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The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future Hardcover – September 3, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Using a highly publicized thousand-dollar wager made between two scholars as a narrative framework, this gem of a book elucidates the extreme polarity between those who believe human ingenuity can solve the world's problems and those who foresee imminent doom. Sabin (Crude Politics) cleverly traces the ideological extremes through the careers of Paul Ehrlich, known for his warnings about explosive population growth, and his lesser known adversary Julian Simon, who advocated that technological advancement and market flexible would resolve threats of overpopulation. Sabin shows the evolution of both arguments through various presidencies. The Carter administration leaned toward Ehrlich's apocalyptic point of view; whereas Regan thought Simon's theories fit his own, especially in expanded energy production. The contrast between Al Gore and George W. Bush reflects the of polarization in the United States over environmental issues. Sabin offers a reasoned summary of the strengths and weaknesses on both sides, but ultimately he is interested in showing "how intelligent people are drawn to vilify their opponents and to reduce the issue that they care about to stark and divisive terms." To this end, Sabin provides a fascinating and highly readable archaeology of political science in America. (Sept.)


“Provides surprising insights for anyone involved in addressing the world’s ‘wicked problems.’ Most of all, it gave me new perspective on why so many big challenges get bogged down in political battles rather than being focused on problem-solving."—Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, "The Best Books I Read in 2013,"
(Bill Gates

“[A] gem of a book. . . Sabin provides a fascinating and highly readable archaeology of political science in America.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
(Publishers Weekly)

“A brilliant idea for a book. . . . Sabin has produced an absorbing narrative of how two people’s ‘clashing insights’ unleashed on the world polarised views of the environmental and resource threats we face in the 21st century.”—Fred Pearce, New Scientist
(Fred Pearce New Scientist)

“In his new book, The Bet, Paul Sabin has managed to write a work of serious historical scholarship about a vexing political issue — and make it read like a character-driven novel.”—David Leonhardt, The New York Times, Economix blog
(David Leonhardt The New York Times, Economix blog)

The Bet provides an important contribution to canonical works in environmental history and environmental studies. It is a remarkable story of a critical moment in the environmental movement, and Sabin has told it expertly.”—Frederick R. Davis, Florida State University
(Frederick R. Davis 2013-03-14)

“In telling the story of Ehrlich and Simon's bet, Paul Sabin offers a compelling analysis of two very different, but equally important, ways of understanding the future of humans and the environment that still shape the world of environmental politics today."—Jay Turner, Wellesley College
(Jay Turner 2013-03-14)

"Paul Sabin's The Bet is wonderfully conceived, sharply focused and entertainingly executed. In the story of a famous bet between two men of large egos, he manages to touch on the most basic problems we face in trying to come to terms with our current environmental crisis."—Richard White, author of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America
(Richard White 2013-04-04)

"A refreshingly readable and consistently insightful portrait of the ferocious American politics of global population and resources since the 1960s – and of two implacable enemies who strangely resembled one another."—J.R. McNeill, author of Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th-century World
(J.R. McNeill 2013-04-15)

"Paul Sabin vividly and creatively explores the  half century battle over environmental policy by telling the story of the clash —and famous “bet” — between Paul Ehrlich, the prophet of population doom, and Julian Simon, the advocate of technology and  markets. My own wager is that The Bet will also provide a very valuable and timely framework for understanding today’s great environmental debates.  In fact, I will double down on that bet!”— Daniel Yergin, Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Quest:  Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World and of The Prize
(Daniel Yergin 2013-05-13)

"Have you ever wondered why environmental politics became so bitterly divided along partisan party lines? Why does the left believe that climate change will harm us, while the right is certain that technological innovation will prevail? Paul Sabin’s smart, compelling analysis in The Bet helps us understand these ideological divides. Beautifully written, non-partisan, and filled with surprising insights, The Bet is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand modern environmental politics."—Nancy Langston, author of Toxic Bodies: DES and the Lessons of History
(Nancy Langston 2013-05-13)

“Not so fast, argues historian Paul Sabin, who in The Bet attempts to use their wager to narrate parallel biographies of Simon and Ehrlich, as well as a US political environmental history of the past half-century. The result is a revealing tale.”—Jon Christensen, Nature
(Nature Jon Christensen 2013-08-15)

"Informative, charming, and highly readable."—Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution
(Tyler Cowen Marginal Revolution)

"A wonderful new book . . . . and a fantastic introduction to population-resource debates of the late-twentieth century. It will be the required first reading on this topic in my future courses."—Roger Pielke, Jr., The Energy Collective
(Roger Pielke, Jr. The Energy Collective)

“An illuminating, judicious, and engaging examination of the conflict between environmentalists and their critics over the past five decades.”—Glenn C. Altschuler, Tulsa World
(Glenn C. Altschuler Tulsa World)

A Best Science Book of 2013, New Scientist
(New Scientist)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 1st edition (September 3, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300176481
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300176483
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #255,488 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Paul Sabin teaches American history at Yale University. He is the author of THE BET: PAUL EHRLICH, JULIAN SIMON AND OUR GAMBLE OVER EARTH'S FUTURE (2013), and CRUDE POLITICS: THE CALIFORNIA OIL MARKET, 1900-1940 (2005). Before joining the Yale faculty, Paul served as founding executive director of the non-profit Environmental Leadership Program. He is a graduate of Yale College and the University of California, Berkeley.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 34 people found the following review helpful By friedpollakman on August 16, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is essential reading for environmentalists, economists, students of public policy, and anybody interested in modern history. It tells the story of a bet between an environmentalist and an economist. As an environmentalist, it has made me question assumptions about the relationship between population growth and scarcity that has been a driver of the environmental movement for the last 40 years. If folks on both sides of environmental politics would read this book, we might be able to actually move forward.

What made this book such a treat to read, however, is the entertaining style in which it is written. It is loaded with anecdotes about Paul Erlich and Julian Simon, who made the bet that is the centerpiece of the story, and the people around them that populated the political landscape. For example, I loved the description of Jimmy Carter's White House maintenance staff, nicknamed the "thermostat police," visiting people's offices to make sure they hadn't reset the thermostats, and of President Carter sweating through cabinet meetings to set an example for the rest of the country. This kind of amusing story gives the rather serious topic a lighter side, too.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By sien on January 1, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Bet (2013) by Paul Sabin is a really fine book that looks at the different beliefs of the ecologist and author of The Population Bomb Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon and their famous bet on the price of natural resources.
Sabin is an academic at Yale who teaches environmental history. He introduces the book by describing his own environmentalism which is a very honest and clear way of clarifying his own biases.
The book then looks at Paul Ehrlich’s rise to fame as a prophet of doom. Ehrlich’s childhood, career as a butterfly biologist and his rise a ecological activist is catalogued. Ehrlich’s book ‘The Population Bomb’ and his series of dire predictions and rise to fame in the 1960s and 1970s is described with insight.
Sabin then looks at Julian Simon’s childhood and career. Interestingly both Simon and Ehrlich grew up in suburban New Jersey to upwardly mobile Jewish parents. Simon went to Harvard then obtained an MBA and then a PhD at the University of Chicago. Simon initially worked on using marketing to reduce population growth but then investigated the assumption that increased population was a problem and came to the opposite conclusion.
Next the rise of environmentalism in the 1970s is described. The creation of the Environmental Protection Agency by Richard Nixon and the passage of various other laws and the rise of Jimmy Carter and his own environmental beliefs along with the oil crisis are discussed.
The book then gets to the famous bet between Simon and Ehrlich where Simon challenged Ehrlich to pick 5 metals that he thought would rise over the next decade. Ehrlich comprehensively lost the bet after declaring that taking up the bet would be easily getting free money.
Read more ›
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21 of 26 people found the following review helpful By David on August 12, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is about a small bet on a big topic. In practice, the bet between Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich was about the prices of a basket of commodities. But the bet was really about the relationship between humankind and earth: were humans making their planet unlivable? Ehrlich, best known as the author of "The Population Bomb" thought that higher commodity prices would be a sign of increasing strains on natural resources, and proof of the growing precariousness of human existence. The economist Simon, on the other hand, but his money on technological innovation - even if commodities became scarcer, new techniques and technologies would lead to adjustments and demands and prices.

Sabin's book is well-written, making this dramatic and important subject easy reading. He appreciates both the big picture - what was really at stake in this bet - and the small details about the two bettors and how they came to make that wager.

It's a great book for students and teachers, for environmentalists and economists, and for anyone interested in the fate of human life on earth.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Steven Moss on August 11, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
For those of us who lived through the "population bomb" threats of the 1970s, followed by the "Reagan Revolution" of the 1980s, The Bet offers an opportunity to revisit a formative period of environmental history that continues to influence today's debates. For those just learning of the ideological and political tussle between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon and their respective camps, The Bet establishes a compelling framework that provides insights into a critical conversation that remains unfinished.

Is the world about to end, or become deeply damaged? Or will progress, as ushered in through free-market capitalism, save the day? We continue to live with these profound questions, just as we did forty years ago. It's essential that we find ways to examine and discuss earth's potential pathways, and to choose the right routes. The Bet offers both a cautionary tale and possible signposts indicating how to productively engage in the complex challenges that aren't going away.

This is a must-read for environmental historians, environmentalists, capitalists, and anyone who cares about the future of the earth.
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