By Phillip Ng, VP of Corporate Development
One fall morning in 1990, economics professor Julian Simon opened his mailbox to find a cool US$576.07. Biologist Paul Ehrlich had sent the amount. The sum concluded a widely followed wager; two competing ideologies made manifest.
The bet was simple. Would a basket of metals (chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten) increase in price in real terms over a ten-year horizon?
Ehrlich bet on the price increase; Simon on the decrease. The wager was born from Simon’s critical response to Ehrlich’s ideas on resource scarcity. Resource scarcity, per Ehrlich, is intuitive. Earth’s resources are finite. Population growth is geometric. The new multitudes consume and drain the Earth. Subsequently, society collapses.
Simon believed that population trap theories ignore technological advances and improvements. In Simon’s view, mankind’s capacity to extract and consume resources in increasingly innovative ways is the basis for human flourishing.
Author Charles Mann’s new book, The Wizard and The Prophet, is a story of two different scientists whose’ debate paralleled that of Simon vs. Ehrlich. The book also gives an excellent framework to analyze any pronouncements — good or ill — by futurologists.
In Mann’s view, prophets look at the current trend and say cut back on consumption, before disaster strikes. They are prophets of doom. Wizards tell us to focus on innovation, a form of magical alchemy. New means of production can save mankind from exhausting our finite resources. Wizards are the optimists.
To date, the track record of the wizards has been pretty good. Since the industrial revolution, humans on average have moved from subsistence to increasing prosperity. Here are just a few examples from the recent past:
I won’t take the time here to persuade your camp is right. Regardless of your camp, I think it’s apparent there are many problems facing the world today. Not least of which is electrification in Africa, the deployment of green power, and global warming. As we think about how to resolve these problems, the Prophets vs. Wizards provides a paradigm for a useful framework.
At Soluna, we are firmly in the wizard camp. The problems we want to tackle are admittedly heady, and there are grave consequences if humans can’t come up with solutions. Nonetheless, Soluna’s ethos is that the best way to tackle the challenges facing us is through new ideas, new technology, and new business models.
Simon won his bet, a point for the wizards. Hopefully, we will too.
“Energy is the master resource, because energy enables us to convert one material into another. As natural scientists continue to learn more about the transformation of materials from one form to another with the aid of energy, energy will be even more important.” – Julian Simon
For more reading on the topic look to the following:
· The Wizard and The Prophet by Charles Mann
· Two (Totally Opposite) Ways to Save the Planet by Freakeconomics
· The Rational Optimist by Matthew Ridley