Science

Environmentalist Praises the "Vital Wisdom" of Anti-Doomster Julian Simon

|

Shine on Julian!

Environmentalist Mark Lynas has begun to understand that stifling human creativity and initiative is not the way to solve environmental problems. For all too many of Lynas' green brethern the real environmental problem is people, thus they favor top-down policies that aim to halt or control the activities that they dislike, e.g., population control, carbon rationing, banning biotech crops, etc. University of Maryland economist Julian Simon forcefully showed that environmentalist doomsaying was wrong and that green policies often produced far more harm than good. Simon's intellectual legacy continues to live on and to grow. For example, the work of Skeptical Environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg was inspired by Simon.

Last week, I blogged about Lynas' speech at Oxford University in which he admitted that he had been completely wrong to attack biotech crops. DotEarth blogger Andrew Revkin also took note of Lynas' admission of error and asked him about why he changed his mind. Reading some scientific research helped, but Lynas also cited the influence of Simon:

I only recently discovered the work of Julian Simon, who was Lomborg's original inspiration, and I think it should be required reading for all enviro types – some vital wisdom there.

I met Simon many years ago when I was reporting for Forbes and we became friends. He once told me that he was astonished that I continued to report on environmental science and policy issues since the rise of reactionary environmentalism seemed so depressingly unstoppable. Sadly, Simon died at age 65 of a heart attack back in 1998. In his obituary of Simon, my colleague Brian Doherty noted:

"The main fuel to speed the world's progress," wrote Simon in the introduction to the 1995 collection The State of Humanity, "is our stock of knowledge; the brakes are our lack of imagination and unsound social regulations of these activities. The ultimate resource is people–especially skilled, spirited, and hopeful young people endowed with liberty–who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so inevitably they will benefit the rest of us as well."

The mass of data he accumulated told the story: It showed infant mortality falling, life expectancy rising, agricultural prices falling, arable land rising, the number of people fated to agricultural toil falling, air quality improving. There can and will be temporary and local bumps, but the long-term universal trends are positive.

In a world where doomsayers make bestsellers out of predictions of manmade horror that always proved untrue, this was a courageous and lonely stance. But Simon was not afraid to put his money where his mouth was. He made a famous bet with archdoomsayer Paul Ehrlich that a cohort of five natural resources of Ehrlich's choosing would be cheaper in inflation-adjusted terms at the end of the '80s than at the beginning. Simon won the bet. Ehrlich won the MacArthur "genius grant."

Lynas' intellectual evolution bolsters my hope and expectation that the influence Simon's "vital wisdom" continue to spread, while the false dark prophecies of the likes of Paul Ehrlich fade from human memory.

NEXT: Report: Two Wounded in Taft High School Shooting in Californa

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Environmentalist Mark Lynas has begun to understand that stifling human creativity and initiative is not the way to solve environmental problems.

    Burn the heretic!

    1. Unfortunately, many environmentalists who come to recognize the truth of that statement believe the logical conclusion is that governments should dump billions of $$$ should be dumped into ‘green companies’ to foster that ‘creativity and initiative’

      Oh, too late.

  2. It’s pretty sad that something so simple as not being a simpering coward who is convinced we’re headed towards an apocalypse can be described as ‘a courageous and lonely stance.’

    Our society really has fetishized cowardice to the point where anyone who isn’t eternally scared should be viewed with suspicion.

  3. My favorite Simon story is the famous bet between Paul Ehrlich and Simon. In 1980 Simon sold Ehrlich (on credit) ten year futures on five metals of Ehrlich’s choosing. The total price was $1,000. In 1990 Ehrlich had to pay Simon $600, because the metals had gone down in price.

    The saddest outcome is that Simon is the obscure intellectual that others are just now discovering, whilst Ehrlich recently was inspired to get working on an “updated” version of the highly discredited book “The Population Bomb”.

    I will also note that I posted the speech from Lynas on my FB page and to a note each of my environmentalist friends accused him of being paid by Monsanto. There is no reasoning with people like this.

    1. All of my enviro friends have learned to hate arguing with me because I use facts and don’t give a shit about whether Monsanto makes money or gets bombed to a smoking crater.

      1. Facts don’t mean shit to a lot of people. The contortions used when discussing DDT with some are Gordian.

        1. Facts don’t mean shit to a lot of people.

          18,000 years of sea level rise don’t mean a thing! Or at least that’s what I keep being told.

          I get the same blank argument from people who can’t assimilate that the evils of dietary cholesterol are based in experiments with rabbits. These animals didn’t die from heart disease. They became anorexic and starved.

      2. I have a similar problem.

        Them:”BUT MONSANTO IS EVULLL!!!! THEY HOARD SEEDS AND SUE FARMERS!!!”

        Me:”I don’t care. Without Monsanto’s Round Up Ready there would be millions of people who would’ve starved to death. If anyone is going to solve our future food problems, it will be companies like Monsanto.”

        Them:”You’re just a religious gun nut conservative republican who hates black people and women.”

        Me:”…………”

        1. Orrrrrrrr, they will abuse independent farmers via IP laws, and make frankenfoods that kill us slowly.

          You should read “Antifragile” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

          1. frankenfoods that kill us slowly.

            [citation needed]

          2. Just read the Amazon listing for it, added it to my wish list.

            “As comical as Taleb’s rough handling of his favorite targets can be–academics, economists, and tourists, to name a few–his argumentative style boasts gaping holes, non sequiturs aplenty, and at times an almost willfully repugnant tone. Some readers will find Taleb’s brashness off-putting; others will embrace it as a charismatic component of the ideas themselves. Either way, no one will finish this book unchanged. –Jason Kirk”

            Looks like a great read, right down my alley. Thanks!

            1. Black Swan (his first book) is also good

          3. The frankenfood complaint is irrelivant, the stuff is safe, at least as safe as “naturally bio engineered” food, ie the farming and hybridization techniques mankind has been using for close to 20,000 years.

            However that does not change the fact that Monsanto is indeed one of the most vile corporations on the planet, largely for their patent overreach, regulatory capture, and corporate welfare tactics.

            1. …Despite the fact their innovations have helped millions of farmers lift themselves from subsistence agriculture?

              seriously… other than the oft repeated anecdotes of MOS in the 90s… What’s Monsanto done to you *lately*?

    2. About that population problem

      http://www.slate.com/articles/…..oding.html

    3. and to a note each of my environmentalist friends accused him of being paid by Monsanto

      They should be able to provide proof easily enough, right?

      No? Then tell your friends to provide evidence to back up their claim or STFU.

      1. I just change the subject to football or space or something.

        Sometimes it’s best to just ignore how fucking ignorant people can be. Order another round, with some shots, and talk about space or something.

  4. Environmentalist Mark Lynas has begun to understand that stifling human creativity and initiative is not the way to solve environmental problems.

    Of coure it is because… because… Climate Change! People are too greedy! Externalities! People are too stoopid! Roadz!

    1. I’m really impressed that Lynas actually changed his position on that. Most environmentalists are just socialists who use environmentalism as an excuse for top down governance and increases in government power.

      I’ve had people call me a ‘climate change denier’ because I argued that the free market will be far more efficient at dealing with environmental problems than the government would. Notice how nowhere in that argument did I argue that climate change isn’t real, just that their prescribed solution won’t work.

      1. Notice how nowhere in that argument did I argue that climate change isn’t real, just that their prescribed solution won’t work.

        That has been my line for the last 10 years or so. I always thought it was a sensible way to wean people from Global Warming panic and WE MUST DO SOMETHING!!-itis

        They still either call me a ‘skeptic’ or ‘denier'(?) … and add a comment along the lines that I’m just being “ideological” or “living in a fantasy world”*

        * (free markets being an insane experimental concept never proven in actual *real life*, according to the progressive mind) I note that the modern day Obamaphile type progressive have been steadily fed a series of maxims regarding Government that leads almost all to the “YOU DIDNT BUILD THAT”-mindset without any prompting. They are intensely skeptical of anything not coordinated by their state overlords.

  5. while the false dark prophecies of the likes of Paul Ehrlich fade from human memory.

    Sorry that will never happen.

    If anything Ehrlich’s type of thinking is becoming more and more prevalent…

    1. Worse, Ehrlich is still treated as a saint and oracle, despite his obvious errors.

      They will allow endless rationalizations to excuse him.

      1. Aresen| 1.10.13 @ 2:44PM |#
        “Worse, Ehrlich is still treated as a saint and oracle, despite his obvious errors.”

        Almost word-for-word more times than a care to count:
        “Ehrlich is right overall, he just got some details wrong”.
        And when I ask where he’s right, all I get are generalizations and anecdotes; ‘why, just look around!’

  6. He made a famous bet with archdoomsayer Paul Ehrlich that a cohort of five natural resources of Ehrlich’s choosing would be cheaper in inflation-adjusted terms at the end of the ’80s than at the beginning. Simon won the bet. Ehrlich won the MacArthur “genius grant.”

    Ehrlich knew which hairy ass to kiss. Simon was not willing. There’s a reason why climate doomsayers are so sanguine about their doomsday scenarios – because there are plenty of rich hairy asses to kiss.

    1. Ehrlich (ar’likh)
      -n. A spectacularly wrong prediction. (e.g. The tabloid’s year end psychic predictions all turned out to be Ehrlichs.)
      -v. To not pan out. (e.g. The ponzi scheme started out fine, but then it Ehrliched.)
      -adj. Wrong, incorrect. (e.g. The Mayan Calendar end of the world prediction turned out to be Ehrlich.)

    2. Ehrlich paid the wager, but he never admitted he was wrong.

  7. As an aside, I was recently reading about Norman Borlaug and came across this interesting anecdote, which is about a caravan of seeds. Seeds that Norman had just used to stop 50 million people from starving to death in Mexico. That were then….well…”When Pakistan and India placed an order for 600 tons of Mexican wheat seed, it took a convoy of 35 trucks to transport the seed from Mexico City to the port of Los Angeles, where they were held up by the raging Watts riots. At the same time, the bank called: Pakistan’s $95,000 draft to pay for the seed had several misspellings and the bank wouldn’t accept it. Borlaug, never a man comfortable with bureaucracy, finally lost his temper. “Get that wheat aboard the ship and send it on its damn way!” he yelled. The wheat was loaded and the ship sailed, but a few days later war broke out between India and Pakistan. The seed made it to the subcontinent, and farmers, sometimes in the shadow of artillery and within the earshot of gunfire, sowed it in their fields.” This saved several hundred million people from starving to death. Weird. http://www.scienceheroes.com/i…..Itemid=116

    1. Borlaug is the anti-Ehrlich. He should be mentioned in every relevant science class in grade school and high school, but they’d rather talk about Rachel Carson and Ehrlich.

  8. Just as I once said to an Occupy Wall St character, “You’re not fit to hold Abby Hoffman’s jockstrap”… and they didn’t know who Abby Hoffman *was*

    (facesmack)…

    (* The actual reply was, “Who, Abby Hoffman, your investment-bank overlord CEO??”)

    …. i once told a doomsday environmentalist that they were just spouting Neo-Malthusianism which had been repeatedly debunked throughout the 20th century.

    They had never heard of Malthus. I gave them short summary.

    And…. they go, “…that guy was ahead of his time!”

    (facesmack)

  9. * The actual reply was, “Who, Abby Hoffman, your investment-bank overlord CEO??

    That’s hilarious. And if it’s true, it’s even more hilarious.

  10. I like it when people can admit to being wrong.

    1. Audrey, there is something to be said for an honest reevaluation of beliefs held when one is young. What I would prefer though is for “activists”, usually guided almost exclusively by emotion, to actually do some research into at least two sides of any argument and reach reasoned conclusions before wreaking the havoc and destruction they usually do to society.

      No matter his mea culpa, Lynas’ own activism has put ideas out there that will influence other activists and quite possibly lead to public policies that in the end will cause suffering. He could end up fighting a losing battle against the poorly reasoned ideas he put in others’ minds. So-called intellectuals, especially those with a progressive bent, never seem to grasp this problem.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.