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Debunking the durable Malthusian myths

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On his show yesterday, Rush Limbaugh discussed the famous bet between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich in 1980 over the question of whether or not the Earth had sufficient natural resources to sustain the growing global population. Erlich — a biologist from Stanford University — had gained some notoriety through his issuance of dire public warnings about the potential catastrophic consequences of continued human population growth, and had authored a book on the subject that was gaining a good deal of attention at the time.

The wager came about in response to Erlich’s published claim that “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” Simon took him up on the challenge, or a modified version thereof: He asked Erlich to choose any raw material he wanted and a date more than a year away, and he would wager that the inflation adjusted price of the material would decrease rather than increase, indicating that the resource had become more widely available rather than more scarce. Erlich accepted the bet and chose five metals: copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten. The bet was formalized in the fall of 1980; by the fall of 1990 the price of all of the materials had decreased (in the face of significant world population growth over that time), and Paul Erlich was forced to write a check to Julian Simon.

It might also be worth noting that as of 2018, England still exists, and Erlich is still a professor at Stanford.

Even though Ehrlich’s ideas on population have been thoroughly discredited, he continues to wield influence. Last year, the Vatican invited him to speak at one of its conferences in Rome.

The Acton media team has searched the archives for helpful background on this question, including a clip of Fred Smith—founder of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and current director of CEI’s Center for Advancing Capitalism—talking about the bet and the clash of ideas behind it.

Also check out these web resources:

Acton remembers Julian Simon

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Marc Vander Maas

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