Betting on Earth

The first Earth Day was observed across the United States. on this day in 1970. The April 22 date, now supported by a UN resolution, will be observed in almost 200 countries around the world.

Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb, 1968) helped to organize the first national event and addressed an Earth Day rally at Northwestern University, delivering his change-or-die message to those “overdeveloped countries” that had become “the looters and polluters of the planet.” Paul Sabin’s The Bet (2013) chronicles the famous wager Ehrlich made with the economist Julian Simon in 1980 on the rate of resource depletion — in this case, a handful of precious metals, their availability viewed as an indicator of how fast the planet was snowballing toward environmental collapse. Ehrlich bet that the metals would rise in price over the next decade due to scarcity; Simon bet they would fall in price, improved technology having increased their availability. Simon won the bet — though he wouldn’t today, some environmentalists are quick to point out. But Sabin’s The Bet is ultimately interested in moving beyond the environmental poker game:

Instead of reading Paul Ehrlich’s clash with Julian Simon as a simple white hat−black hat morality tale, their story can move us beyond stereotyped portrayals of environmentalists and conservatives. Both men, in fact, had well-considered, significant, yet competing viewpoints underlying their strong rhetoric. Ultimately the history of their bet contains cautionary lessons for both sides, and perhaps a path to a less heated, but more productive and even hopeful, conversation about the future.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.