By Donella Meadows
–March 28, 1991–
Some of our most controversial scientists have taken up a new pastime — making bets about the environmental future.
One such bet was put forward by James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Hansen is known for dramatic Congressional testimony to the effect that the greenhouse warming is already here. Last summer he offered to wager that one of the three years 1990, 1991, or 1992 would be the warmest in recorded history. With astonishing confidence he agreed to a tough definition of “warmest.” For him to win, the year would have to hit new highs in three different planetary measures: land surface temperature, ocean surface temperature, and temperature of the lower atmosphere.
Climatologist Hugh Ellsaesser of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, an outspoken greenhouse skeptic, took him on. The stake was $100. Within six months Hansen had won. By all three measures 1990 topped the charts.
Ellsaesser was unconverted: “I think he lucked out. It doesn’t change my opinion of what’s going on.”
A few months before Ellsaesser wrote out his check to Hansen, another bet between an ecological pessimist and an optimist came out the other way, in favor of the optimist.
This bet began ten years before, when economist Julian Simon of the University of Maryland issued a challenge to those who believe the erroneous (to him) proposition that the earth’s resources are running out. Pick any resource — metal, fuel, crop, timber — and any date in the future, he said. If the price of the resource has gone up by that date, indicating greater scarcity, I’ll pay you. If it has gone down, you pay me.
Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and other environmental warnings, couldn’t pass this offer up. With two colleagues he chose five minerals — chrome, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten — and figured out how much of each of them $200 would buy in 1980. Then he agreed that if their prices, corrected for inflation, were higher in 1990, Simon would pay him the difference. If the prices were lower, he would pay Simon.
By 1990 Ehrlich owed Simon $576.07. The prices of all five metals had gone down.
Ehrlich was as unrepentent as Ellsaesser: “The bet doesn’t mean anything. Julian Simon is like the guy who jumps off the Empire State Building and says how great things are going so far, as he passes the 10th floor. I still think the price of those metals will go up eventually, but that’s a minor point. The resource that worries me the most is the declining capacity of our planet to buffer itself against human impacts.”
The scientific community is still buzzing about the meanings and outcomes of these bets. Many people think Hansen is too confident, everyone agrees that one year proves nothing, but the fact that the earth’s temperature has gone beyond historic bounds is definitely sobering. Simon’s victory is harder to interpret, because the measure he and Ehrlich bet upon was not physical but economic.
Some people say that the prices of the metals went down because technology triumphed over geology, as it always will. Of course there are fewer minerals in the ground than there were 10 years ago, but new ore deposits have been discovered, there are new mining and refining processes, and new materials are substituting for old ones. Microchips, satellite signals, and fiber optics are replacing copper wires. Food is packaged more in aluminum and plastic and less in tin. Fluorescent lights are replacing tungsten bulbs; hard ceramics are replacing tungsten steel.
Maybe so, say others, but a bigger factor was lucky timing for Simon. When the bet was struck in 1980 mineral prices were at a peak, because the second, Shah-induced oil shock had inflated the prices of all energy-intensive commodities. Since then the world economy has stagnated, energy efficiency has improved, and oil price has plunged, carrying with it the prices of metals. Commodity prices tend to cycle; they will cycle back up again. (Simon has reissued the challenge for $20,000 this time, if anyone wants to bet on that hypothesis.)
Another argument says that Ehrlich bet on the wrong indicator. Prices have almost nothing to do with physical scarcity until the very end of the depletion curve. Prices are tugged about by governments, by cartels, by speculators, and by the relative power of owners, laborers, producers, and consumers. Falling commodity prices reflect only our denial of the real social and environmental costs of obtaining materials from the earth.
According to this argument Ehrlich should have bet on a physical measure of depletion — the grade of ore mined, or the amount of capital it takes to produce one ton of pure metal, or the effort required to discover the next orebody, or the environmental impact of the mining and refining processes. It’s interesting to note that these numbers are not readily available. Society does not go out of its way to measure and publicize the real costs of its resource use.
All the interpretations of the Simon-Ehrlich bet are probably partly right. Neither of these bets settled any arguments, proved anything, or changed any minds. They only dramatized two genuine and continuing controversies.
And while these puny bets are going on, the big one is also working itself out. Populations, energy use, pollution emissions, deforestation, erosion continue to increase. The industrial world is betting on the side of Ellsaesser and Simon. What’s at stake is the industrial world, and maybe the ecological world as well.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991