Review of “The Bet: Paul Erlich, Julian Simon, and our Gamble over Earth’s Future”

Alice Friedemann book review of “The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future” by Paul Sabin

Kind of scary that Bill Gates recommends this book. But then again, to get really good at something, you don’t have the time to read about vast other areas of knowledge – even scientists don’t have enough time to escape the narrow confines of their specialty and can be dismayingly techno-optimistic.

There are limits to growth. Sabin thinks we can choose a compromise view that falls between Erlich’s too gloomy and Simon’s too optimistic world views.

But that’s not true: we can’t choose some happy medium between them.  Scarcity will not lead to innovation and technical solutions if we make the “right political and social choices”. Seeing the world through political, social, and economic filters blinds Sabin to physical reality — our dependence on the resources of nature for our lives. This Neoclassical economic point-of-view ignores what the environment provides to the economy, and assumes endless growth, which systems ecologists find so obviously insane that they send each other economist jokes in frustration.

Billions will die. We have overshot the carrying capacity of the planet in so many ways that there are no “political and social” solutions.

To give Julian Simon any credibility at all is absurd. Limits to Growth, systems ecology, the Millennium Assessment Reports, and many vast areas of science are totally ignored in order to arrive at what would seem to an uninformed reader a wise and reasonable balance between the two points of view. But it is intellectually dishonest from start to finish.

And the Bet was stupid. Money is an abstract idea used to expedite commerce.  The ‘value’ of money goes up and down.  Oil prices are “down” now from $150/barrel to “merely” $100, which is spun by Wall Street as showing there is no oil shortage to worry about. But the truth is, many people are driving less, or not at all, because they’re unemployed or making minimum wage and can’t afford gasoline. In a deflation, prices go down.  At the bottom of the Great Depression, assets were bought for pennies on the dollar. At some point oil will go back up in price, and that will bring on another depression and “lower” prices, until finally the prices are so low that no new oil is being drilled for, which will bring on yet another oil crisis.  Whether it goes to $150 or $1,500 is irrelevant — if people have no savings or work, then any price is too high.

M. King Hubbert thought energy should be our currency.  Perhaps we wouldn’t have wasted as much energy if the true value had been realized, and conserved some oil for future generations.  If energy were our currency, it would be much more clear to people that fossil fuels do the work, not money. Try shoving some dollar bills in your gas tank and see how far you get. Or how many dollar bills would it take to roast a leg of lamb?

Globalization is almost entirely due to the rise of containerized shipping (see The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, and ships run oil. So do trucks and trains. Oil, coal, and natural gas do the work. Not money. Saying the price of various commodities proves one person right or wrong is just crazy!

Once the energy to get a barrel of oil out of the ground exceeds the energy in the obtained barrel, that oil well is capped, finished. What matters is the Energy Returned on Energy Invested. Not Money.

The “industrial” age is misnamed — it was the fossil fuel age, and very little of it would have happened without oil or lasted as long as it has with wood. Steam engines running on wood were running out of forests to burn by 1830 East of the Mississippi, not just from trains and steamships, but because wood was used to heat homes, cook with, and build just about everything.  The Foxfire series is amazing, each kind of wood was best for different uses — spoons, chairs, flooring, bee hives, fencing, and myriad other uses.

This book believes we can feed several billion more people because we are so inventive and that alternative energy will save us: it will not. To understand why alternative energy can’t replace and won’t outlast fossil fuels is not a sound-bite or Tweet. So below is a book and article list of mainly PEER-REVIEWED SCIENCE. Or read the posts in my Energy category.

First, you must understand what fossil fuel energy does for us, the SCALE — and then why alternative energy can not possibly replace fossil fuels. Ever. Laws of Physics and Thermodynamics can’t be overturned by magical thinking. We are going back to the Age of Wood, and in many ways, to grasp our situation best, and also read one of the best written and interesting books on my list, read A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization.

This review wouldn’t be so angry in tone if I hadn’t gotten mad about the very subtle language chosen to denigrate the Erlichs about their positions on birth control and immigration.

By focusing on solutions that assume alternative energy, rather than birth control, abortion, limiting immigration, and getting millions back to the land FAST, we risk any chance we have of retaining democracy and avoiding a blood bath.

Fossil Fuel reading list

Alternative Energy reading list


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