Confronting Litany

The Skeptical Environmentalist Click on the accompanying icon to order Bjorn Lomborg's book.

The contributions of the 'skeptical environmentalist' are timely. They arrive at a point where rational debate is in short supply.

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Confronting the Litany

What has happened to the Guardian – the newspaper of choice for the green-leaning middle classes? In place of the usual diatribes about the evils of globalisation, environmental pillage, Frankenfood and the-planet-is-going-to-hell-in-a-handcart doom-mongering, we find the first of series of articles by Bjorn Lomborg – the Danish statistician who cogently challenges each and every deeply-held assumption of the paper's core readership. A feature in the Daily Telegraph championing socialist principles and a return to the welfare state would not seem more out of place.

Perhaps the reason behind the Guardian's apparent rush of blood is the realisation that whether or not you like what Lomborg has to say, he is someone who cannot be ignored. His new book The Skeptical Environmentalist moves what has traditionally been an irrational and hidden agenda-driven debate towards a far more sensible evaluation of what are the real problems and what might be the most sensible ways of tackling them.

In the Guardian Lomborg comments:

"We are all familiar with the litany of our ever-deteriorating environment. It is the doomsday message endlessly repeated by the media, as when Time magazine tells us that "everyone knows the planet is in bad shape", and when the New Scientist calls its environmental overview 'self-destruct' . We have heard the litany so often that yet another repetition is, well, almost reassuring. There is, however, one problem: it does not seem to be backed up by the available evidence. We are not running out of energy or natural resources. There is ever more food, and fewer people are starving. In 1900, we lived for an average of 30 years; today we live for 67."

Not content with debunking myths about environmental pollution, exponential population rise, acid rain and forest death, chemicals and pesticides, Lomborg also considers the arguments of the opponents of GM food, seeing in these the 'encapsulation of the litany' which he is determined to challenge. In his book he writes:

"GM foods will contribute – possibly greatly – to the world's food supply . There are possibilities of countering malnutrition by increasing the nutritional value of staple foods . For the industrialized world, GM crops can help reduce the need for intensive use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides . we will see more nutritious cereals, potatoes that absorb less fat in frying, reduced calorie sugar beets and oil seeds with more healthy reduced-saturates."

Lomborg, however, is equally concerned with the potential hazards of GM technology, which must be balanced against its potential benefits. To do that, however, one has to distinguish between the myths surrounding GM and what good science might indicate are its possible pitfalls:

"the most exploited scare stories of toxic potatoes, allergenic beans and dead Monarchs were based on myths. Nevertheless, there are also real problems to be considered."

Among these problems are the risk of novel allergens, antibiotic resistance and the spread of pesticide resistance to weeds – all issues, however, for which appropriate tests and safeguards can be developed within a proper control framework:

"Weighing the risks and benefits it seems obvious that the substantive benefits GM food can deliver for both the developed and the developing world far outweigh the manageable risks, which, however, suggest the need for a strong regulatory system."

This same regard for balanced evaluation of both the true nature of the problems, and the optimal means of overcoming them in order that benefits can be realised, is evident in Lomborg's consideration of global warming. Accepting that such warming is occurring, and accepting that CO2 emissions have played a role in creating this change, he comments:

"Is it not curious . that the typical reporting on global warming tells us all the bad things that could happen with CO2 emissions, but few or none of the bad things that could come from overly zealous regulation of such emissions . Indeed, why is it that global warming is not discussed with an open attitude, carefully attuned to avoiding big and costly mistakes to be paid for by our descendants, but rather with a fervour more fitting for preachers of opposing religions?"

It is in this context that Lomborg reaches what many people will see as his most controversial stance. Instead of cutting CO2 emissions, which would be very costly (about $4 trillion) and impact most heavily on the developing world, we should "pay the costs of adaptation to the increased temperatures." While technological development may have contributed to climate change, it is technology which holds the best promise of being able to ameliorate such effects.

Lomborg's book and his essays in the Guardian will unsettle many people simply because of the dispassionate and rational style with which he builds and elaborates his key arguments. He will undoubtedly upset those whose life revolves around being 'friends' of the Earth. If Lomborg is right the object of their public affections is not as sick as they thought, and reports of its imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated. Similarly, the solutions to the problems which do exist lie not in the superstitious, anti-science rhetoric of the self-appointed pressure groups, but in the application of evidence-based, sound measures which have demonstrable benefits.

The contributions of the 'skeptical environmentalist' are timely. They arrive at a point where rational debate is in short supply. In the coming year SIRC will be hosting, in collaboration with other organisations and institutions, an 'event' which will start to focus on 'ways of thinking' about the issues which so concern us today – from the food we eat to the appropriate stewardship of our planet. The aim will be to find a ground where genuine disagreements can exist, and even flourish, but where there is a common regard for logic, evidence and the civilities of rational discourse. We will keep you posted.

15 August 2001.