Microsoft’s legendary Bill Gates has taken up a second career reading and reviewing books. He’s not bad at it in some ways, and he’s taken some heterodox positions that depart from his comfortable Seattle liberalism, such as praising just about everything written by Vaclav Smil, author several fine books on energy policy and other subjects.
But it’s a good thing Gates made his fortune in computer software already, as I don’t think his career as a book reviewer is promising (not that book reviewing was ever a premier career path). Gates has reviewed the Paul Sabin book about the famous Paul Ehrlich-Julian Simon wager over resources prices in the 1980s, The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future.
Gates writes that Simon won the bet “definitively” and notes that Ehrlich “still does not concede that his predictions of Malthusian horrors have been off the mark” and “does not acknowledge that the discipline of economics has anything of value to contribute to discussions of population or the environment.” He adds that “Ehrlich was extremely wrong and that following his scientific certainties would have been terrible for the poor.” He also gives a positive shout out to Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist.
But Gates vitiates much of the clarity of his account of the Simon-Ehrlich bet and the associated debate over Malthusianism by going all moral equivalency on us. While admitting that Ehrlich’s views would have been tyrannically disastrous, he depicts Simon as being equally “extreme.”
Simon is far from blameless. “Julian Simon and other critics of environmentalism … have taken far too much comfort from extravagant and flawed predictions of scarcity and doom,” writes Sabin. “By focusing solely and relentlessly on positive trends, Julian Simon made it more difficult to solve environmental problems.”
It’s a shame that extreme views get more attention and more of a following than nuanced views. We see this dynamic clearly when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does its best to be clear and impartial in conveying what is known on the key issues, but both liberals and conservatives make it hard for the public to understand the panel’s nuanced conclusions.
This is beyond weak-minded. Since when is taking a stand against monumental error like Ehrlich “extreme”? The idea of a “middle ground” between freedom and Ehrlich’s tyrannical designs is equally risible. And best not to bother with Gates’s view that the IPCC’s reports are “nuanced,” unless Gates is pulling our leg here by using John Kerry’s favorite term. But I doubt it. He should stick to software.