03 September 2013

1974 Ehrlich and Holdren Senate Testimony

Motivated by my recent reading of The Bet, by Yale University's Paul Sabin, I tracked down the complete 1974 Senate testimony of Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren in hearings on the "Domestic Supply Information Act" held by the Committee on Commerce and Committee on Government Operations (Serial No. 93-107).

The testimony provides an eye-opening look into the depths of Malthusian froth of the time and also provides a great case study for thinking about the role of experts in policy making. I plan on using the testimony in future courses, so I am making it available here as a PDF.

Below are some excerpts and a starter-set of discussion questions.The whole testimony which is worth reading in full. First Ehrlich:
Ehrlich: I suspect you're aware, that the increased price of petroleum which is certainly related to the near depletion of petroleum resources-they're going to be gone by the end of the century . . .

I think that what is not realized, and it's going to be one of the hardest things to be accepted by the Americans in general, is that the onset of the age of scarcity essentially demolishes current models of economists. We are going to move to a no-growth [economy]. Now, whether we do it intelligently through the Government by planning as rapidly as possible, or whether we move there automatically-by the way, when I look at some of the figures these days, I think we're moving there much more rapidly than people realize--we're going to get there, obviously. And I think we'd do a lot better if we had some planning for the dislocations that will inevitably occur. . .

If bad weather continues in the Midwest this year, and if the monsoon should fail this year in India, as it might, then I think you're going to see the age of scarcity and many of the changes I'm talking about coming on next winter.'I mean that's when we're really going to start getting into it.  If we are "fortunate" for a few years, and have nothing but good weather, then it'll come on, you know, 5 or 10 years down the pike. But of course during that time populations will have increased. . . .

I think that the thing you can say with absolute assurance is, considering the magnitude of the changes, if we have 20 years-which I wouldn't put a nickel on-but if we have 20 years, we're already 10 years too late in starting to do something about it. We're not going to change the political and economic structure of the United States overnight. And for that reason, I think that any feeling of urgency that you can generate--one of the big problems is how do you generate a feeling of urgency . . .
Class discussion questions:
  • How did Ehrlich's warnings pan out?
  • Should policy makers have acted on his advice? Why? Why not? (and what would it have meant to "act"?)
  • What makes experts today more believable by policy makers than Ehrlich was then (both contemporaneously and with the advantage of hindsight)?
  • Should experts at the time have helped campaign to increase a sense of "urgency"?
Now some excerpts from Holdren's testimony:
Holdren: The. main point here is that, although there may be defects in any specific detailed model, the general conclusion is far more robust than any specific model. At the same time, one has to make a certain disclaimer, and that is that neither analysis nor computer models are adequate to the task of predicting exactly what disaster will follow from a continuation of present trends and exactly when such a disaster will take place.

Now, this problem puts those of us who tend to view with alarm in a somewhat curious position. We're calling upon society to make major changes, but we cannot prove exactly what will happen and exactly when, in the absence of those kinds of changes. This particular point is often used against us by people who are optimistic and believe that one way or another, technology will let us muddle through. I think a useful way to think about this particular dilemma is in terms of the burden of proof; that is, we should ask: Are we worse off if we believe the pessimists and they are wrong, or are we worse off if we believe the optimists and they are wrong?

I think the conclusion is clear. . .

In addition to the reliance on technological panaceas, per se. there is an enormious reliance on the part of optimists of various kinds of the price mechanism, on economic forces, to somehow bail us out of the kinds of difficulties that we're in for. This too has been one of the major criticisms of "Limits to Growth," tlat somehow they didn't adequately incorporate what the price mechanism would do for us in extricating us from this morass of problems.

In this context I think its very important to understand what economics is. Economics is the study of how to allocate resources that are fundamentally scarce in the most efficient way. It doesn't always even do that. But ideally, the idea behind economics is to allocate scarce resources. It does not make scarce resources less scarce. . .

This tendency is perhaps the most dangerous one we face, that somehow people want to wait until the evidence is absolutely overwhelming, that we're in for a catastrophe, before they take action. What worries me is that by the time the evidence is absolutely overwhelming, a good deal of the damage may in fact be irreversible. It's the same tendency toward oversimplification which leads people to think that one set of technological solutions will bail us out. As much as we need technology, we need a good many other things. And as you've already suggested this morning, one of them is social and institutional changes . . .
Class discussion questions:
  • How do you evaluate Holdren's view of technology?
  • How do you view Holdren's view of economics?
  • How much evidence should policy makers have before committing to a particular course of action?
  • In what ways are experts who call for social and institutional changes in society different than Holdren/Ehrlich in 1974? 

Over all, what advice should experts take from these cases for thinking about how their testimony in 2013 might be viewed from the perspective of 2053?