Interview 1107 - Pierre Desrochers Explains the Bet of the Century

11/06/201513 Comments

In 1980 economist Julian Simon bet biologist Paul Ehrlich that the price of five commodity metals would decrease over the next 10 years. Today on the program Pierre Desrochers of the University of Toronto Mississauga joins us to explain how the bet came about, who won, and what was really at stake. Along the way we learn about depletionism versus resourceship, how lack of imagination leads people toward hysteria and failed predictions, and why the human brain is the greatest resource of all.


No limits to growth: Simon vs. Ehrlich

The Simon-Ehrlich wager 25 years on

Corbett Report Radio 121 – Marc Morano vs. Paul Ehrlich

Ehrlich: "I wish I'd taken more math"

Master Resource

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  1. grahamaskey says:

    Whilst your discussion may provide a convincing mathematical argument for unfettered resource extraction, it seems to me to fail on some social and environmental grounds. Resource extraction is a prime source of pollution and thus without major restrictions it will continue to blight the lives of people and the environment. Big business has proved it has very little interest in such matters and there is little reason to believe they will change their actions, particularly if given even more free reign by the economic ideas you propose. Resource extraction demands people be deprived of their land, particularly traditional societies and there are hundreds of examples around the globe where this is happening or has happened already. This is almost always done by use of violence, whether state supported or private – hardly in keeping with your philosphy of agorism.
    Resource extraction generates and funds violence on huge scales – look at the six million dead in the eastern Congo or the 40 years of state sponsered terror in West Papua. Dare I mention Iraq as another blindingly obvious example.
    Mankind my well be scientifically capable of over coming the perceived limit on resources but are you seriously suggesting that this is the kind of price worth paying? These societal pressures will only increase with continued extraction in the current form. Ultimately the resources are finite and you can argue about when we will reach peak rates but not if.
    A world run on a more sustainable basis can only improve the lives of people, whereas the argument you propose will simply be music to the ears of multi nationals and tyrants everywhere. Its all very well using such arguments battling with the Agenda 21 conspiracy but the point is we should all be fighting for a truly sustainable world where people have control over resources not the big powers. Most of those truly in the green movement, who believe all the global warming stuff you so despise, still have a similar vision of the future as you, even if their enemy isnt quite what they think it is. Arguments for continued resource extraction will only help those who we are all fighting against.

    • candideschmyles says:

      Ironically I spent many years within the green movement arguing over the near universal environmental fascism that existed within it. I found the antiprogress mentality that romanticised some mythical moment of perfection, a pre industrial nirvana, more than a little galling. Their piety in recycling the packaging from their Macbooks, their long haul flights to Africa or the Amazon for an ethnic fix, the his and hers Prius… none of it rang their hypocrisy alarms. And as Desrochers succinctly points out, and I am talking about an environmental charity of global reach that I was working for, it was almost as though the purpose of one member of staff was to provide PR photo opportunities for politicians and big business. Something I was not alone in objecting to.
      However you are absolutely correct in the points you make. There were no caveats regarding good stewardship contained in this dialogue which casts a big dark shadow over any merits it may have. Without going off Earth, horrendously polluting, there is no quantifying just how long advances in technology will continue to offset difficulties in extracting a finite resource. For some resources they are near limitless but for others, essential to modern life, scarcity is already an issue. And too often, as you state, many people are dying daily so we in our cosseted comfort can play with our gadgets. This does stink of a rubber stamp for business as usual for big business. And it is pertinent to point out that some of the very worst companies polluting, displacing indigenous communities and stealing national resources are Canadian. Anyone researching some of the list toppers in the link can see for themselves.
      Additionally on the global warming issue it is disingenuous to build an argument on “I’m not popular for saying this but” when the evidence for climate change is the history of Earth itself. The extent or rapidity of that change is always subject to uncertainty and this denial of it as an issue, as I have said often, only serves one master, big oil. I am sick of seeing James roll out one denialist after another who ignores the results from the measuring instruments based on “opinion”. It’s fraudulent.

  2. bladtheimpailer says:

    Quite an interesting interview. While enforced scarcity and many other economic interventions create problems for the accurate determination of what Desrochers has to say, it seems plain enough that this is not the whole truth and much exception is likely to be found. I don’t know that anyone would describe some modern oil extraction methods such as fracking as furthering the economic benefit of all concerned. Of course if peak oil does become a problem for mankind alternatives like agenda 21s may come into play. A note on population numbers. In the western world and some other areas population numbers would be in serious decline if not for immigration; requiring 2.2 live births per women to maintain a steady population where numbers are generally below 2 live births and often now getting closer to 1 live birth per women of child bearing age. Other areas such as Africa still see population numbers increasing but the overall trend across the planet is a definite slowing of increase from the exponential of the 20th century. All in all a good listen….

  3. Eric says:

    I agree that human resourcefulness and technological innovation have great power to change our world, but I am wary of technology as a silver bullet. To say that there is no carrying capacity for humans, because we’re so innovative, is a mighty stretch. Yes, advanced technology could turn around the numerous environmental crises civilization has created, but so far, it has not been used that way. Depletionism, as he calls it, is not relevant in a society that lives within the budget of their natural economy, like indigenous people, as nature is indeed abundant and all that we need replenishes itself constantly, but in culture of empire, where whole forests are clear cut, mountain tops are removed,and topsoil is washed away to sea, depletion is a serious concern.

    I’m not saying we have to cut population (though I’m convinced we could, without too much heartache, through voluntary means); I’m just saying we have to address the decline of certain vital resources. We can’t act like we’re not depleting the topsoil, the aquifers, the oceans of fish, or the amazon of trees. These are serious problems, and while technology will play a huge role in solving them, it will only do so once we get our act together and change our cultural value system.

  4. graviv says:

    Dear James, I am all verklempt. This was very provocative and disturbing, although I understand your views on climate, now. I disagree that there are only two choices, a medieval misery (although a food forest might be nice) or your guest’s extractive dystopia. I can see small communities living in tipis or yurts, with renewable energy and sensible transportation. pretty simple but not either choice you gave. With lots of heart, soul, and mind.

    also your guest speaks about trading with other species? I thought I had heard wrong. Well in these “trades” I think the other got the bad deal. What about non-aggression and no stealing?

    Also, I implore you all to ponder some things:
    1. Big creative human brains can rationalize anything, so be careful when using it.

    2. We need a brain big enough to direct our heart. (We can’t have TBTF brains.)

    3. No bird or squirrel or spider has ever built a bomb or gone around comparing brain size, as if size mattered.

  5. nosoapradio says:

    “We”. “We” have depleted the resources. “We” have cut down the Amazon. “We” have exploited the third world.

    “We”? Did anyone give “You”, “Us” a choice? When did “You” realize the deck was stacked?

    Were “You” born with the knowledge that “We” were so cynical and heartless and that “We” were getting so rich by forcing children into 16-hour day factories… and that “We” had been doing so for centuries?

    Is that what “You” wanted? Is that what “I” fought for? Is it really “We” who are responsible for this?

    Do “We” want “Their” version of sustainability?

  6. doublek321 says:

    Interesting discussion. I have several angles of response:

    1) As relates to the BFP Roundtable about “what can we do”, I think we should at least consider Julian Simon’s marketing inventiveness. He knew his theory wasn’t to the media’s “if it bleeds, it leads” liking but he cleverly figured a way to try to get this story into the collective conscious. I also tie that into what he said toward the end of the podcast about how a lot of people in academia had never even heard a differing opinion to “Malthusianism” (I forget the terminology he used so I’m sticking w/ “Malthusianism”). Once they heard these differing opinions they were open to them.

    In my comment on your “what can we do” podcast I was mentioning how Alex Jones might be more clever than given credit for as he at least tries to get concepts out there. And even if he’s an easy target to be made fun of, at least he allows people to “safely” bring up certain topics in conversation (“that wacko believes…”). I still am thinking about the idea of if a bunch of 9/11 truthers did something that would “stick out” to New Yorkers (e.g. marched every single day down a certain street chanting “9/11 was an inside job” – though probably something a lot better than that), whether the same effect could play out. In other words, would people in office buildings nearby talk about the “crazies” (again, allowing them to “safely” bring up the topic) and then maybe a water cooler conversation would be like “have you ever talked to any of them? They said ___ and I looked it up and it turned out to be true. I’m not saying I agree w/ them but it’s still interesting”.

    In short that would be the “breaking through the conditioning” that AJ talks about. And maybe I’m wrong in my thoughts here but I at least wanted to bring it up.

    2) I wonder if someone who would call me a conspiracy theorist made me the same bet. I’ve been predicting (and this is basically what I’ve learned from Peter Schiff/Ron Paul, etc) that gold and silver will go up (priced in USD) in the next 10 years. I think probably almost everything will go up in USD actually due to money printing. Obviously certain prices do go up over time (and admittedly Desrochers said that in certain decades Simon would’ve lost the bet and that price was an imperfect gauge to begin with).

    Let’s say I made that bet 4 years ago and I chose a 4 year time period (as Simon gave the option of “any time period longer than 1 year”). Obviously, gold and silver have dropped significantly in the past 4 years so I would lose the bet. I’m sure I’d counter-argue that the time period in question wasn’t long enough. But, hey, that’s exactly what Ehrlich is saying in his own defense.

    For the record I’m a believer in Simon being correct and Ehrlich being incorrect but I’m just saying that we have to apply the same line of reasoning we use against others against ourselves as well.

    3) I am a believer in not destroying the environment. Stuff like fracking genuinely concerns me (as I believe it pollutes our water, land and probably air). But fracking can certainly be pointed to as “the ingenuity of the human brain that helps make oil prices cheaper”.

    Another such example is GMOs. I think Desrocher talked about how we are able to produce more food nowadays (and I wonder how much of that is from GMOs).

    We’ve heard for a while that GMOs are necessary to feed 3rd world populations. I recently talked to a friend of a friend who works in marketing. One of the things he works on is promoting Monsanto. I joked “that must not be easy”. He replied back with (and I’m a little fuzzy about the exact specifics but this is pretty close): “well I’ve seen an entire crop of corn grown without a single drop of water” and how that would help feed people in arid lands. The guy seemed like a genuinely good and sincere person to me as well. He also drove an electric car so I truly think he believes in what he talks about.

    I’ve even heard Ron Paul speak about nuclear energy in a positive light (can’t quite remember the specifics on this one either but I remember being surprised when I heard it. I think he was saying it’s at least an option that should be looked into).

    Not sure how to reconcile stuff like this. I generally like free market ideas but what about cases where it causes damage to the environment and people will die from it? Sure you can argue there will be lawsuits but do we really want to have this type of thing be “retroactive”? (e.g. a lot of people die and then there’s a lawsuit that prevents the thing from being repeated going forward). Plus isn’t it naive to think that a little guy can win against the lawyers of corporate giants? (though I guess cigarettes are a counter example to my point – though it took decades).

    On the other side of that coin, being “proactive” allows those with ulterior motives to try to push false agendas (e.g. “global warming” – which I believe is a false agenda and “sustainable cities” or whatever they’re called).

  7. hansomebwonderful2001 says:

    Thank you both. This has given me a better understanding of how humans thrive or demise in relationship to the resources we use to make our lives easier, more comfortably and accomplish task. I’m better off for taking the time to listen to this interview.

  8. Aphix says:

    Quick correction, @ 03:01 — Penn State is not an Ivy League school.

    Most people living in Pennsylvania think it’s a State school, (funded by the Pennsylvania), including many students, but it’s not even that. It’s a private institution, realistically, more of a cult of sub-25-year-old townies living in the woods with no real contact to the rest of the world, getting drunk and unconsciously learning collectivism.

    • jg says:

      Quick Reply (much later) to a Quick (Partially Incorrect) Reply:

      Penn State is a state school part of the Pennsylvania State University Commonwealth system.

      University of Pennsylvania, Penn or UPenn, as it is called, is the 6th oldest University in the country and is, indeed, an Ivy League school founded in 1755.

      At the risk of making this longer than a quick reply, where do you get off describing a school, which you obviously know little to nothing about, as “a cult of sub-25-year-old townies living in the woods with no real contact to the rest of the world, getting drunk and unconsciously learning collectivism”? Not really up to the quality of most corbettreport comments, if I may say so.

  9. VoltaicDude says:

    This is definitely confusing ground to cover.

    Too often people investigating this area are carried away by the trends they find from the particular points they discover or observe closely. As Desrochers points out, history has illustrated many of the inadequacies observable in Malthusian theory.

    Malthus overstepped, developing doomsday predictions from static and simplistic assessments about the world and human culture. Moreover, those erroneous predictions have proven useful to those that would pursue fear-mongering as a social-political-control.

    And Ehrlich, a current-day Malthusian successor, seems dogmatic, uninterested in open and honest inquiry, and who also (what a coincidence, right) happens to be in sync with the totalitarian mass-media tendencies of the West.

    But it also seems a little odd to just assume that a “truly free” market will take care of the problems of unfair or inhumane aspects of post-modern culture. This reasoning reminds me of Smith’s (I think also discredited) notion of the market’s invisible hand.

    Just the word “free” as applied to a market is problematic. Maybe we could settle on the word “fair” as a general denominator – it doesn’t necessarily have to allude to the specific political movements that have been trying to break new ground with establishing organic and worker-friendly business networks (although that’s not a bad place to start) – it could be used as a broader more general term that acknowledges “the hand of human choice.”

    At the same time it could effectively delineate a difference between what we all here are genuinely against – crony-capitalism – and which passes nominally, in our de facto everyday world as the “free market.”

    I see other parallels too. Psychologically and sociologically there is an aspect of “externalization” regarding anyone’s pursuit of market actions. Invariably, in a large, abstracted, monetized market, conflicts of interest will arise that will be outside the realm of individual conscientiousness or even consciousness.

    Presupposing that social and political conflicts would be self-correcting by market actions again smacks of “the invisible hand.” Besides, the larger the market, the less individuals have specific controls, excepting in disparate situations, were a few individuals control the environment for the many – precisely what we’re trying to avoid.

    The dilemma at essence is that we either suppose “the market” has a natural profile (from which arise all the problems of the impersonal universe, and from which we are ironically trying to protect ourselves by creating a market-haven for humanity), or we presume “the market” is a domicile that we shape and performs to our intentions (just as computers are programmed, more than they are a form of independent artificial intelligence, and which unfortunately negates the unbiased objectivity to which we are striving to escape, and that would benefit us with an accurate assessment of truly objective “value” and “fairness”).

    Monopolization due to concentrating-wealth over time has never been shown to be generally self-correcting in a complex modern or post-modern (certainly not globalist) environment and this type of problem is our main source of political strife.

    Plus, historically, all modern and post-modern heavy and digital industry has only ever been developed and practiced in disparate and patronizing economies – our historical “free market” (which is of course a nice way of describing a lot of the unfortunate human – or rather, inhumane – costs).

    Maybe especially the developments of digital culture are changing this paradigm, and I would not dismiss that idea, but should we assume such, and exactly how? And if we stop short of assuming, can we with confidence profess this benefit as a fact to be relied on?

    Finally, while we know that fear-mongering is a currency of totalitarianism, we ought to be able to sanely keep in mind potentially problematic scenarios. Off-handedly dismissing such potential problems is also dishonest and historically speaking smacks of Reaganism and Clintonism (to coin a term – the latter as in the repeal of Glass-Steagall).

    I hope it is neither contrary to the balance I am seeking, nor a non sequitur to remember that Easter Island, while it might not be a lesson per se, might still warrant us some cautions.

  10. mksca220 says:

    It is not technology that will solve our issues but a change in our values and attitudes. If technology was our “savior” we would be saved already. We have the technology.

    Consider the horrendous impact of raising farm animals around the world (the number one cause of deforestation in the Amazon by the way…) especially the inefficient land and water usage involved in the process. Of course we can abundantly feed our growing population if we go back to our natural diets and stop breeding animals in unnatural numbers to be killed for food! Our health would benefit from a plant-based diet too which has been demonstrated by innumerable studies. Which brings me to the guest’s comment about our health being better than ever!?… this planet he’s talking about, how far from the sun are we talking??

    I’m sorry James but there are no “two types of people”. There are many and disagreeing with your guest’s views does not make me fall in the “other” category.

    Lastly, the guest demonstrates speciesism. Several of his comments imply we as Humans are superior to animals and other creatures with which we share this planet on the pretext that we have “greater abilities”. This supposes two things, both of high arrogance: 1) We know everything there is to know about animals and other creatures of this world. 2) We consider our abilities to be more beneficial to the world. To quote Bill Hicks, ” we are a virus with fucking shoes folks, that’s all we are..”

    I’m afraid this last point is the cause of our problems right there.

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