Boomsayer Places His Bet

June 29, 1995|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Writer

CHEVY CHASE -- Julian L. Simon, a University of Maryland business professor who's bullish on the environment, is at it again.

He's calling the bluff of prophets of planetary doom, offering publicly to wager up to $20,000 that such broad measures of human welfare as per capita income or calorie intake will get better in the next five to 10 years.

The bet is his latest sortie in his 25-year-old guerrilla war on the conventional wisdom about the health, wealth and well-being of the globe.

Rapid population growth, he asserts, isn't a disaster, it's "a moral and material triumph." Predictions of looming famines and resource shortages? Piffle. The environment is getting cleaner, not dirtier, he claims. And the planet could support tens of billions more humans.

"Doomsaying is essentially wrong, because doom is not upon us, problems are," said Dr. Simon, an economist and statistician who has taught at College Park since 1983. "When somebody says we're all going to go to hell in a handbasket, that's simply not supported by the facts."

It's this kind of talk that gets many environmentalists' blood boiling.

"His writing indicates a lack of understanding of basic and elementary science," snapped Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford biologist and author of "The Population Bomb," who has long forecast eco-Armageddon.

When Dr. Ehrlich read of Dr. Simon's latest proposed wager in a San Francisco newspaper, he and another Stanford biologist shot back with an opinion-page challenge of their own. Instead of betting on material welfare as a gauge of the planet's health, they said, pick from a list of 15 measures of environmental degradation such as carbon dioxide levels or rain forest destruction -- and they'll wager it will get worse.

In his books, Dr. Ehrlich has painted vivid Malthusian pictures of a planet running out of food, fuel and minerals as humans multiply. "The Population Bomb," published in 1968, began: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over." His most optimistic prediction? A "die-back" of a half billion people by 1985.

Many of his early dire forecasts have fallen flat. But he and his supporters insist that Judgment Day was postponed, not canceled.

With his bet, Dr. Simon has politely thumbed his nose at that claim.

So far, Dr. Boom and Dr. Doom haven't been able to agree on the terms of a bet. They have reason to be wary. Fifteen years ago the two scholars wagered on the future direction of the prices of five strategic metals, with Dr. Ehrlich saying shortages would send the prices zooming.

Prices didn't zoom, they crashed. Dr. Ehrlich paid Dr. Simon $576.07.

These bets are, at heart, serious business: After all, these respected academics are arguing about the fate of the Earth. But the tone of the antagonists isn't always lofty.

"If we didn't have him and his kind trying to obfuscate what was going on, then we would have a sensible discourse," Dr. Ehrlich said.

'He's got a mouth'

Dr. Simon commented: "I will say this about Ehrlich. He's got a mouth on him."

Environmentalists, not surprisingly, take Dr. Ehrlich's side.

Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, said Dr. Simon has mostly added "confusion" to the environmental debate. Garret Hardin, a biologist who wrote the environmental classic, "The Tragedy of the Commons," said Dr. Simon "lays a smoke-screen of statistics. . . . Basically, I don't think he's serious. I just think he's found himself a way to make a living."

Admirers, though, praise Dr. Simon for intellectual courage. Allen C. Kelley, an economist at Duke University, said his colleague has "mounted a challenge to the popular conception about population" that caused "a rethinking of almost the entire scientific literature."

Fifteen years ago, Dr. Kelley said, economists thought that rapid population growth always led to economic decline. Thanks to Dr. Simon, Dr. Kelley said, "maybe the majority" of academics studying population issues don't believe it anymore.

Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and apostle of the free market, applauds Dr. Simon's penchant for applying economic principles to real-world problems. The previous bet was, he said, "pretty wonderful."

Rosy view of environment

Dr. Simon, meanwhile, describes himself as a prophet without honor. Dr. Ehrlich, he complained, lectures to standing-room-only crowds. Dr. Simon lectures to half-empty rooms. What he does get is a lot of hand-lettered, nasty letters. " 'Simplistic' is their favorite word," he said.

Still, Dr. Simon has influenced the political process. His rosy view of the environment has provided ammunition to the "wise use" movement and others who want to increase logging and mining on public lands.

He has found allies in conservative and libertarian think tanks, such as the Cato Institute. But he insists that he is nonpartisan. "I eschew the label conservative," he said.

"I have less to do with politics than anybody you know."

Julian Lincoln Simon was born in Newark and grew up in a New Jersey suburb.

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