Public Citizens Cover

“A great new book”

Ezra Klein on The Ezra Klein Show

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“Long before the ‘Reagan Revolution,’ an army of citizen activists launched a searing attack on liberalism, big government, and the administrative state—and helped pave the way for market-oriented conservatism. Paul Sabin’s timely, provocative, and deeply ironic account should be required reading for everyone interested in environmentalism, consumerism, political economy, and the 1970s.”

Laura Kalman, author of The Long Reach of the Sixties

“Elegantly argued and meticulously documented… Sabin makes his case intelligently and forcefully.”

Timothy Noah, New York Times

“Paul Sabin’s history of America’s 1960s and 70s is directly relevant to the country’s civic, political, and ethical choices in the decades ahead. This is a surprising, insightful, and lastingly useful book.”

James Fallows, author of Our Towns

“This book could not be more timely. As progressives celebrate the return of confidence in ‘big government,’ expertise, regulation, and science, they must not forget the lessons of the 1960s and 1970s. Paul Sabin powerfully demonstrates that the liberal postwar order was not only undercut by the rise of the right, but also by an activist left that for good reason decried government’s deafness to citizens’ needs and participation. How best to serve the public interest is the greatest challenge of our time, and we could have no better guide through the historical thicket than Sabin.”

Lizabeth Cohen, author of Saving America’s Cities

“[Sabin’s] cogent history is timely and likely to be enduring. An insightful and squirm-inducing account of how the good guys won and then lost.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“A reminder of the dangers of the politics of liberal nostalgia … Sabin’s book is crisp, clear, eloquent, and carefully focused on the political changes of the 1970s.”

Kim Phillips-Fein, The New Republic

“Astute and nuanced, Paul Sabin uses Ralph Nader and the public interest movement he helped spawn to tell a fascinating story of American governance and the limits of markets, regulation, and citizen action.”

Richard White, author of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

“Paul Sabin has written a fascinating account of the forgotten history of public interest liberalism. He offers a powerful reminder that the attack on big government didn’t just come from the right but the left as well. In demanding that the government be held accountable, this generation of reformers undermined the confidence of many Americans in what our government institutions were capable of doing.”

Julian Zelizer, author of Burning Down the House

“Sabin crafts a coherent historical narrative out of the alphabet soup of government agencies and public interest groups, and sheds light on major developments in American politics. This deep dive delivers plenty of rewards.”

Publishers Weekly

Public Citizens

The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism

In the 1960s and 1970s, an insurgent attack on traditional liberalism took shape in America. It was built on new ideals of citizen advocacy and the public interest. Environmentalists, social critics, and consumer advocates like Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, and Ralph Nader crusaded against what they saw as a misguided and often corrupt government. Drawing energy from civil rights protests and opposition to the Vietnam War, the new citizens’ movement drew legions of followers and scored major victories. Citizen advocates disrupted government plans for urban highways and new hydroelectric dams and got Congress to pass tough legislation to protect clean air and clean water. They helped lead a revolution in safety that forced companies and governments to better protect consumers and workers from dangerous products and hazardous work conditions.

And yet, in the process, citizen advocates also helped to undermine big government liberalism—the powerful alliance between government, business, and labor that dominated the U.S. politically in the decades following the New Deal and World War II. Public interest advocates exposed that alliance’s secret bargains and unintended consequences. They showed how government power often was used to advance private interests rather than restrain them. In the process of attacking government for its failings and its dangers, the public interest movement struggled to replace traditional liberalism with a new approach to governing. The citizen critique of government power instead helped clear the way for their antagonists: Reagan-era conservatives seeking to slash regulations and enrich corporations.

Public Citizens traces the history of the public interest movement and explores its tangled legacy, showing the ways in which American liberalism has been at war with itself. The book forces us to reckon with the challenges of regaining our faith in government’s ability to advance the common good.

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“For Europeans like me who find the partisan politics of environmental issues in the US puzzling, Paul Sabin’s book provides a handy catch-up course explaining how this came to be.” Sabin “gives a balanced view of this conflict of extreme views and explains very clearly how it influenced politics.”

Michael Gross, Chemistry and Industry, January 2014

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“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.”

Daniel Yergin, Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Quest:  Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World and of The Prize

“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, New York Times

“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

“Valuable … Mr. Sabin shares Mr. Ehrlich’s devotion to environmentalism.  Yet this affinity doesn’t prevent Mr. Sabin from being clear-eyed.”

Jonathan Last, Wall Street Journal

“A joy to read; Sabin weaves a vivid historical narrative rich with classic characters … The Bet is both a cautionary tale and a call to order.”

Erle Ellis, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 17, 2014

“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

“A revealing tale … used to explain the whole messy evolution of US environmental politics from the early 1970s, when Republican Richard Nixon was an environmental champion, to today, when Republican environmentalists are an endangered species.”

Jon Christensen, Nature, August 15, 2013

“I found this book informative, charming, and highly readable.”

Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution Blog, September 5, 2013

“A brilliant idea for a book.  In The Bet, Paul 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, 02 September 2013

“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, author of The Man Who Saved Sea Turtles: Archie Carr and the Origins of Conservation Biology

“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

“Provides surprising insights for anyone involved in addressing the world’s ‘wicked problems.’… I recommend The Bet to anyone wanting to understand the history of the divisive discussions we have today, especially the stalemate over climate change.”

Bill Gates, The Gates Notes

“[A] gem of a book”

Publishers Weekly

“An illuminating, judicious and engaging examination of the conflict between environmentalists and their critics over the past five decades.”

Glenn Altschuler, Tulsa World

“Carefully researched and engaging … Highly recommended.”

Choice, March 2014

“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, author of The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964

“A wonderful new book … 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, Breakthrough Institute Blog, August 28, 2013

The Bet

Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth's Future

Today’s raging partisan battles over climate policy and the Keystone XL pipeline are just the latest examples of a deeper debate about our future:  Are we headed for a world of scarce resources and environmental catastrophe, or will market forces and technological innovation yield greater prosperity?  In a gripping new history, Yale University professor Paul Sabin draws on an iconic story to examine the clash between environmentalists and their conservative critics—from the late 1960s to the present—and trace the origins of the political gulf that separates the two sides.

In 1980, the iconoclastic economist Julian Simon challenged celebrity biologist Paul Ehrlich to a bet. Their wager on the future prices of five metals captured the public’s imagination as a test of coming prosperity or doom.  Ehrlich, author of the landmark book The Population Bomb, predicted that rising populations would cause overconsumption, resource scarcity, and famine—with apocalyptic consequences for humanity. Simon optimistically countered that human welfare would flourish thanks to flexible markets, technological change, and our collective ingenuity. The Bet weaves the two men’s lives and ideas together with the era’s partisan political clashes over the environment and the role of government.

In a lively narrative leading from the dawning environmentalism of the 1960s through the pivotal presidential contest between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and on into the 1990s, Paul Sabin shows how the fight between Ehrlich and Simon—between environmental fears and free-market confidence—helped create today’s gaping and rancorous political divide.  Drawing insights from both sides, Sabin argues for using social values, rather than economic or biological absolutes, to guide society’s crucial choices relating to climate change, the planet’s health, and our own.

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“Paul Sabin has written a brilliant case study of how legal and political choices construct ‘free markets’. He shows how battles over property rights, regulation, taxes, and highway and environmental policy shaped the oil market and with it the future of California’s cities, roads, coastline and public finance. Clear-headed, meticulous, and filled with the drama of momentous conflicts between public and private interests, Crude Politics is legal-economic history at its best.”

Robert W. Gordon, Chancellor Kent Professor of Law and Legal History, Yale University

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“There is a subtle muckraking quality to this book . . . It has corrupt politicians, partisan judges, conflicts of interest, irate voters, beach defenders, and, of course, Big Oil.  Sabin demonstrates that the underbelly of environmental history is, in fact, hardball politics, the site where groups of humans compete fiercely to protect their interests and impose their vision of the good life.”

Myrna Santiago, Environmental History

“Crude Politics establishes the crucial importance of state-level political forces in directing the development of California oil. It stands as an exemplary work of business, legal, and environmental history.”

Tyler Priest, Enterprise and Society

“Sabin presents readers with an intensely researched narrative that reveals the evolution of oil politics in California over the first forty years of the twentieth century. In addition to telling a new story in great detail and emphasizing the federalist and state influences in the politics of oil, Sabin contributes a new and enlightening analysis of the effects of the gasoline tax on policymaking.”

William Childs, Pacific Historical Review

“To a much greater degree than most Americans usually appreciate, the central story of the past century was the story of oil. Paul Sabin’s Crude Politics is a pioneering effort to trace for a single key state — California — the evolving web of relationships needed to sustain the production, distribution, and consumption of a critical resource on which virtually every aspect of modern life now depends. As we contemplate the waning future of that resource in the twenty-first century, we would do well to heed the insights about its twentieth-century past offered by this important book.”

William Cronon, author of Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

“A model of systematic, data-rich analysis with much to say to both historians and policy makers. . . .  Sabin’s work offers far-reaching insights into the political economy of oil in the twentieth century. The analytical framework constructed by Sabin from legal, political, and economic history should prove flexible enough to apply to events both earlier and later in history, as well as events in other parts of the world.”

Joseph A. Pratt, Reviews in American History

Joseph A. Pratt, Reviews in American History

“Sabin … writes in the tradition of legal historian James Willard Hurst. He argues that the price of oil is not simply the result of supply and demand curves alone. Rather, the market for oil resulted from the combined effects of political, legal, and economic history. No truly free market in oil ever existed. Instead, Sabin focuses on the visible hand of the government—the various public decisions regarding property, regulation, and taxation—that created the market structure for this all-important resource.”


Ted Steinberg, American Historical Review

“Getting energy prices right is key to addressing our global climate crisis. With graceful prose and forceful argument, Paul Sabin shows how petroleum prices today are a product of more than a century of fierce political struggle over oil supply and demand. Anyone who wants to understand the political and economic factors that have created our present dependence on cheap oil should read this book.”

James Gustave Speth, author of Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment

“Effectively hammers home the point that there is no such thing as a “free” market. . . . To oppose a current policy choice, such as one related to energy or transportation, on the grounds that people should let the market decide is evidence of historical ignorance, ideological blindness, or some combination of both.”

Hugh S. Gorman, Business History Review

Crude Politics

The California Oil Market, 1900 - 1940

How did Americans grow so dependent on petroleum, and what can we learn from our history that will help us craft successful policies for the future? In this timely and absorbing book, Paul Sabin challenges us to see politics and law as crucial forces behind the dramatic growth of the U.S. oil market during the twentieth century. Using pre-World War II California as a case study of oil production and consumption, Sabin demonstrates how struggles in the legislature and courts over property rights, regulatory law, and public investment determined the shape of the state’s petroleum landscape.

Crude Politics shatters the enduring myth of “free markets” by demonstrating how political decisions affected the institutions that underlie California’s oil economy and how today’s oil market and price structure depend significantly on the ways in which policy questions were answered before World War II. Sabin’s concise and probing analysis casts fresh light on the historical relationship between business and government and on the origins of contemporary problems such as climate change and urban sprawl. Incisive, engaging, and meticulously researched, Crude Politicsilluminates an important chapter in U.S. environmental, legal, business, and political history and the history of the American West.

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