I know you have all missed me for the last week, but I'm glad John was able to maintain the professional standards we have set for Env-Econ in my absence. As for me, I was able to spend five days of observational field research on coastal erosion in eastern Mexico. A few things I learned:
- My three years of high school spanish surprisingly made for servicable conversation (Cerveza? Bano? Como se dice "Could you please repeat that in English"?)
- It was really hard to watch what could possibly have been the greatest day of College Football ever, when the locals kept trying to turn the channel to some other game they called football.
- The closest major U.S. city to Cancun is Miami, Fl. Who knew?
- Cancun caters to U.S. tourists. Who knew? OK, I knew that one going in.
- When I have a full day to sit and read, I can read a whole book. Which is what I did with "The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future." So here's my highly objective (i.e. biased) review.
The Bet is Yale University historian Paul Sabin's (no relation to Nick) telling of the story and political culture surrounding Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon's 1980-1990 $1,000 bet over the Hotelling rule. OK, it wasn't really over the Hotelling rule, but it was about Hotelling-like predictions of changes in depletable resource prices. In particular, the bet focused on the change in prices of five metals (Copper, tin, chromium, nickel and tungsten--I think they made that last one up) over a 10 year period. Whack-job dooms-day ecologist Paul Ehrlich--OK, that's unfair to Ehrlich, he is a butterfly biologist, not an ecologist (is that biased?)--famously predicted throughout the late 1960's and 1970's the coming cataclysmic collapse of the Earth's environmental/ecological systems due to natural limits and exponential population growth.
In short, Ehrlich believed that humans are but one part of the broad ecosystem, and subject to all of the natural laws and limits that come with being part of that system--including species collapse due to exceeding the system's natural carrying capacity. Ehrlich was the loudest voice of the early zero-economic growth movement (and a contemporary of the Club of Rome and Limits to Growth). One observable indicator of Ehrlich's and his colleagues' dire predictions would be the Hotelling-like rise in depletable resource prices over time. As resources become more scarce (reach their natural limits), prices would have to rise. This is a somewhat ironic prediction from Ehrlich given the lack of price rationing in the Limits to Growth-type models of world collapse, but I digress.
Julian Simon, a mild-manned Chicago-trained University of Illinois professor of marketing (who eventually ended up in the University of Maryland School of Business), disagreed with Ehrlich's basic premise that population growth necessarily strained the natural limits of the ecosystem and instead argued that scarcity creates increasing opportunity costs and opportunities for investment, exploration, discovery, innovation and development of subsitute forms of capital. In short, Simon the economist argued that the simple form of Hotelling (prices rise in response to increasing scarcity) was correct, but the extension needs to be accounted for--increasing prices create incentives for the generation/investment/invention of alternative resources. Simon believes that increased in population actually increased general well being, increased the stock of human capital and would ultimately result in the creation of substitute pools of resources (whether natural or man-made). Simon believed that man-made capital would remain substitutable for depleted natural capital and resource prices would fall.
In the end, Simon won the bet and Ehrlich paid off without much fanfare. But in Sabin's view, the bet highlighted a growing set of divides: The academic divide between ecoologists and economists on matters of the environment, the philosophical divide between growthers and zero-growthers, and the political divide between the left and the right over matters of economic management. Sabin does an intriguing job of couching the bet within the heated political environment of the 1970's and 80's tracing the environmental movement through the national political scene from the environmental conservatism of Nixon, to the limited growth/strict conservation advocacy of Carter (not much mention of Ford), to the deregulated free-marketism of Reagan. In the end Sabin draws lessons from both Ehrlich and Simon to make a strong and lucid case for a middle ground between the coercive population reduction arguments of Ehrlich and the free-market environmentalism of Simon.
On a personal note, I found the book particularly useful at providing a different perspective on my own training in environmental economics. Beginning my graduate training in 1991, the year after the bet ended, the foundations of market-based environmental interventions had already been accepted by most economists and much of the mainstream public (to varying degrees of course). "The Bet" provides an interesting, easy-to-read introduction to the muddy politics and social setting that served as a backdrop for the development and relevance of the field of environmental economics. The political and public context provided by "The Bet" has helped to provide me with a much better understanding of how I ended up thinking like I do about environmental issues.
But that's just me.