One of the best books I’ve read in the last year is “The Bet,” by Yale historian Paul Sabin. The author penned a New York Times op-ed around the time of its publication. As Fred Pearce wrote in his New Scientist review, Saban “has produced an absorbing narrative of how two people’s ‘clashing insights’ unleashed on the world polarized views of the environmental and resource threats we face in the 21st century.”
Those two people would be the economist Julian Simon and biologist Paul Ehrlich. When you see those names paired together, their famous wager will surely be mentioned in the same breath. Saban’s book is a must-read if you want to learn how the stage was set for the acrid, polarized climate debate playing out today. This incubation is something I discuss in my recent review of the “The Bet.”
Admirers and detractors of Paul Ehrlich are aware of the enormous influence he had on the trajectory of the environmental discourse. This passage from “The Bet” speaks to the conflicted assessment of Ehrlich by his peers just as he was making his mark in the early 1970s:
Few scientists had the internal constitution or rhetorical skills to play the public role that Ehrlich did. Some of Ehrlich’s scientific colleagues described feeling “schizophrenic,” torn between professional responsibilities and their personal reticence, on the one hand, and the “moral bind” that overpopulation placed on them, on the other. Others questioned whether Ehrlich’s provocative style served him well, and criticized his apocalyptic rhetoric. As Eugene Odum, a leading ecologist, wrote to Ehrlich in 1970, “while some of us like yourself must remain ‘highly visible,” we have also got to encourage other ecologists to back up this visibility with what we might call real credibility.” In a tough review of Paul and Ann Ehrich’s 1970 Population, Resources, Environment: Issues in Human Ecology, Roger Revelle, a leading oceanographer and the director of Harvard’s Center for Population Studies, called Ehrlich the “New High Priest of Ecocatastrophe.” The “emotional and quasi-religious force” of Ehrlich’s writing, Revelle wrote, was not likely to “lead to the hard thinking and effective action which the overwhelming issues so urgently demand.”
So would this be hippie punching or foreshadowing?