented, by pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we put things we value and love in danger, from the coral reefs to the Jersey Shore, from homes threatened by wildfire to farms endangered by drought.
And even if Mr. Simon is right that humans can adapt and prosper on this rapidly changing planet, we have to ask ourselves whether the risks and inequalities of this change are desirable.
Ultimately, humanity’s course will be determined less by iron laws of nature or by unbounded market powers, Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Simon’s dueling lodestars, and more by the social and political choices that we make. Neither biology nor economics can substitute for the deeper ethical question: what kind of world do we want to live in?
Paul Sabin is an associate professor of American history at Yale and the author of “The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future.”
A version of this op-ed appears in print on September 8, 2013, on page SR5 of the New York edition with the headline: Betting On the Apocalypse.
I argue in The Daily Beast that our current stalemate over climate policy has important roots in earlier battles over population growth and resource scarcity: “The Big Idea: Can Innovation Save Us?”
Environmental journalist Fred Pearce reviews “The Bet” in New Scientist: “Did a bet on metal prices save the lives of millions?”