Sunday Special: The Skeptical Environmentalist

I keep wanting to start off by calling it “interesting” since no other pale word sums it up better, but it’s actually not that interesting. It’s not entirely Lomborg’s fault: he’s a statistician, and he hasn’t written a book, he’s written a statistical review. He quotes numbers from concerned environmentalists (and Lomborg claims to have once been one of them) and then looks up the data to present it in graphs to show whether or not the envirotypes are credible and should be as worked up as they are. His answer is, almost uniformly, that we have no environmental problem, and actually everything is on average just fine.

So his book is long, and in general it’s just a bunch of numbers and charts. I won’t argue with them- others have better than I can– plus, that’d make me as boring as him. I will point out, though, that he very confidently estimates that the price of oil will stay between 20$/barrel and 27$/ until 2020, and certainly not go above the high estimate of 30$/ before then. Good for a morning chuckle! And good for a reminder that data projections are helpful if nothing about the world changes.

His extensive use of footnotes breeds trust, but it’s not difficult to notice (even sleepily on the bus in the morning) that he only provides the answers to very specific questions- he’s massaging his message as much as he claims the environmentalists do. He also does a nice job of painting every concerned environmentalist as some kind of foaming-at-the-mouth, fact-ignoring nut job, which isn’t so much the case, but the normal helpful types don’t make for good debunking. I’m pretty sure he didn’t do it to be sneaky: I think he actually believes his work would help the environmental movement move forward- considering the debate that followed it, maybe he did.

Also, I skimmed the entire chapter on global warming- he was writing in 2001, so I’m pretty sure whatever he has to say about it today is different, given the 2007 IPCC report.

I found his analysis of pesticides and organic farming intriguing- he pointed out that, since pesticides and intensive farming methods increase crop yields, a return to organic farming would lead to mass starvation (or require huge conversions of land area to farming). Are the organic pop tarts I bought Tuesday then a bad idea? For global reasons, not the other more obvious ones- and yes, they were pretty good, thanks. First, organic farming is such a limited endeavor- small market, sometimes expensive product- so that starvation isn’t an issue from mass conversion of farms for now. Second, he only uses large scale farming as an example, whereas it would probably do people good to grow their own vegetables (and it’s cheapest to grow organic foods, since you don’t have to really do anything to them but pay attention)- through community gardens, balcony gardens- spaces that may be carved out in urban and suburban areas. Local, personal, and small-scale food production makes the supply of food more robust, and could add much to the diet of low-income types who may not have a decent vegetable selection at a store nearby, or even the money to purchase relatively expensive-per-calorie foods. So organic farming could be just what some groups need, as opposed to a looming threat to everybody’s welfare. And he doesn’t mention- since he didn’t know- that recent study results indicate that organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown types.

One thing that bothered me about the very foundation of the book is that, while at the beginning, Lomborg claimed to have been concerned about the environment himself, he makes judgments throughout the book based entirely on cost analysis, presumably because he’s trying to be very objective about things, and costs are the only way to be objective. Now, cost analysis is not such a bad thing, and it can be wonderful- but it leads him to conclusions divorced from sense.  For instance: the amount of waste produced by Americans isn’t a problem, since it’s cheap to throw things away and we have a place to store it (he demonstrates how all of our trash from the 20th century would fit in a portion of Woodward County, Oklahoma). I’m pretty sure those irrational, subjective residents of Woodward County would find that to be ridiculous. And I’m even more sure that citizens of Italy could tell Lomborg a thing or two about how trash disposal is easer to make sweeping generalizations about than do. More than that, though, it’s not just the cost, or lack thereof, of throwing stuff away that matters. Waste is evidence of a design flaw- it’s a mistake in the system. That we tolerate it is more an indication that society is unbalanced than that society is wisely minimizing cost. To top it off, Lomborg offers no hints on how things will work when China and India and other hugely populous developing nations get to be as prosperous and wasteful as Americans.

One of his main points is that there are bigger problems left than global warming and pollution, and spending money on areas like poverty and hunger will do more good for more people than spending money on global warming or pollution. For some proposed solutions, that’s certainly the case. And he does make a strong argument that chemicals in our environment cause more fear than harm.

He’s had years of critiques, and he’s posted responses to some. The wikipedia site has some great general review and links to arguments for and against his work- honestly, I’d recommend just reading that and skipping the book all together. It’s worth noting that this work was charged with scientific dishonesty by a Danish research ministry- he wasn’t found guilty of intentional dishonesty, since it was determined he had no training in environmental science or the issues he discussed- but it opened up a whole can of worms, including appeals and scientists signing petitions for and against the book and so on.

The arguments about the book are much more interesting than the book itself, so unless you love slightly outdated numbers, skip it. He’s written a newer one- Cool It- in 2007 so maybe that’s more relevant.

2 Responses to “Sunday Special: The Skeptical Environmentalist”

  1. 1 Cameron January 29, 2008 at 12:21 pm

    On the production of food! Im determined to get you and the rest of America to decrease their meat consumptioin (organic or not) from todays NYTimes (I wish they sited primary literature references, but google-ing the scientists names can get that easily)This is about waste/food production/farming/energy:

    “To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius. Similarly, a study last year by the National Institute of Livestock and Grassland Science in Japan estimated that 2.2 pounds of beef is responsible for the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the average European car every 155 miles, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days.”

  2. 2 virescent January 29, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    Oh man, I know, I know. I honestly don’t eat that much. Though I did go to a Brazilian restaurant last weekend- one of those all-you can eat meat buffets, only they don’t make you get up, they bring it right to you…it was delicious. But that was abnormal.

    I tagged the NYT article but I haven’t read it yet- being all ostrichy. I’ll let you know how it goes?

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