Non-Prophet New Year
On January 1, the CBS show “60 Minutes” featured Paul Ehrlich, who warned viewers about the threat of “mass extinction,” which was “high now and getting higher all the time.” This was not a new theme for the insect biologist, 90.
In his 1968 The Population Bomb, Ehrlich contended that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over.” Viewers on January 1, 2023, could affirm that it wasn’t. Viewers could also understand that civilization did not end within the following decade, as Ehrlich also predicted. On the other hand, viewers may have been unaware of his famous wager with economist Julian Simon, author of The Ultimate Resource.
Humans innovate their way out of scarcity, Simon argued, by increasing the supply of natural resources or developing substitutes for resources. In 1980, Ehrlich and Simon made an official bet that the same quantities of copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten could be purchased for $1,000 ten years later at inflation-adjusted 1980 prices. In 1990, it turned out, the price of those metals had fallen by more than 50 percent. Simon won the wager, and Ehrlich was wrong that population growth would deplete resources and lead to global famine.
As Marian L. Tupy showed in a 2018 Cato Institute paper, between 1960 and 2016, the world’s population increased by 145 percent, but real average annual per capita income in the world rose by 183 percent. Rising incomes lowered infant mortality rates, maternal deaths declined, and famine had all but disappeared except for war zones.
“The human brain, the ultimate resource, is capable of solving complex challenges,” Tupy concluded, adding a citation from Thomas Babington Macaulay: “On what principle is it that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?” Paul Ehrlich was wrong about that, but in 2023, “60 Minutes” cites him as a trustworthy expert. CBS took some ridicule and deserved every bit of it.
Ehrlich’s false prophecies do not discount the threats humanity faces from nuclear weapons, which cannot be used for defense. And in light of recent events, it would be foolish to discount the destructive potential of biological weapons. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, the world could end with a bang and a whimper.