Cerebral Fodder

June 2003



Environmental Confusions

see also POSTSCRIPT (Oct 2003)

What better topic to follow the first one—about the Web—than one that is tangible and close to all of us: the Environment. This is a vexed issue. And however complex a picture it is, we can at least begin to paint it with broad strokes to reveal the 'big' picture.

What we humans are running out of are not natural resources but 'proper' human resources. Our problem is that we don't effectively practise civilized behavior, for want of a less clichéd phrase. Bjorn Lomborg is the infamous author of the highly controversarial work, The Skeptical Environmentalist, and has been branded by the Danish authorities as a heretic, Galileo-style. These are some of his words, criticizing the popular litany of gloom:

"Instead of focusing on limits to growth, humanity would be better served by focusing on the real threats to growth and prosperity: not population growth or mineral exhaustion but corruption, barriers to trade, and war. Unfortunately, history has shown that these sources of human misery have always been in ample supply."

How relevant in today's war- and conflict-ridden world, where military diplomacy is in the ascendant. The materials of war, and the resulting destruction, have caused untold damage to the environment and the delicate ecological balance that sustains us. No proper assessment, if indeed that's possible, has been made of this loss and its long-term consequences.

In tune with Lomborg's cry for sanity, consider this. Friedrich von Hayek, a champion of free enterprise, made this eye-opening observation: in principle a burgeoning population can lead to a greater, and better, division of labor, and thus higher levels of productivity, not merely a further division of existing wealth. If only we could be honest and conscientious enough to heed his words.

Scientific American has been in the forefront of this controversy, though it has tended to side with scientists and environmentalists of the Greenpeace variety. Many of them think Lomborg's conclusions are misguided, that he's an optimistic statistician who presents no 'real' science to back his claims. They, on the other hand, marshall all sorts of hard scientific evidence to support their pessimism. Though Lomborg concedes that some of this evidence, like global warming and species loss, is valid, he counters it with a positive outlook (Scientific American, May 2002):

"We have a world in which we live longer and are healthier, with more food, fewer starving, better education, higher standards of living, less poverty, less inequality, more leisure time and fewer risks. And this is true for both the developed and the developing world (although getting better, some regions start off with very little, and in my book I draw special attention to the relatively poorer situation in Africa). Moreover, the best models predict that trends will continue." And offers this example: "Take air pollution, the most important social environmental indicator. In the developed world, the air has been getting cleaner throughout the century—in London, the air is cleaner today than at any time since 1585! And for the developing countries, where urban air pollution undeniably is a problem, air pollution will likewise decline when they (as we did) get sufficiently rich to stop worrying about hunger and start caring for the environment."

And so he points out that even 30 years later the dire forecasts of the Club of Rome's study Limits to Growth have failed to come true.

With so many in the scientific community ganging up on him, you may well ask: Is this a kind of Inquisition in the 21st century, supposedly the apotheosis of the digital age, when more information on just about anything is available than at any other time in history? Information that allows us to make intelligent choices.

As though to defend Lomborg someone wrote to a broadcast network, "Believe the farce about global warming and I'll sell you some heating oil" in the context of the abnormal icy grip in which the Eastern U.S. found itself. Some may argue of course that global warming around the earth in general is what leads to such extremes in local weather, hot or cold. That is supposedly the scientific view, though open to debate.

Bjorn Lomborg has had a chance to rebut—Scientific American, The Economist and the Wall Street Journal being among the venues—and clarify his position vis-à-vis the environment and human progress.

Ultimately, it is the nature of man that is the problem, not the limited resources of nature. This is a conservative view, which the Greens naturally abhor, but needs to be heard nonetheless. To condemn Lomborg outright would be a grave injustice. This has to be one of the great debates of our time, affecting almost everything we do. Shall we give both sides a just hearing?

Jayant Deshpande


Our faith in the earth's capacity to absorb our excesses seems almost unshakeable. To counter Lomborg's infectious optimism I can do no better than to quote a passage from an article by that tireless crusader, Bill McKibben, titled "Worried? Us?" in the latest issue of GRANTA (No.83: The Overheating World):

"The excretion of our economy has become the most important influence on the planet we were born into. We’re what counts.... Our ultimate sadness lies in the fact that we know that this is not a pre-ordained destiny; it isn’t fate. New ways of behaving, of getting and spending, can still change the future: there is, as the religious evangelist would say, still time, though not much of it, and a miraculous conversion is called for—Americans in the year 2000 produced 15% more carbon doxide than they had ten years before. The contrast between two speeds is the key fact of our age: between the pace at which the physical world is changing and the pace at which human society is reacting to this change. In history, if it exists, we shall be praised or damned."

NOTE: I refer to McKibben again in the FOTM for October Media Conspiracies in connection with television—J.D.