Paul Ehrlich is the Stanford University scientist and doomsayer who predicted early in the late 1960’s that “the population bomb” would soon result in global starvation. Those of us who were around at the time will remember Ehrlich’s ubiquitous 1968 book The Population Bomb. Ehrlich argued that unless we adopted drastic measures our future was grim. A famine of biblical proportions was to occur by 1975.
In 1980 Ehrlich famously made and lost a bet with Julian Simon based on Ehrlich’s predicted scenario of resource scarcity. George Will recalled the bet in a good column on the global warming scare:
Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford scientist and environmental Cassandra who predicted calamitous food shortages by 1990, accepted a bet with economist Julian Simon. When Ehrlich predicted the imminent exhaustion of many nonrenewable natural resources, Simon challenged him: Pick a “basket” of any five such commodities, and I will wager that in a decade the price of the basket will decline, indicating decreased scarcity. Ehrlich picked five metals — chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten — that he predicted would become more expensive. Not only did the price of the basket decline, the price of all five declined.
Will added a footnote to this history: “An expert Ehrlich consulted in picking the five was John Holdren, who today is President Obama’s science adviser. Credentialed intellectuals, too — actually, especially — illustrate Montaigne’s axiom: ‘Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know.'” There is much more to the story, making it of current interest, as John Hinderaker noted in “Politicizing science.”
When Peter Robinson sat down with Matt Ridley to discuss The Rational Optimist, Ridley’s new book, the Erhlich/Simon wager came up early. The Rational Optimist says “we’re all kings now” because of exchange and specialization.(Ridley’s site for the book is here.) Like Ehrlich, coincidentally, Ridley is a zoologist by training. Through our arrangement with the Hoover Institution, we are pleased to present the interview with Matt Ridley in its entirety.