James Hall, From the Left
"It's the best of all possible worlds."
Dr. Pangloss, Voltaire's Candide
"Thank God mankind cannot yet fly, and lay
waste to the sky as well as the earth." Henry David Thoreau.
Since the time of Emerson and Thoreau, Americans have spoken in praise
of nature and in condemnation of humanity's frequently careless attitudes towards it. Even then, the friends of nature
disagreed over the extent that mankind could exert harm on the earth. Emerson believed that given time, nature would
heal mankind's depredations, while Thoreau believed that humans did irreparable harm. That argument continues today,
with scientists, environmentalists, and politicians taking both sides of the issue.
Today's extremists appear to be divided between the Chicken Littles who
tell us the sky is falling and the Panglosses who tell us that everything is okay. The truth undoubtedly lies somewhere
in between these positions--in the hands of scientists and naturalists looking at particular environmental problems and considering
One of the latest Panglosses is the statistician Bjorn Lomberg, who argues
in "The truth about the environment" that since four of the arguments made by Chicken Littles Paul Ehrlich and Lester Brown
apparently aren't as strong as they were thought to be, that everything is okay environmentally. What are these arguments?
1. Natural resources are running out.
2. The population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat.
3. Species are becoming extinct in vast numbers; forests are disappearing
and fish stocks are collapsing.
4. The planet's air and water are becoming ever more polluted.
Now Lomberg does a good job of dismantling the first two arguments.
But his arguments depend on the fact that humanity has had fifty years to work on the problem of efficient food production
and use of raw materials. What Ehrlich and Malthus failed to take into account is the human reaction to problems--when
one has them, one solves them. The growth of population in China, for example, has been resolved through draconian measures
of birth control. And the Green Revolution, created by science to combat starvation, has successfully resolved that
In short, arguments one and two don't apply because we recognized them
as problems and worked actively to resolve them.
Arguments three and four offer less help to the enemies of environmentalism.
Lomberg recognizes that the threat of biodiversity loss "is real, but exaggerated." The loss of tropical forests is not 2-4%
per year as some have claimed, but only 0.5%. This means the tropical forest will last four to eight times longer than
estimated. Is this cause for celebration, or does it just delay the inevitable?
As for species lost, Lomborg argues that it's much less than the 50%
that some environmentalists estimated, perhaps as little as 0.7%. But Lomborg's figures apparently cover only animals,
and don't mention plant, insect or microbe species, all of which might prove very useful to medical research and in preserving
the ecological balance of the land. And again, the lesser losses only string out the time until a significant loss of
biodiversity happens--unless we take action.
Most damning of his arguments is his statement that pollution is exaggerated.
Why? Because "air pollution diminishes when a society becomes rich enough to be able to afford to be concerned about
the environment. (p.4)" In other words, when places like America and Europe develop environmental groups and environmental
politics result in laws like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. In other words, things get better because the environmentalists
push to make them better. This argument can hardly make anti-environmental people happy.
Lomborg acknowledges that air pollution is increasing in many developing
countries, but assumes that when they become wealthy, they'll have their environmental movements, too.
At the same time, though, Lomborg argues that people worry more about
the environment than they need to, make more of environmental disasters like El Nino than they should, and worry about problems
like waste disposal that are easily dealt with. Yet when Lomborg puts together a table (p.6) to demonstrate the cost/risk
ratio of many policies, he makes the point that many of the most effective environmental policies have already been made.
In other words, the very success of the environmental movement works against some of their current attempts to make things
better. Emission controls for industrial plants, for example, save millions of lives compared to seat belts or air bags.
Lomborg would calculate a cost/benefit ratio for things like the Kyoto
Treaty to prevent global warming, but his figures hardly provide support for those who deny that global warming exists.
He bluntly states that CO2 emissions are responsible for climate warming. His argument is that it is simply less costly
to pay the price for that warming--use the money to recompense those affected by warming--than to try and prevent it.
Bjorn Lomborg's skepticism is probably a good thing for the environmental
movement. Criticism is likely to keep them on their toes, and since the problems of the environment are so numerous,
a cost/benefit calculation is a necessary step to figure out what needs to be done to fix things. But enemies of the
environment have little to cheer about when one looks closely at Lomborg's figures, for he assumes that a vigorous environmental
movement is fighting to reverse pollution and slow environmental depredation. A vigorous environmentalism, in other words,
is necessary for his skepticism--Pangloss needs Chicken Little, after all.
If the Ice Age cometh, I will certainly owe SARTRE and his do-nothing
friends an apology. But frankly, it will be a cold day in hell before ANYTHING printed in Lew Rockwell dotcom turns
out to be realistic. They know even less about science there than they know about political and economic theory, if
McMaken's thought that a "cooling trend at the poles" signals another
ice age is simply bad interpretation of inaccurate science. There isn't a cooling trend "at the poles"--there's a slight cooling
trend at the South Pole. On the other hand, the Antarctica peninsula recorded the highest raise in temperature in the
world over the last twenty years, and ice in the northern polar regions has been reported by NASA as thinning out fast. Mountain
glaciers are retreating, tropical plants and animals are advancing northward.
But global warming doesn't mean that every part of the globe turns
toasty warm in a uniform way. The changes in weather patterns caused by slow warming may cause some areas of the planet--like
the eastern United States and South Pole--to temporarily get colder for a time. Overall, most measurements indicate that things
are getting warmer, and seizing on one indicator--the South Pole--is the last refuge of scientific illiteracy.
McMaken's counterargument to that is that warm is better, anyway.
Tell that to the residents of coastal areas, lowlands, and the Pacific Island nations threatened with the permanent flooding
of their property. McMaken's last refuge, then, is to claim, in essence, that "Stuff Happens." The thermometer
goes up, it goes down, and nothing one can do about it. All in God's hands, you know.
This is a strange argument, indeed, from the Culture (or is it Cult)
of Personal Responsibility. Those who tell us that we are responsible for our own actions fall mute when it comes to
taking responsibility for air and water pollution, global warming and whatnot. Take responsibility, Americans, for your
wasteful lifestyle that creates a quarter of the world's CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Take responsibility for the
incandescent lightbulbs, the SUVs, the three televisions, swimming pool heaters, central heat and air, etc., etc., etc.
If we can't stop global warming, we can recognize that we've caused a good part of it, and take steps to help all those we've
impoverished and made homeless. Doing nothing is no longer an ethical choice.
James Hall, From the Left