Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Most Important Bet in the World?


Some people bet the farm.  I bet the world.  

Ten years ago, Steve Kurtz and I made a small wager ($200 each) about the future of the world, and that bet has finally come due.

As I noted at the time of the bet on the Long Bets web site:

Specifically, I am betting that 10 years into the future, the five indices of global human welfare given below will show improvement. You may pick any metric from each of the five indices, and you will win the bet if ANY of the five indicators shows a global negative trend over the 10-year life of the bet.

The five indicators I asked people to choose from, were:

  • Food (choose either per capita average calorie intake, percent or absolute number of malnourished, percent or absolute number of people underweight). Data Source: United Nations FAO
  • Water (chose either number of people without access to clean water, percent of people without access to clean water.). Data Source: United Nations Millennium Indicators per UNICEF - WHO
  • Health (chose either life expectancy at birth, childhood immunization rates, infant mortality rates, life expectancy after age 30) Data source: United Nations or U.S. Census Bureau
  • Education and Quality of Life (chose either universal primary school education, adult literacy, percent of people with access to radio/TV/phone, parity of female to males in education, or parity of female-to-male wages. Data source: UN Development Indicators per UNESCO
  •  Energy: (Solo choice here was the amount of energy required to produce a $1 worth of GDP will decline (this is a universal way to measure the price of energy). Data source: UN Millennium Indicators per World Bank.
I went on to note that:

[A]ll of these indices are direct measures of human welfare. While I believe human welfare will improve, I also believe we will lose both wild places and wild creatures for the next 50 to 75 years as forests are fragmented, coastal and pelagic systems are over fished, reef systems are destroyed, wetlands are drained, and market hunting continues apace in some parts of the developing world. To put it another way, I believe that the human condition will generally improve for the next 10 years (and for the 50 years after that) while many overall negative trends for wild places and wildlife will continue apace. In short, I believe the history of the last 500 years will continue for the next 10 years and the next 50 years after that. This bet is for a 10-year period; we can continue the bet after that if the other bettor so desires.

Steve Kurtz took me up on the bet, choosing the following metrics:
  1. Absolute number of malnourished children. Source: UNICEF data
  2. Number of people without access to clean water as determined by U.N. Millennium Indicators per UNICEF - WHO
  3. Average life expectancy at birth as determined by United Nations stats.
  4. Literacy of those aged 15-24 as determined by U.N. Millennium Indicators.
  5. The amount of energy required to produce a $1 worth of GDP (Burns says it will decline). Data source: UN Millennium Indicators per World Bank. 

So who cares?

Why is this bet important?

Well, perhaps it is not important to most people, but it IS a bet with a history. You see, this bet is a variation of the Simon-Ehrlich wager first made in 1980. In that bet, marketing professor Julian Simon and Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich made a bet on the future cost of a set number of resources. Simon bet their collective prices would decrease, while Ehrlich bet their collective price would increase. Whoever won the bet would pocket the difference in the materials cost, and keep bragging rights for the duration. 

Ehrlich rather famously lost the bet when all five commodities that he chose declined in price from 1980 through 1990. In the end, Julian Simon pocketed $576.07 of Paul Ehrlich's money.

The Simon-Ehrlich bet is one of the most famous bets in modern environmental history.

One can argue over why Simon won and Ehrlich lost, but the simple truth is that the bet misses the forest for the trees and assumes that cash-value is a good way to measure progress, goodness or environmental loss or gain.

It isn't. 

When push comes to shove, no one cares too much about the price of tungsten; it's simply too abstract an idea, and it does not speak too much or too loudly to the human condition. 

And yet, the Simon-Ehrlich bet is important in that it is against the background of this bet, and the thinking behind it, that Brian Eno, Stewart Brand, Danny Hillis and Jeff Bezos created the Long Now Foundation and the 10,000-year clock.  The Long Bets web site soon followed.

The Simon-Ehrlich wager, was rather timid compared to the Burns-Kurtz analog.  After all, if ANY of the five agreed-on metrics went down in the Burns-Kurtz wager, I would lose the bet. This was not a "we'll bet the difference" kind of thing, but a binary bet. If I lost a brick, I would lose the wall.

But, of course, I won straight across the board. Go me!

For the record, the money here all went to charity.  In this case, I decided it should go back to Longbets.org, "the arena for accountable predictions", as the world certainly does need more and better long-term thinking!

Also for the record, in the history of Long Bets there have only been 9 completed bets, and Steve and I are responsible for two of them.

Steve and I were aiming to be the first winners or losers of any Long Bet, but as I noted in an earlier post entitled The Mammoth in the Hedge, we both lost out to Ted Danson (yes, THAT Ted Danson). 

Also for the record, I personally lost my first bet to Steve on the price of  electricity three years into the future. It turns out that the price per kWh is simply too-easily influenced by regulation, taxation, manipulation, and fraud to make much sense. My bad!

So who else has won a Long Bet bet that you might have heard of? 

Well, Brian Eno of Roxy Music fame, for one, as well as the previously mentioned Mr. Danson of Cheers fame.

Who has made a bet, but not yet won, that you might have heard of? 

Well, billionaire Warren Buffet, for one,  as well as theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, voice-recognition technology pioneer Ray Kurzweil, Mitch Kapor of Lotus software, and Danny Hillis of massively parallel computers fame.

For those interested in this kind of thing, I embed below a video of Brian Eno talking about how he and Stewart Brand first came to think up the Long Now Foundation. 



Jennifer said...

You may have won this bet, but there are still limits to growth. The timing and distribution of impacts can be changed by innovation, but exponential increase in a finite world is still a recipe for disaster. It would be much harder argue that the price of gasoline has stayed level, that the amount of undisturbed habitat hasn't decreased, that species aren't going extinct at alarming rates, and that human induced climate change isn't real.

PBurns said...

Jennifer, I am a Georgetown-trained demographer who used to be head of the Population and Habitat program at the National Audubon Society. I have written about population issues for more than 30 years and there are over 350 posts on population on this dog blog alone (including a “Field Guide to Contraceptives”).
When people say there are “limits to growth” they are making a pretty meaningless statement. Limits for who? The limits to growth for Mammoths were hit 10,000 years ago, while the limits for some other animals will be hit this year or next.

Will more people mean fewer wild places and wild animals? Yes, I think so. That is a loss and a values trade that I am unhappy with, and which I have been talking and writing about for 30 years. But is it inexorable? Maybe not. I would point out that we have more bears, lions, wolves, fox, beaver, deer, turkey, and geese today in the U.S. than we did 100 years ago, even though our population has increased more than four-fold. Wildlife management is as complex as human population dynamics and every time you draw a straight line, be sure to have an eraser near by!

The truth, whether, we like it or not, is that the loss of most species of animals and plants seems to have had near-zero impact on humans. There was no economic loss or social disruption from the demise of the Passenger Pigeon or the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, and the same is true of the near-extinction of the Sumatran Tiger. Man replaces top predators in the pyramid, and birds are replaced by chickens and deer or hippos are replaced by cows and hogs. Forest falls to corn and soybeans. Do I like it? I do not. But again, whether we like it or not, humans mostly only think about humans. And by that measure, things have been improving with very little variance for about 2 million years. The good news, as the Marquis de Condorcet might note if he were alive today, is that the ”bad news” of Malthus has been wrong since before he wrote it and for every single day since. See >>

http://terriermandotcom.blogspot.com/2010/01/oldest-and-most-important-debate.html for more about that and please read the whole post. This is the most important debate in the world and most people have not actually read either side.

As for the notion that populations increase “geometrically” and food increases “arithmetically” -- that is simply not true. If only it were that simple!