Posts Tagged ‘Environment’

Ehrlich-Simon Round Two

Saturday, October 3rd, 2015

In 1980, doom-monger and perennial wrong person Paul Ehrlich made a wager with Julian Simon. Simon bet that the price of any commodities Ehrlich cared to nominate would go down over the next ten years due to increasing productivity. Ehrlich bet that they would go up because of the global pandemics and starvation that were supposed to happen but never did. At the end of the ten years, Ehrlich had to write Simon a check of $576.07.

Since the day the wager was concluded, Ehrlich and his fellow doom-sayers have been trying to weasel out of the result. You can see this on the Wikipedia page on the wager:

The prices of all five metals increased between 1950 and 1975, but Ehrlich believes three of the five went down during the 1980s because of the price of oil doubling in 1979, and because of a world-wide recession in the early 1980s.

Ehrlich might have a point if the entire motivation for the bet weren’t his prediction of a global catastrophe by the end of the 80′s.

Ehrlich would likely have won if the bet had been for a different ten-year period. Asset manager Jeremy Grantham wrote that if the Simon–Ehrlich wager had been for a longer period (from 1980 to 2011), then Simon would have lost on four of the five metals. He also noted that if the wager had been expanded to “all of the most important commodities,” instead of just five metals, over that longer period of 1980 to 2011, then Simon would have lost “by a lot.”

This doesn’t mean much. In 2011, we were in the middle of a precious metal crunch that sent prices skyrocketing. Since then, prices have tumbled. All five metals are down since 2011 and all but chromium are down around 50%. I can’t find good historical records, but copper, at least, is cheaper than it was in 1989, in inflation-adjusted terms. I’m also not clear by what Grantham means by “all of the most important commodities”. Oil is about the same as it was in 1980 in inflation adjusted terms. Wheat is cheaper.

Moreover, even if the commodities prices were higher, it’s still because Ehrlich was wrong. Ehrlich was predicting prices would go higher because we would run out of things. But when prices did go higher, they did because of increased global demand. They went higher because of the post-Cold War economic growth and development that has, so far, lifted two billion people out of poverty. This is growth that Ehrlich insisted (and still insists) was impossible.

(To be honest, I’m not sure why the Grantham quote is even on Wikipedia. Grantham is an investor, not an economist, and this quote was an off-hand remark in a quarterly newsletter about sound investment strategies, not a detailed analysis. The quote is so obscure and oblique to the larger issues that its inclusion crosses me as a desperate effort to defend Ehrlich’s honor.)

What really amuses me about the Ehrlich-Simon bet, however, was that he proposed a second wager. The second wager was not like the first. It was far more specific, far narrower and far more tailored to things that were not really in dispute. Simon rejected the second wager for the following reasons:

Let me characterize their offer as follows. I predict, and this is for real, that the average performances in the next Olympics will be better than those in the last Olympics. On average, the performances have gotten better, Olympics to Olympics, for a variety of reasons. What Ehrlich and others says is that they don’t want to bet on athletic performances, they want to bet on the conditions of the track, or the weather, or the officials, or any other such indirect measure.

Exactly. The two-and-a-half decades since the second wager have been the best in human history. We have had fewer wars than at any period. Fewer murders. Less disease. Less starvation. More wealth. Ehrlich’s second wager didn’t care about any of that. It was about details like global temperature and arable land and wild fish catches, not the big picture of human prosperity. Below, I will go through the specifics of the second wager and you will see, over and over again, how narrow Ehrlich’s points were. In many cases, he would have “won” on issues where he really lost — correctly predicting trivial details of a trend that contradicted everything he was saying.

In fact, even if Simon had taken up Ehrlich on his useless hideously biased bet, Ehrlich might have lost the bet anyway, depending on the criteria they agreed on. Let’s go through the bet Eherlich proposed, point by point:

  • The three years 2002–2004 will on average be warmer than 1992–1994. This would have been a win for Ehrlich, exaggerated by the Mt. Pinatubo cooling in 1993. So, 1-0 Ehrlich.
  • There will be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2004 than in 1994. Ehrlich wins again, 2-0. Neither of these was really in dispute, however.
  • There will be more nitrous oxide in the atmosphere in 2004 than 1994. Ehrlich wins again, 3-0. Again, this wasn’t really in dispute. Note, however, that this is basically three bets about the same thing: global warming. It would be as if Simon counted Tungsten three times in the original bet.
  • The concentration of ozone in the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) will be greater than in 1994. This took a lot of digging and I am happy to be corrected if I’m reading the literature wrong. But from what I can tell, tropospheric ozone has actually decreased or leveled off since 1994. At the very least, this pollutant has gotten under much firmer control. So, 3-1 Ehrlich.
  • Emissions of the air pollutant sulfur dioxide in Asia will be significantly greater in 2004 than in 1994. This is what I mean about how narrowly tailored the second wager was. Global SO2 emissions are down. In North America and Europe, they fell off a cliff. Only in Asia, did they go up. In fact, it’s really only in China. If it weren’t for China, global SO2 emissions would have been down by 20% over the span of the bet. It’s hard to call this a win for Ehrlich. 3-2.
  • There will be less fertile cropland per person in 2004 than in 1994. and There will be less agricultural soil per person in 2004 than 1994. Ehrlich really wanted to stack the deck in his favor, didn’t he? We’ll give him both of these as wins, but they really aren’t. There’s a reason we’re using less land for growing crops and it’s not because of environmental catastrophe. Its because …
  • There will be on average less rice and wheat grown per person in 2002–2004 than in 1992–1994. Boom. Not only is there not less rice and wheat per person being grown, there’s a hell of a lot more being grown. Thanks to improved farming methods and genetic engineering, today’s crops are hardier and more productive than ever. The reason Ehrlich “won” on the last two is because we don’t need as much land to feed people. So we’re at 5-3, but it’s a very cheap five for Ehrlich. So far, the only thing he was right on was that global warming would get worse.
  • In developing nations there will be less firewood available per person in 2004 than in 1994. I’m going to play Ehrlich’s game here. The key word here is “available”. From what I can tell, per capita firewood consumption is down in developing countries. But that’s not because of a crushing environmental crisis. It’s because fossil fuel consumption is way up. There’s plenty of firewood available. There’s a lot less need for it. This is once again Ehrlich focusing on trivia — how much firewood is available — rather than the big picture. Lots of firewood being burned is a bad thing. It means forests being gutted. It means indoor pollution. It means poverty. Fossil fuels aren’t exactly a panacea, obviously. But they’re way better than firewood. The people of the developing world are going to need natural gas if they’re ever going to get to solar power. 5-4.
  • The remaining area of virgin tropical moist forests will be significantly smaller in 2004 than in 1994. Once again, a very narrow criterion. I can’t find a source that is that specific. Tropical rainforest destruction has leveled off recently, thanks to prosperity. But I have little doubt Ehrlich would have won this. 6-4.
  • The oceanic fishery harvest per person will continue its downward trend and thus in 2004 will be smaller than in 1994. Again, note how harrow the criterion is. The amount of fish per person is actually up. But that’s because of a huge surge in farm fishing. Ehrlich only counts wild fish, which has not decreased, but is less on a per capita basis. How do we call that? I wouldn’t give him SO2, so I’ll give him wild fish. 7-4.
  • There will be fewer plant and animal species still extant in 2004 than in 1994. Sure. 8-4
  • More people will die of AIDS in 2004 than in 1994. Ehrlich would have won this one. But it’s a narrow win. AIDS deaths peaked in 2005. Since then, they have fallen by a third. 9-4
  • Between 1994 and 2004, sperm cell counts of human males will continue to decline and reproductive disorders will continue to increase. Nope. People aren’t even sure the original research is correct. At the very least, the picture is mixed. Reproductive disorders are probably increasing but that’s because of people waiting longer to have children because of … wait for it … increasing prosperity. 9-5.
  • The gap in wealth between the richest 10% of humanity and the poorest 10% will be greater in 2004 than in 1994. Nope. There’s concern about wealth inequality in developed countries. But, on global scale, wealth inequality has been in a decades-long decline. 9-6.
  • So … with Ehrlich counting global warming three times … with Ehrlich tailoring the questions incredibly narrowly … with Ehrlich betting twice on global farmland … Ehrlich wins the bet. But it’s a hollow victory. Ehrlich wins on nine of the bets, but only two or three of the larger issues. Had Simon taken him up on it and tweaked a few questions — going to global SO2 emissions or global fishing catches or one measure for global warming — Ehrlich would have lost and lost badly.

    That’s the point here. If you put aside the details, the second wager amounted to Ehrlich betting that the disaster that failed to happen in the 80′s would happen in the 90′s. He was wrong. Again. And if you “extended the bet” the way his defenders do for the initial bet, he was even wronger.

    And yet … he’s still a hero to the environmental movement. It just goes to show you that there’s no path to fame easier than being wrong with authority.

    Toys, Kids and the Crisis of Abundance

    Friday, January 2nd, 2015

    One of the reasons I like having kids is the toys. Not because I like to play with them (although I do), but because there is nothing in the world quite like the look a child gets in their eyes when they get a toy, especially an unexpected and delightful one. When Abby was about three months old, I brought home a teething ring and a rattle. She was sitting in her car seat in the kitchen and saw me and her little eyes lit up. She just knew it was something for her. And every now and then, I’ll see that same delight.

    This week, however, I’ve been in one of my moods. Not a bad mood but a mood that makes me clean up the entire house from top to bottom. In doing so, I filled two huge garbage bags with nothing but crap. Papers with drawings on them, little trinkets and toys from kids’ parties, Happy Meals, giveaways and $1 trinkets that she simply had to have. And I don’t think my child is that unusual in that regard. It seems that every parent’s house is filling with these little pieces of crap. You have to dump it regularly or you’ll be overwhelmed.

    For children in the US — at least in the middle class and above — toys are no longer this rare and wonderful treat. They’re something they get on a regular basis, something they expect to see. Oh, they’ll still have delight when a really good one comes along. But it makes me indescribably sad to see these dozens of little toys, unwanted and unloved, to see the few minutes of happiness she got out of them before casting them aside. And I know that the same thing will happen with my son.

    (Interesting, I think she feels the same way. There are toys she hasn’t played with in ages but I have to sneak them out of the house because she doesn’t want to part with them.)

    I also can’t help but think of the long-term impact. I’m no radical environmentalist, but it pains me to think of the resources and energy spent making millions of McDonald’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle toys that will just end up in landfills, that will bring very little real joy to the world.

    It’s just another aspect of our crisis of abundance. We’re so rich and things are so cheap that they no longer have any value.

    Rush is Wrong on Religion

    Friday, September 20th, 2013

    I see that Rush Limbaugh has dived into the latest climate nontroversy. That makes this is a good time to post this, which I wrote several months ago. Sorry to make this Global Warming Week. I hate that debate. But with the way the Daily Fail’s nonsense is propagating, I have no choice.


    Wednesday Linkorama

    Wednesday, October 17th, 2012
  • Distracted parenting is a problem, obviously. But, despite the horrible tragedies described, it’s not clear how big a problem it is. Mobile devices free parents up to do more things with kids and to supervise them more. I will let on, however, that they can occupy your attention. I was at a park when a kid broke his arm and didn’t notice immediately because of my phone. Don’t know if it would have been different with my kid.
  • I’m really looking forward to reading Nate Silver’s book.
  • Statues at the bottom of the sea. Amazing. And heart-breaking, when you think of what they represent.
  • I think this author has a good point that the Star Wars universe is likely illiterate. However, I think it’s less a conscious “where is modernism driving us” thing than a reflection of Star Wars being built on medieval narratives and cliches.
  • An interesting take on one of the more panned documentaries of the year. It does seem that people have a problem accepting that being anti-Big Education is not the same as being anti-education. Or even anti-teacher.
  • This story made my day. This is religion at its finest.
  • Whatever the political fallout of Benghazi, the story of the attack is an amazing one.
  • This is NOT the way to fight global warming. And they say all the greed and abuse is on the skeptic side.
  • 34 Years of BS

    Sunday, March 4th, 2012

    Several blogs have recently posted an image that purports to show 34 years of deforestation of North America.

    It’s bogus. And whoever put it together — I can’t find the composite on the NASA site — has been deliberately deceptive.

    The first image dates from 2001, not 1978. You can find it here in wikipedia. It was taken on July 29 — summer for the Northern hemisphere. Check the cloud patterns and you’ll see it’s the same image. The second image you can find here from January of this year from the new Suomi satellite. And for those of you keeping up, that means it’s a winter image.

    So this is not an image of deforestation at all. It doesn’t cover 34 years. And it’s not even from the same satellite. And I didn’t have to use any of my NASA insider skills to figure out how the deception was done.

    If you want to know the facts about deforestation, try wikipedia. In the US, forests declined about 25% from 1600 to 1900. Since then, they’ve been stable due to protection, better management and sustainable logging practices in which new trees are planted as old ones are cut down.

    This is bullshit. This is Paul Ehrlich level bullshit. I’m angry about it, not only because of the pollution of the debate but because of the political abuse of some beautiful images NASA has produced.

    Update: Just to clarify why I was immediately suspicious of this image. One, I keep up with environmental issues so I knew the facts on deforestation already. Two, as a professional, I immediately noticed the difference in angle of the Earth in the two images, indicating the first was taken in summer and the second in winter. NASA can orient these images any way they want, since they are composites. But they angle them as they are shown to reflect the difference in seasons.

    Wednesday Linkorama

    Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

    Non-political links:

  • Great news that our fish stocks are recovering.
  • Some interesting pushback on the idea that parenting doesn’t matter.
  • Orac has fun with the latest blast of toxin hysteria.
  • Some follow-up on the principles of the Duke Lacrosse case.
  • Political Links:

  • Two of the most arrogant men in Congress push a “privacy bill” that exempts government. I would much rather have Amazon collating information about me than the FBI.
  • The latest shut up and do what we say from TSA.
  • Usual statement: what this guy did was stupid, but it doesn’t warrant the severity of the reaction.