The PJ Tatler

Malthusians vs Cornucopians

An ongoing debate in science is between the Malthusians, who believe that the future is leading to an inevitable catastrophe, and the Cornucopians, who believe that on average things get better over time.  Some of the widely known Malthusian predictions are: the end of the world in an ice age (70’s), the end of the world due to global warming (1990’s to now), the end of the world due to oil depletion (popular in the 70’s and back today), the end of the world due to the depletion of other resources (popularized by the Club of Rome book The Limits to Growth), and historically back to Thomas Malthus’s prediction of population growth overwhelming the possible supply of food, leading to starvation and population collapse.

Malthusian predictions are just ever so common, and people making those predictions — people like Paul Ehrlich, James Hansen, and Al Gore — become rich and famous by making them.

The more optimistic among us, the Cornucopians, think instead that ingenuity and invention are more powerful, and that over time we adapt to new conditions, so that before we’re buried in horse manure we invent the automobile.  One of the first of the Cornucopians was Professor Julian Simon, who famously bet Paul Ehrlich on the long term prices of various commodities.  If the prices went down in constant dollars, Ehrlich paid Simon; if they went up, Simon paid Ehrlich.

Ehrlich paid Simon — contrary to Ehrlich’s predictions, those commodities actually got cheaper over time.

Recently, John Tierney of the New York Times set up a similar bet, based on the price of oil.  He’s what Tierney said about the outcome:

The past year the price has rebounded, but the average for 2010 has been just under $80, which is the equivalent of about $71 in 2005 dollars — a little higher than the $65 at the time of our bet, but far below the $200 threshold set by Mr. Simmons…. The colleagues handling his affairs reviewed the numbers last week and declared that Mr. Simmons’s $5,000 should be awarded [because Tierney had won the bet.]