James Schneider  

The (Metaphorical) Bet: Paul Ehrlich versus Norman Borlaug

What we are up against... Not Just Horsepower but Power ...

Like many libertarians, I find the bet between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon to be a fascinating episode in intellectual history. However, I've always been even more interested in Ehrlich's descriptions of imminent mass starvation from The Population Bomb. By 1980, when Ehrlich and Simon made their bet, it was already clear that Ehrlich's most dire scenarios had failed to materialize. Yet these failed predictions provided Ehrlich his international fame. Few people have done so well by being so wrong.

When I first learned about Ehrlich, I only knew that his predictions of mass starvation went unfulfilled. It wasn't until I read Cormac Ó Gráda's Famine that I realized just how poorly timed Ehrlich's pessimism was. In the 50-year period before The Population Bomb, Ó Gráda lists six famines with excess mortality greater than a million lives. Since 1968, the worst famine that Ó Gráda listed, the North Korean tragedy from 1995-2000, had an excess mortality of "only" 0.6 to 1 million people.


After Ehrlich's The Population Bomb was written, the human population increased dramatically but the rate of dying from famine imploded. (Interestingly, to this day, Ehrlich believes that he has been basically right all along. He still argues that the odds of avoiding a collapse of civilization "seems small.")

Later, I found out that the poor timing of Ehrlich's doomsaying was no accident. By the time that Ehrlich came to the world's attention with The Population Bomb, Norman Borlaug had basically ensured that Ehrlich's nightmare scenarios would go unfulfilled. In fact, by the time that The Population Bomb saw it's 1971 edition, Borlaug had already won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work revolutionizing agricultural productivity in the developing world. For many years, Borlaug had gambled his life on an obsessive quest to enable nations like Mexico and India to feed themselves. During much of this time, he was a migrant farmworker in the literal sense; he moved between Mexican farms with the seasons, and he worked long hours in the field. (Fittingly, he was working in the field when he learned that he had won the Nobel Prize.)

For someone who isn't a household name, Borlaug inspires outsized praise by those who discuss his accomplishments. Some call him the greatest human who ever lived and many say that he saved a billion lives. This latter claim seems to be an exaggeration; for example, in 1971 the entire population of India was only 548 million. Borlaug's New York Times obituary more modestly mentions "hundreds of millions of lives" saved. In any event, Borlaug spared India immense suffering by dramatically increasing the country's wheat production. (As it was, Ó Gráda lists drought as having caused 0.1 million excess deaths in India from 1972-1973.) Just as the Ehrlich/Simon bet might not have occurred without Ehrlich's pessimistic predictions bringing him notoriety, the bet might not have occurred without Borlaug. Ehrlich might have been "above" betting with Simon if anything resembling his nightmare scenario had actually occurred.

When you save millions of people from starvation, you are bound to do a lot of collateral good. Borlaug's work safeguarded arguably the most important liberty, the right to have children, for a wide swathe of the world. In fear of overpopulation, some countries implemented heavy-handed population control programs. For example, here are a few quotes from Matthew Connelly's Fatal Misconception that describe the coercive nature of India's sterilization program.

Sterilization became a condition not just for land allotments, but for irrigation water, electricity, ration cards, rickshaw licenses, medical care, pay raises and promotions.

Gandhi had still not decided whether states like Maharashtra would be permitted to impose compulsory sterilization. One day, in November 1976, Dhar passed along a report describing how schoolteachers were treated when they failed to meet their quota. Teachers, like everyone else, could be demoted, fired, or threatened with arrest. They, in turn, sometimes expelled students when their parents did not submit to sterilization.
Gandhi seemed saddened and remained silent for some time after reading the report.

Altogether, in the course of one year, the government would record more than 8 million sterilizations...

The astonishing thing about this sterilization program is that it occurred after Borlaug had dramatically increased India's wheat production. By 1974, India was self-sufficient in grain production. Had Ehrlich's nightmare vision become reality, India might have imposed far more draconian rules to reduce population growth.

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CATEGORIES: Economic History

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Gene writes:

One point you didn't make is that those famines that you listed in your table did not all just "happen" in the sense that famines "happened" in the 13th century. Most of them were the direct result of governmental policy (in the worst cases deliberate policy), not merely a product of bad weather or disease, i.e., bad luck.

Andrew_FL writes:

Good point, Gene. One I was going to make until I saw you made it.

In the modern world, one in which trade is physically possible between any two places on Earth, there is no reason at all why a bad harvest locally has to mean mass starvation the way it would have in ancient or even medieval times. No reason except if the local authority prevents people from simply getting food from elsewhere.

But, only also because the volume, globally, of crop production has also dramatically increased as population has. We owe that in no small part to the heroic efforts of Borlaug.

James Schneider writes:

@Gene Yep. In the O Grada book he has a column which describes the famine's cause(s). And 5 out of 6 of the ones I list include partial causes such as civil war, Stalinism, policy failure, and Great Leap Forward. O Grada lists the cause of the Cambodia famine of 1975-1979 as "human agency." North Korea is also tagged with the label of "policy failure." These labels sometimes sound a little bit like euphemisms.

MG writes:

I guess "outsized" praise for Borlaug does not include getting a measly Google doodle a couple of weeks ago on the centenary of his birth. It seems like he is now considered controversial by the politically correct crowd.

Porchlight writes:
Borlaug's work safeguarded arguably the most important liberty, the right to have children, for a wide swathe of the world.

Correct and this is also where the billion lives are tallied. Some of the billion are the lives of the children and grandchildren made possible by Borlaug's work. Add them up worldwide and it is easily a billion. The total benefit to posterity is probably so large as to be incalculable.

I would love to be a fly on the wall in a room with Simon, Borlaug and Ehrlich. Sadly the two greats are no longer with us.

txslr writes:

Was it William Buckley who said that, after the revolution, Russian agriculture was cursed with 70 years of bad weather?

"Whoever makes two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind, and does more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together."---Jonathan Swift

Steve Sailer writes:

After paying up, Ehrlich offered Simon a more economically-literate second bet, but Simon wouldn't take him up on it.

Danno755 writes:

All of the sudden the lyrics "feed the world" are running through my head. along with remembering the Live Aid Concert -- and Concert for Bangladesh.

Interesting to read this after seeing Hans Rosling interviewed on BBC World News about how even though population has increased there are fewer children.

J Mann writes:

Steve, if this page gets it right, the second bet was instructive. (That's the best part of prediction bets - they make people clarify what they mean.)


If I'm reading it right, Erhlich offered to bet Simon on environmental measures (decrease in the the number of acres of farmland per person, decrease in the the amount of firewood available per person, increase in average temperature, etc.)

Simon declined. His assumption has always been that the human ability to innovate and adapt would tend to overcome adjustments in the physical world, so he offered to bet on measures of welfare after adaptation (I imagine examples would price of farm products, price of firewood, life expectancy, total farm output in calories, etc.)

So they didn't bet, but you got an idea where they were coming from. Ehrlich was only willing to bet that environmental measures would get worse; Simon was only willing to be that those environmental variables would not lead to the disasterous effects on humans that Erlich predicts.

Greg Robbins writes:

When I was a student at Southampton College, a guy in my dorm was energetically selling The Population Bomb to the swells who lived in the town (door to door no less.) He enlisted my help. Somehow he got to know Paul Erlich, who lived in the Hamptons at the time, and Paul invited us over for dinner.

He was a dour man then, even before his predictions had fallen flat. His wife invited us to participate in a Buddhist tea ceremony which Erlich refrained from participating in. I got the impression that as a scientist, he felt it would demean him to participate in a religious ceremony.

To us, it was all quite exotic, and while neither the meal nor the tea ceremony gave me any sort of enlightenment, that evening gave me insight as to why Erlich was such a pessimist.

Ross Emmett writes:

A student of mine a few years ago helped me look at the Simon-Ehrlich wager over the course of the 20th century. How many times would Simon have won? How many times would Ehrlich have won?

A brief look at the outcomes are in a PERC article:

[link html added--Econlib Ed.]

Floccina writes:

I am pretty sure that even without Borlaug famines would have continued to fewer and less severe. Just changing to crops that produce more food calories per acres and more trade in food and more food aid would have been sufficient. This is not to take away from what that great man did but show how far off the doom sayers are.

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