Earth day

When Earth Day Predictions Go Predictably Wrong

It’s time to stop freaking out about humanity's imminent demise.


As activists around the world recently celebrated Earth Day with warnings about the awful state of our planet, now seems like the right time to share the good news that actually—contrary to countless dire predictions—we're not running out of resources. In fact, the late economist and scholar Julian Simon was right: People again and again have innovated "their way out of resource shortages."

As Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute reminds us in an article about "18 spectacularly wrong predictions made around the time of first Earth Day in 1970," back in 1969, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote that "Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born." He added that by 1975, "some experts feel that food shortages will have escalated the present level of world hunger and starvation into famines of unbelievable proportions." In 1970, he revised his prediction for the worse to warn us, as Perry writes, that "between 1980 and 1989, some 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in the 'Great Die-Off.'"

In 1972, a group known as the Club of Rome made similarly apocalyptic predictions.

In response, Dr. Simon, who at the time of his death in 1998 was an economics professor at the University of Maryland, argued that these predictions were wholly unwarranted. There would be no extinction from starvation. Simon recognized that people are the ultimate resource and would innovate their way toward greater abundance.

Ultimately, Simon challenged Ehrlich to a wager. Ehrlich believed that population growth meant increased scarcity and, hence, higher commodity prices. Simon believed that "more people meant more brains," which means better extraction technologies, more efficient methods of production, and the more efficient use of commodities—all of which lead to lower commodity prices.

The bet itself was meant to determine whether commodity prices would rise or fall over the period from 1980-1990. If they fell, that would mean that the commodities became more abundant. If instead they rose, that would have signaled that commodities became scarcer. Simon was willing to bet that over any number of years, inflation-adjusted commodity prices would fall.

Simon won that bet. During the 1980s, the prices of the commodities in the Simon-Ehrlich bet decreased. Ehrlich's dire prediction thankfully never came to pass. Some have argued that had they picked the following decade, Ehrlich may have won. That said, the consensus is that when looking at an index of all commodities over a 100-year period, there's a clear decline in prices with a few short-lived periods of increase.

This failure didn't stop Ehrlich and others from continuing to issue similarly apocalyptic predictions up to this day. In response, two scholars have picked up the Simon torch to, once again, closely study the issue. The true heirs of the great humanist and optimist Simon, Marian Tupy from the Cato Institute and Gale Pooley from Brigham Young University-Hawaii, have launched The Simon Abundance Index, which offers a new and better way to measure resource availability "using the latest price data for 50 foundational commodities" (as opposed to five in the Simon-Ehrlich wager).

They base their measure on three original concepts:

1. The time-price of commodities, or "the amount of time that an average human has to work in order to earn enough money to buy a commodity."

2. The price elasticity of population, which is a measure of whether population growth indeed increases the availability of resources.

3. The Simon Abundance Index, which "measures the change in abundance of resources over a period of time."

Based on their measurements, Pooley and Tupy confirm Simon's admittedly counter-intuitive thesis—the faster a population grows, the greater the availability of natural resources. As they beautifully conclude, "The world is a closed system in the way that a piano is a closed system. The instrument has only 88 notes, but those notes can be played in a nearly infinite variety of ways. The same applies to our planet. The Earth's atoms may be fixed, but the possible combinations of those atoms are infinite. What matters, then, is not the physical limits of our planet, but human freedom to experiment and reimagine the use of resources that we have."

So, cheer up! And stop freaking out about predictions of our imminent demise.


NEXT: After a False Accusation, Police and Child Services Forced a Family Apart for 7 Months

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 or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Simon challenged Ehrlich to a wager. … Simon won that bet.

    Too bad it wasn’t “Whoever loses must commit seppuku”.

  2. After 150 years of annual air pollution increases an entirely predictable thing in 2007 happened – air pollution in the US began to go down. Thanks to more natural gas fired power plants, our air has gotten cleaner each year since. But don’t expect to read this in the liberal news media – it doesn’t sell that across the board things are getting demonstrably better.

    1. This week, Pennsylvania named the “Hellbender” as the state salamander. [Nothing else for the legislature to worry about, I guess.] Environmentalists said the hellbenders were doing well until about 1990 when their numbers started to decline due to stream pollution. What? Penna. streams have been doing better for decades with lower coal mine acid runoff, better containment of agricultural chemicals, etc. Anyone who has fished or recreated on Penna. streams and rivers knows they are many times less polluted than four or five decade ago. Still, some ignorant or lying enviros need to keep spreading doom and gloom.

      1. And they live in this delusional idealistic world where any traces of any chemical anywhere in nature is unacceptable. Yes, we need environmental limits, but we need to make them reasonable, and ensure that sure overly strict limits do not do more harm than the actual pollution. For example, every time environmentalists successfully block a logging operation, mining operation, or any other natural resource extraction operation in America or the developed world, where nature has already been heavily affected by man, with decent environmental regulations, all they do is force the world to get those resources from third world countries with no labor or environmental laws that destroy twice as much untouched nature and produces 10X the amount of CO2.

        1. And, like with all of the bullshit fake science and fearmongering about nuclear power, the public’s perception of many of these issues is dangerously distorted due to Hollywood scripts and a sensationalist press.

        2. A lot of people don’t even realize that nature itself is self-correcting and can bear a base level of pollution in name only; since it has no impact, it’s technically not even pollution.

      2. The main pollutant for streams is not chemicals, but sediment. The sediment comes from impervious surfaces, such as roads and buildings. Because the storm runoff is not able to absorb into the ground, it runs along the impervious surfaces, picking up all the dust and picking up speed. The speed causes erosion of stream banks, which leads to further sediment in the water. It is all this sediment that is hurting hellbenders, trout, and the macroinvertebrates on which these animals feed.

        1. The vast majority of flooding isn’t due to increased rainfall. It is due to human development reducing the ground’s ability to absorb water. Also, tens of millions of Americans live in floodplains, but I’m not really sure people know what a floodplain is. A floodplain is a place where, prior to human taming of rivers, flooded naturally on a regular basis. Nothing about that flooding is unnatural. People just built their houses below natural floodplain levels and hoped that levees and upstream dams would control the river.

        2. Yeah, as far as I can see the declines in certain amphibian populations is a real thing.
          Good environmental news doesn’t get reported on nearly enough. But that doesn’t mean everything is always getting better, even though in general things are, especially for humans.

    2. I’m reminded of the parable of the two sons given in the New Testament.

      The father commands his sons to do something. The first son says “Heck no!” but then feels pangs of conscience, and goes to do it. The second son says “No problem! I’m right on it!” and then doesn’t do it.

      Jesus then asks: which of the two sons did the Father’s will?

      The United States has chosen to ignore the Kyoto protocols and pull out of the Paris Accord…yet we have been steadily decreasing our CO2 nonetheless. Other countries respect these…yet their carbon footprints continue to increase.

      So, who is doing more to combat climate change? According to Democrats, some Republicans, and mainstream news sources, the United States is dooming the world to permanent temperature increase, while the rest of the world is Doing Something….

  3. I attended a lecture at caltech back in 2005 where they were discussing Peak Oil. I was gobsmacked by how some of the smartest people I know (many graduates from the school) were completely bought in to this theory. One of my friends was an ardent capitalist and still came out of that lecture convinced that Peak Oil was nigh upon us. (I believe that lecture, they predicted Peak Oil would be reached the coming Thanksgiving.)

    I wish I had made a bet with them at that point, because it would have made a tidy sum of money. Nevertheless, it was a great instruction to me that even the most rational people can be led deeply astray- even people who are generally skeptical of the types of conclusions coming out of the peak oil mouths.

    1. I regularly reflect back on the fact that even many conservative friends had put their faith in this theory. There seems to be a general conceit among intelligent people that when they get a complex enough model of behavior, that factors in enough data, that they have discovered truth. This is especially true among hard engineers who can wrap their heads around complex physics equations that describe electronic circuits and rocket ships.

      I, on the other hand, had become a follower of the Santa Fe institute that published works by people like John Holland, who were deeply interested in things like Complex Adaptive Networks and Chaos theory. I knew intuitively that Peak Oil was absolutely wrong, because its models had no leverage points or adaptation factored in. In essence the data fed into their models required you to make predictions about how much we could adapt, rather than adaptation being a part of the model. This left no room to contemplate the fracking revolution.

    2. Well, one thing that was sorta right about the idea is that the oil we’re pulling now IS generally more expensive to extract. They figured we’d never figure out a way to get at a lot of it, but we did, it just costs more.

      One of my cousins works in oil, and discussing this issue with him probably 10 years ago that is exactly what he said. We don’t run out, but we will probably never be able to get it as cheap as it has been in the past again.

      Imagine if we had the tech we have now for extraction, and the oil fields that were available 50 or 100 years ago… Oil would probably run $10-20 a barrel consistently.

      I generally put my faith that people will figure shit out, but sometimes the data says a middle scenario like we’ll have it, but it might cost more, is the most likely outcome. I think the same for the “ZOMG we’ll be out of water soon!” issue.

  4. Simple, inescapable truth; man is not capable of destroying the planet.

    1. We’re capable of destroying men. Nature will rebound just fine from basically anything. There was thriving coral reefs growing in the craters from the 25 nuclear bombs we dropped in the Bikini Atoll just 60 years ago.

    2. We’ve already nuked ourselves, what, 500-600 times back in the 1950s and 60s? Like literally detonated several hundreds of nukes on US soil (or below it). Crom laughs at your four winds.

      1. The area around Chernobyl is a de facto nature preserve with thriving animals. Fukushima is already a de facto nature preserve. There are thriving coral reefs in the craters of the Bikini Atoll where we dropped 25! nuclear bombs, just 60-70 years ago. The reason for this is that animals don’t give a shit that low levels of radiation give them a 2% higher chance of getting cancer. Most of them don’t live long enough to get cancer anyway.

        If I was a radical environmentalist, I would WANT nuclear disasters, because it scares all the people away and nature takes back over.

        1. animals don’t give a shit that low levels of radiation give them a 2% higher chance of getting cancer

          You said you want more biodiversity, you didn’t specify how.

        2. If I was a radical environmentalist, I would WANT nuclear disasters, because it scares all the people away and nature takes back over.

          I’m pretty sure those people actually exist.

    3. man is not capable of destroying the planet.

      As a collective. In line with what Overt is saying above, in a ‘spherical cow’ sense mankind could conceivably sterilize the planet. But, until you can pick four random humans and put them at four different places at a 4-way stop and get a predictable and intuitive solution every time, we aren’t capable of destroying the planet.

    4. man is not capable of destroying the planet

      Sounds like a challenge.

  5. This is terrible! What is poor, “the world will end in 12 years” AOC going to do now?! Her message has been snatched out from under her.

    Do you expect her to campaign solely on a message of unlimited free shit for everyone?

    1. Don’t be so rough on AOC. She wants to #AbolishICE, which makes her a valuable ally for us Koch / Reason libertarians.

  6. The science is settled — unless the US government is completely controlled by Democrats very soon, the planet will be unfit for human life within 12 years.

    1. Since Democrats consider everyone not of their ilk subhuman, you are probably correct in your assertion.

    2. Is that really the talking point now?

      I wish they would take themselves seriously and give it up as a lost cause. If you (not that you are a real person) really believe that bullshit, you should just try to have as much fun as possible for the next 12 years and stop trying to make everyone else as miserable as you are.

      1. It’ll go back to being vague for the discussions in the primary. If you puts dates on things the lunatics with the most extreme number wins

  7. Just to be nitpicky, there is a limited number of arrangements of notes played on an 88 key piano (unless you allow the duration of your songs to be infinite), and there is a limited number of arrangements of all the atoms of and around the earth. It’s just that those numbers of possible arrangements are ASTRONOMICALLY large.

    1. (unless you allow the duration of your songs to be infinite)

      Just to be nitpicky, infinite in length or of finite length but infinitely divisible or virtually infinite combinations of the two.

      1. Yeah, assuming time is infinitely divisible. The number of notes you can play in a finite time will be limited by the speed of light and probably some other things, but the spacing between notes can vary infinitely.

        1. Uhm, maybe. There are some interesting theories that maybe time also has a Planck “length”. If so, the number of notes that could be played in finite time would still be unimaginably large but maybe not quite infinite.

  8. The Earth’s atoms may be fixed, but the possible combinations of those atoms are infinite.

    Even this gives too much credit to Malthusian assumptions. In general, we’ve exploited around the top 10 km of Earth’s crust. Continental crust is around 30 to 70km deep. We haven’t even exploited all of what is reachable today and that represents only around 1/3 of 40% of the crust. To this day we are still finding resources to exploit in that same area, that represents less than 1% of the planet’s total mass. The new oil fields being built in Texas’s Permian Basin look to DOUBLE our extractable oil reserves, and we are already one of the largest producers in the world.

    For all intents and purposes, Earth’s resources are infinite- especially if we are going to reach a peak population in 2030 or so. And this doesn’t even contemplate the vast amount of resources present in our solar system which we are only now beginning to make commercially accessible.

    People are worried about what happens when oil and minerals are scarce and expensive, but I think it is more likely we need to contemplate what happens when someone parks a metal rich asteroid above the planet and makes heavy metals cheaper than water.

    1. The issue has been perverted for 40 years now. It is not about whether the resources become expensive or not. They won’t. It is about whether some combinations of those atoms create external costs that the market can’t deal with until those costs are actually priced and incorporated into the market for it to make decisions based on those prices.

      Just to state the obvious one – gigashittons of carbon sequestered in hydrocarbon reservoirs in the earth’s crust (where they have been for millions of years) have a very different net cost than the same gigashittons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere via combustion over a couple hundred years.

      Until economics incorporates those costs – or even tries to calculate them rather than leaving those calculations up to power-hungry apocalyptics – then advocates for free markets will be on the losing side of the changes that WILL be forced once those costs become obvious.

      1. This is exactly wrong. The market does not need economics to factor in costs. The market does what the market does as millions or billions of people make decisions based on local data available to them at the time. Many people try to use economics and other data to make their own decisions. But you cannot forget that these models are attempts to generate data- to describe the organic market that will happen regardless.

        The entire global warmist movement has been about trying to make assumptions about the costs of your gigashittons in the future. So far, their models have tended to agree- just as all the peak oil folk tended to agree- but have been off by at least a factor of two. Even today, the costs attributed to Global Warming are small fractions of the growth predicted by the same models. That people use these (likely wrong) models to call for re-organizing and interfering in our markets today should be considered as absurd as the models proposed by other Neo-Malthusians who used them to call for massive reorganization and interference back in the 60s and 70s.

        1. the market needs PRICES to work. And prices cannot work if they are unpriced externalities. PERIOD.

          If the pricing system does not work – and a problem appears – then the market will be completely fucking irrelevant to perceived solutions. The EPA and clean water-air legislation was created because a river BURNED (and not for the first time) right in the heart of Cleveland. The Senate and House voted near unanimously to create that stuff within weeks of that fire because burning rivers are perceived as a serious fucking problem – and the market was incapable of fixing it or addressing it or even seeing it as a problem.

          So we put in mandates instead. And the successes since then at reducing pollution are now viewed by fundamentalists as an inevitable success of the market. Stupid does not begin to describe you clowns.

          1. The Market *has* prices. That they don’t price in an externality that is completely non-existent today, and merely predicted for the future is a feature, not a bug.

            Let’s just say the Evil Oil companies had managed to suppress all awareness of global warming as a thing. If these models were correct, then in 50 or 100 years, we’d be dealing with the effects of Global Warming. Some places would be more dry, and other places would be dealing with rising sea levels. Still other places would be getting more rain, and others would be more temperate. And the markets would respond to that. Those mystical prices would deal with the problems on a local level.

            You bring up the Cuyahoga river fire, and it is quite informative to my point. You see, the people in the local area were already dealing with this externality prior to the federal government stepping in. They were funding cleanups of the area, while still managing to keep their industry alive. They were making decisions based on the local conditions. And it is noteworthy that your example was not an example of them “Pricing in” externalities. It was instead a federal government making a one size fits all “solution” to a problem being dealt with at the local level. And, FWIW, this is the same Federal Government that is the biggest polluter in the country.

            1. And just to add onto the Cuyahoga fire, it was largely caused by the government, not markets. The land owners around the river had been fighting to clean it up for years. However the CITY had claimed that area of the river, *as a dumping ground*, largely so it could have a place to send sewage. The STATE had instituted a permit system, selling cheap rights to dump in that area. Attempts to get the state and city to more responsibly use the resource were blocked in courts.

              So spare me the condemnation of markets. No market failed there, but the same entities promising to save us from gigashittons of carbon did.

            2. I never said the market set prices for externalities. Still hasn’t. What we did was set mandates – prices that are socially-determined and politically-imposed. Regardless of how those prices come about – or the wisdom of the particulars; once those are prices, the market can deal with it. Until then, it’s all just pissing in the wind. Once the market loses ownership of setting that agenda by solving the problem, it loses that FOREVER.

              And the feds did not ‘step in’ unwelcomed. Carl (the mayor) and Louis (their House rep) Stokes both drove the legislation. Carl had the previous year convinced Cleveland to raise a big bond issue to clean up the river. But as long as co’s could continue to dump freely, local cleanup was like the water bucket guy in Fantasia. And the city was in legal conflict with the state but it was the STATE which didn’t give a shit. A local history of the people involved.

  9. The world is a closed system in the way that a piano is a closed system. The instrument has only 88 notes, but those notes can be played in a nearly infinite variety of ways. The same applies to our planet. The Earth’s atoms may be fixed

    The world is NOT a closed system. The Earth’s atoms are NOT fixed

    While this may have been poetic license designed solely to highlight the huge number of note combinations one can get from a piano (which IS infinite, but not in the way inferred), the idea that there are finities is the source of no end of problems.

    1. Numbers are mixed, but the Earth gains a significant amount of mass in the form of space dust and meteors that fall into the Earth. However, it seems the Earth is also losing more mass than it gains from space dust through the atmospheric escape of hydrogen and helium.

      It would seem that at some point once we’ve lost enough of the lighter elements, that the balance will tip and earth will gain more than it loses.

      1. Helium is produced as fast as it is lost by radioactive decay. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any in the atmosphere. Hydrogen is too to some extent and is ridiculously abundant in water. Does earth have a net gain of water from space? I’m not sure. But I’m pretty sure hydrogen abundance will remain stable.
        Though I suppose really long term, the planet will run out of radioactive elements and water.

  10. Even if we didn’t innovate our way out of scarcity, what most environmentalists don’t understand is that markets are self correcting. We will never run out of oil because eventually, we will reach a point where it is no longer economically feasible to use the oil we already have or have not yet harvested. Environmentalists just want us to start the process earlier because they’re panicked and irrational.

    1. Environmentalists just want us to start the process earlier because they’re panicked and irrational.

      And because it happens to neatly align with what they wanted to do anyways: tell people how to stop living such sinful abundant lives.

      1. True. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that these people are just slavers given that environmentalists share a lot of common causes that involve forcibly telling other people what to do.

  11. “Some have argued that had they picked the following decade, Ehrlich may have won.”

    And if they picked several hours after the 2016 election, well, they’d have won there, too.
    Cherry-picking at its worst.

  12. “Some have argued that had they picked the following decade, Ehrlich may have won.”


    Why ‘may’?

    We have the data, why not “Some have argued that had they picked the following decade, Ehrlich would have won.”?

    Because he wouldn’t have won, in any decade.

    Because for Ehrlich to ‘win’, they’d have to re-define several of the guesses he was wrong about and insist–even in the factual case that he IS and WAS wrong–that he was right because reasons.

    Everything about these people is lie built upon lie, with a mortar of lies.

    Why do we pay them any heed whatsoever?

  13. Yawn.

    We have 30 years of continuous ridiculously failed predictions, most as outrageous as Ehrlich’s 50 years ago. Lets revisit those (IPCCs, Oscar-winning “documentaries”, etc)

  14. What about nuclear, chemical and biological warfare?

    1. What about them?
      All three have already occurred, and yet here we are, still wondering?

  15. I hope everyone is enjoying today!

    Take care !!!

  16. Sea levels are rising and we have only 250,000 years to move our cities inland. This will not reassure the frightened people who are losing sleep and deciding to not have babies.

    1. I feel like the line in Jurassic Park some it up “Life finds a way”

  17. The alarmists are so full of shit, it would take a plumbing company a century to clean them out.

  18. I recently watched a documentary regarding nuclear power. There has been very few deaths caused by nuclear power stations since the first one was set up, and far fewer than energy extraction in any other industry.
    The meltdown in Russia was because of poor design and maintenance and the meltdown in Japan was because of a Tsunami.
    Despite the predictions of hundreds of years before anything could grow or indeed live at the meltdown in Russia, the area is now flourishing with wildlife after a couple of decade. However, I wouldn’t eat anything growing there.
    The bottom line is that nuclear energy has a proven track record of being safest way of generating electricity which is why France has invested heavily in it’s nuclear energy production. When was the last time anyone ever heard of a meltdown in France. It has never happened All this while other industries continue their pollution around the world.
    Sooner or later the reality will be reached that nuclear energy is the best way forward until we discover a more reliable means of producing energy with renewables.

  19. I prefer the “the stone age did not end because humanity ran out of rocks” formulation.

  20. A very nice blog post about the earth warming

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.